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James Pedlar is a Th.D. candidate in systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. His research focuses on questions of unity and diversity in the church, and he is also interested in Wesleyan theology and the study of renewal movements. He teaches at Tyndale Seminary and Booth University College, and you can read his blog here.

March 2012

Current Volume 4

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In John 17, Jesus prays the following prayer for the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

This text has always been foundational for Christians who are concerned about the unity of Christ’s church. However, there are a broad variety of perspectives regarding the precise meaning of Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one.” Jesus clearly prays for a unity among believers which will, in some way, mirror the unity that exists between him and the Father, and also lead people to believe in him and his mission. What kind of unity was Jesus praying for, and how is this unity related to God’s mission in the world?

As a way of categorizing the myriad ways in which this text has been interpreted, I am going to summarize seven dominant conceptions of Christian unity. These conceptions cut across the denominational spectrum, and they are not mutually exclusive, though some are definitely in tension with one another.

Spiritual unity

Evangelicals in particular have often emphasized that Christian unity is primarily a spiritual reality. This emphasis developed in response to the historic Catholic and Orthodox emphasis on “organic” unity as the goal toward which all churches should move, and also a way to bolster the legitimacy of protestant denominations as legitimate churches. Spiritual unity is a basic concept underlying denominationalism – the idea that the existence of separate church bodies is not contrary to God’s will, but an acceptable form of diversity, because underneath all our divisions we are spiritually one in Jesus Christ.

Visible unity

The call for visible unity has been paramount in the ecumenical movement. The push for unity to be “visible” stresses the fact that unity is not merely spiritual or “invisible.” In other words, our unity should be something that can be seen by those outside the church (obviously there’s a clear connection to Jesus’ prayer “so that the world may believe”). Some people equate visible unity with “structural” unity (below), or a denominational mega-merger, but that is not necessarily implied in the concept of visible unity. However, real shared fellowship, worship, and ministry are certainly part of any concept of visible unity.

Structural unity

Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox visions of unity typically include a structural component, although none of these traditions would want to emphasize the structural aspect of unity as paramount. They would, however, insist on the idea that unity must include structures of authority, notably the historic episcopate. Other protestant traditions might also envision some structures of unity as being highly expedient or functionally important for the maintaining of unity, but would not see any particular structure as absolutely necessary.

Doctrinal unity

The spiritual unity perspective is often accompanied by some sense that there needs to be a baseline agreement on doctrinal “essentials.” For many, this means affirmation of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. Others might draw up a list of basics – the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, inspiration of Scripture, and so on. The flip side of this perspective is that anything that goes beyond the “essentials” is non-essential, and therefore disagreements on non-essentials are not church-dividing.

Unity in service

Another approach has tended to be characterized by the slogan “doctrine divides, service unites.” People promoting this vision of unity are wary of doctrinal dialogue between churches, and would rather focus on working together on practical projects such as meeting needs in the community or lobbying government on specific issues. The thought here is that most of our divisions are rooted in theological differences, and there isn’t much prospect of convergence on those differences.

Mutual Recognition

Some people feel that the church would be one if we could all recognize one another as legitimate Christian churches. This might not seem like a big deal for some Christians, but historically, many of our churches have condemned each other and declared one another to be outside the boundaries of the church (think Luther’s excommunication and denunciation as a “heretic,” and his identification of the Pope as the anti-christ). Some churches also have convictions about what it means to be the church which do not allow them to fully recognize other denominations as legitimate churches. Full recognition, of course, would involve recognizing one another’s ordinations and sacraments as valid. Great strides have been made towards mutual recognition, but there are still many Christians who do not recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Koinonia

A growing number of ecclesiological scholars are focusing on the concept of koinonia as the best way to think about Christian unity. This biblical term carries a rich breadth of meanings, including communion, fellowship, participation, and sharing. The koinonia approach to unity begins with a conception of the Trinity as the divine koinonia, and stresses our koinonia as flowing from and being modeled on the divine koinonia. We participate in the triune communion of perfect love, as God the Father draws us to himself through the sending of Son and the Spirit. The communion is therefore both “vertical” (between God and humanity) and “horizontal” (a communion that is shared with all who are in Christ). This final concept has great ecumenical potential, because it does not carry a lot of historical baggage. It’s not a concept which is “owned” by one particular Christian tradition. Of course, it also has great biblical foundations.

I wouldn’t want to exclude any of these concepts – the question is how they are related to one another, and where the priority lies. For example, I would agree that unity is a spiritual reality, but I’m not comfortable with the spiritual unity concept if it is just used exclusively, or as a way of justifying all denominational divisions. As another example, I would also agree that uniting in acts of service can be a great aid in fostering unity among Christians, but I would not want to stop there.

A Missional Approach to Unity

While there might be many ways to approach this question, if we take Jesus’ prayer in John 17 seriously, we must wrestle with the fact that there is a profound connection between unity and mission. This connection is often lost in the contemporary church. We have been shaped by consumerist assumptions about diversity, such that our divisions can easily be re-cast as exercises in“branding,” and churches are often competing with one another to attract Christians looking for a church home that will meet their personal needs. This competitive tendency is exacerbated by the fact that so many churches are struggling with dwindling membership and financial resources. Rather than succumbing to these influences, I would argue that the missional direction of Christian unity implied in this prayer of Jesus ought to push evangelicals to make Christian unity a more integral component of our conversations about mission.

I would also suggest that, in a post-Christendom context, it is time to re-examine evangelicalism’s characteristic aversion to conceptions of “visible unity.” In a previous era, when established state churches could institute a kind of false unity by coercion, it made sense for evangelicals to resist such conceptions of “visible” unity and stand up for our freedom to assemble and worship according to conscience. However, we no longer live in a time when state power is aligned with one particular denomination, and so the idea of a “visible unity” need not carry those connotations. We have also rightly resisted approaches to unity which pushed towards the building of a “superchurch” with a centralized bureaucracy. But “visible unity” need not be taken in this direction, either.

To say that our unity ought to be “visible” is simply to say that the church’s unity must take shape in the world, as the church lives out its life in space and time. We can’t just pay lip-service to the unity we have been promised in Christ. In order for our unity to serve the purpose of witnessing to the world about Jesus, it must be a unity that is on display for the world to see.

Practically speaking, there are many ways that our unity could be made visible. For the local church, it might mean cooperating with other churches in the neighbourhood to meet community needs. It might mean resisting the competitive, consumerist mindset of our culture, and sharing our limited financial, physical, and human resources with one another. It might mean intentionally deepening our fellowship across denominational lines by spending more time together in common worship, prayer, and study.

While the specific ways in which Christian unity is displayed may vary from context to context, the pursuit of unity is not simply one optional mission strategy among others; it is Christ’s prayer for his church. At this particular moment, as evangelicals engage in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be “missional” in a post-Christendom context, I believe it is time for us to re-evaluate our lack of concern with visible unity, and join Jesus in earnestly praying that we may be one, “so that the world may believe.”

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Armstrong, John H. Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
  • Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson, eds. In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson, eds. The Ecumenical Future: Background Papers for “In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity.” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Stackhouse, John G., ed. Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

5 Comments

  1. Renee Desjardins
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    James,
    I think you right on target about the necessity for unity for the sake of mission. I (on behalf of an Anglican parish) and another pastor (from the CRC) both volunteer at the same (secular) program running in a local school, called Families and Schools Together. One of the program trainers was quite intrigued that both our churches should support the same program and had many questions for me about when/whether/how churches come to work together. Clearly the fact that we would come together (the pastor and I are friends) on this project, in and of itself seemed to “witness” to her of something more substantial than the expected “club” or “clique” loyalties of the various churches. My sense is that as both our churches become more involved in the neighbhourhood–working together, we pastors hope–we will witness more profoundly to the transforming love of Christ than if we worked separately.
    Renee

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    Great story Renee – thanks for sharing. Very encouraging. I hope your desire to work together continues to lead to concrete cooperation like this, and that it bears fruit!
    James

  3. avatar

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on para-church ministries which see mission as the uniting glue?

  4. avatar

    Hi Bob

    I think para-church ministries definitely can make a great contribution to Christian unity and can help hold the unity and mission conversations together.

    It is a bit difficult to generalize about para-church ministries. As with all church structures they can be more or less helpful for both unity and mission, depending on a lot of variables!

    I think the greatest danger would be that para-church structures can become an almost “parallel” world, running alongside local churches without much mutual interaction. However, it really does depend on the specific situation, and in reality, that is how our local churches often operate as well – in silos. So maybe it’s not a para-church specific issue that I’m raising.

    Ideally, we’d have a situation where the unity in mission which arises through para-church organizations would reverberate through the local churches in a given community, to the mutual edification of both church and para-church. It can happen, and has happened many times before.

  5. Tim Droppert
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    Hi James,

    I was thinking about how ‘Unity in Service’ brings about ‘Mutual Recognition’. In our church setting, we stress high priority on meeting needs of people in our communities. Over the course of the last few months, I have personally seen how inviting people from a variety of denominations for service inevitably creates a mutual recognition of a desire to supplement faith with works – a desire found in all churches. United in service helps us realize that we are all legitimate Christian churches!

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