Before He went to the cross, Jesus prayed for His people. Among the numerous things He prayed for, one of them was unity. He asked,
“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:21-23).
How can God’s people, who are so diverse, be one? A group of people with different backgrounds, temperaments, age groups, appearances, interests and struggles will be unified. This really is an amazing thing when you think about it. In order for us to understand the meaning and significance of this request, I would like to ask three questions.
Firstly, What is Christian Unity? Christian unity is not something that Christians can create. When Jesus prayed for unity He is not giving His church marching orders to create a single denomination. Nor is this a call to uniformity. Some groups over the years have attempted to create unity by groups of people having the same haircuts, same clothes and same interests. This kind of manufactured and forced “unity” has nothing to do with what Jesus is talking about here. Sadly, in the name of Christian unity many churches have abandoned biblical doctrine and come together under the guise of unity. The problem with this is that it is impossible to have genuine Christian unity outside of the confines of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you abandon the Gospel then you cannot share in unity with biblical Christianity. We are not commanded to create or force Christian unity. Instead, it is something that we are to enjoy and participate in. If you are a genuine Christian, you are forgiven of all your sins, you have the Holy Spirit living within you and you are a part of the Church of Jesus Christ. This is the unity that all true Christians enjoy. You cannot create that; you can only receive it and enjoy it. This is a Spiritual unity produced by God’s grace through the power and work of the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul shows what this spiritual unity looks like,
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6)
As the people of God share in common spiritual life, this spiritual unity will then reveal itself in common spiritual practices. What are those practices? Things like a common mission, a common affection and a common commitment. Jesus prayed that His people would be one.
Second question, What Threatens Christian Unity? Nothing in this world can take away from the Christian the Spiritual unity they enjoy with other believers in Christ. However, there are many things that can threaten the spiritual practices of spiritual unity. Things like false teaching and sinful behaviour can tear churches apart and Christian unity, and we must guard against such things.
Finally, What Strengthens Christian Unity? As we guard against false teaching and personal sin, we are to pursue those things that strengthen and maintain unity. The Apostle Paul wrote,
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3)
The purpose of this unity is so that the world may know who Christ is (17:21).