God’s Paradigm for Our Unity
The church’s unity is a special gift.
The Holy Spirit says, “How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133:1). This pleasant gift is something that a congregation enjoys when we study Scripture together, worship together, or have fellowship.
Another powerful expression of unity is when we confess our faith. A New Testament word for confession means literally, “saying the same thing.” When we sing or recite our creed, we’re saying the same thing. We don’t contribute our own ideas about God, but we listen to what Scripture says and then confess it together.
A church of Christ not only confesses the same faith but is shaped by this faith. Right beliefs should always lead to right behaviour. And whenever we confess faith in our triune God, He is a model for our life together. The beautiful unity of the Trinity should lead to beautiful unity in the church.
We see this truth in Jesus’s prayer John 17. This prayer is sometimes called his “high priestly prayer” because it’s largely a prayer of intercession. The Old Testament priests approached God at the temple and asked for his favour on for Israel. In a similar way, Jesus prays for his church.
And it is remarkable how Jesus looks ahead to the church’s growth in coming centuries. He prays for believers who haven’t even been born! He says in verse 20, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” The disciples haven’t gone out yet for their missionary task, but soon they will. And as they preach, many will come to faith in Christ.
Anticipating how his believers will grow to become many millions, spread all over the world, Jesus prays to the Father. It should strike us that his very first petition for the future church is for our unity, in verse 21:
…that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.
Notice how Jesus refers to the close unity of the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, of course). All three persons of the Trinity share a common sovereignty and purpose and glory. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are bound to each other in an eternally loving relationship. They are one!
This unity of God is a paradigm for the unity of the church: “I pray that all my believers may be one, as we are one.” The intimacy of the triune persons must transform interpersonal relations in the church.
Jesus continues praying: “…that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (v. 21). He implies that real unity is visible. For instance, watch for a while on the schoolyard, and you see which kids are friends, just as you should notice the deep loyalty between a husband and wife.
Unity is meaningless if it’s not seen in real life.
The same is true for the church’s unity. Jesus says it should be visible enough to convey a message about God: “that the world may believe.” Our unity testifies to how the grace and power of God are able to overcome division and difference.
As the apostles went out making disciples not long after John 17, the church quickly became home to a diverse collection of nationalities. Almost at once, this variety posed problems for church life.
Most obvious was the tension between Jew and Gentile. God’s people had always been told to avoid the impure ways of the heathen, but now thousands of Gentiles were standing alongside the Jews in devotion to the Christ. This brought tensions over things like circumcision and food, yet the answer was plain: Christ tore down the dividing wall of hostility and made one man—one people—in himself (Eph 2:15).
Today the world is divided, perhaps more than ever, into rich and poor, black and white, male and female and non-binary. In this fractured world, the church should be a refreshing alternative. As Ephesians 4:3-6 says, “Endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
How do we express this precious unity? One way is through ties with other churches, which demonstrates that Christ is still in the business of uniting people of diverse backgrounds. When you look at believers from Canada, alongside believers from Korea, and Nepal, South Sudan and Scotland—and so many other places—there are glaring and sometimes difficult differences: language, culture, church practice, liturgy, and more. Yet our unity in the Lord Jesus transcends any earthly disparity.
Expressing unity internationally is valuable, but even more vital is living it out locally. As church we get to live in real community with each other. We can share our gifts, our talents, our time, our burdens.
We have a common table where we eat and drink in remembrance of Christ.
At times it is uncomfortable to associate together. Other people tend to be messy and awkward and sometimes irritating. Our unity as local churches has been undeniably diminished by our pandemic-related actions and reactions over the past three years. But Jesus’s prayer moves us to ask:
Do I love my fellow believers the way that God the Father loves the Son?
Do we live ‘toward’ each other, with eyes open and hands outstretched?
Do I have a persevering love, even when some people are difficult to love?
Do I endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
This kind of unity brings praise to our glorious God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit!