In Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 He said, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
His prayer was simple but profound – that His people would be brought to complete unity. For this purpose Jesus has given every Christian believer the same glory that the Father had given Him. The word “glory” refers to “dignity and honour resulting from a good opinion”. Jesus has a good opinion of His people – all of them regardless of denomination, culture or race – and treats them with dignity and honour. Herein lies the basis for our unity as believers. Do we dare to have a different opinion of a fellow Christian to the opinion that Jesus has of them? If Jesus views us with dignity and honour what right do we have to view each other any less?
When we look around the Church today, however, we get the idea that Jesus doesn’t always get His prayers answered! Christians in local congregations often have trouble getting along together, to say nothing of reaching across denominational boundaries. And how tragic it is when we consider the results of unity and love amongst believers:
“… that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
“… to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them …”
“… All men will know that you are my disciples that you are my disciples if you love one another.”
Christian unity is the single most powerful key to reaching a world that God loves – no wonder it’s always under attack; no wonder it’s so hard! The world around us is supposed to get an understanding of how much God loves them by looking at the way God’s people love one another. The tragedy though is that the non-church world often looks at us and says, “I have enough problems of my own; why would I want to join you?”
So what causes us to so easily divide? In my opinion there are two main reasons for the lack of unity in the church today, namely, differences in doctrine and style.
One of the greatest passages on unity in the Bible is Ephesians chapter four where Paul exhorts Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This is a life that is characterised by humility, gentleness and patiently bearing with one another because we love each other. Paul encourages us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This unity already exists but our job is to maintain it. However, later in the chapter Paul speaks about a unity that we have to reach for – “Unity in the faith,” (v.13). “The faith,” refers to the body of Christian truth which pertains to salvation; truth which Christians agree on; truth which I’ll refer to as “non-negotiable.”
If something is negotiable it means that there is room for discussion in order to reach an agreement. If a cheque is marked “not negotiable” it means there is no room for discussion about who the payee is – it has to be the person the cheque is made out to and no other. I have found the distinction between negotiable and non-negotiable truth to be very helpful in establishing unity between Christians. The fact is that Christians in general agree on the non-negotiable truths of our faith – those truths that are outlined in the great creeds of the church. There’s no room to talk this over to reach an agreement because belief in these things is essential to Christian faith and salvation: Belief in the existence of God; belief in the deity and humanity of Christ; belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus; belief in Jesus’ current ministry where He continues to save people completely by making intercession for them; and belief in Jesus’ return when “He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28). These are all essential Christian truths that all Christians believe, and it’s on the basis of this body of truth that we can enjoy unity.
It is a sad reality that instead of focusing on the non-negotiable truth we hold in common, Christians invariably focus on the negotiable truth in which we differ. Negotiable truth includes all the aspects of our faith that are not essential to salvation. They are negotiable, not because they are unimportant, but rather because there is room to discuss them, and differ in our opinions, without affecting our unity, love and respect for one another.
Next to doctrinal differences Christians seem to divide most over church style and expression. This is nothing new and was in fact one of the many problems the apostle Paul had to correct in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). The Corinthian Christians divided over the style of ministry they preferred and that unfortunately, has tended to be the case right down through church history. For example, there was a huge controversy surrounding the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in London. The Bishop of London announced that it was blasphemous to utter such sacred words in a theatre. The Irish did not have any problem with it, but the English certainly found it very hard to take and the argument raged on for nearly a decade! There was a similar disagreement over the introduction of Sunday Schools in the 1780s. In more recent times, during the charismatic renewal of the seventies, there were disputes over styles of praise such as dancing, lifting hands and clapping. Christians divided from one another because of these things – how sad! Do we honestly think that on judgment day God is going to say, “I loved the way you lifted your hands to me” or “Why didn’t you dance in church?” I have a feeling that He will be more concerned with things like, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
So, is it wrong to prefer a certain style of ministry? Is it wrong to have a favourite preacher or teacher? No, it’s not. But it is wrong to be sectarian and unappreciative of all Christ’s gifts to His church. It’s vital that we learn to “appreciate” all styles of church ministry and worship, even if we don’t personally “enjoy” it.
Unity does not equal uniformity. We may never see all churches join together and denominations cease to exist this side of heaven. That is not the issue. The important thing is for all of us to learn to appreciate the diversity that exists across the Church. There is one body with many members and we all need each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can love and respect each other despite our differences. We can enjoy unity in the midst of great diversity and variety. The gospel message never changes but the methods of communicating and expressing it are as diverse as the people God has made. There is only one way to God, and that’s through Jesus Christ, but there are many ways to express our love and worship to Him. Let us give one another the freedom to do so.