Why is there so little unity among Christians?

29 May

Sarah asks, “Unity is something for which Jesus prayed and many churches claim they want to create and maintain.  Yet I don’t see much unity between churches.  I know of churches that publicly speak against the decisions and activities of other churches long distances from their own, but also of churches in their own town.  Why is unity so hard to achieve?  It is so rare, I am beginning to think unity is only hypothetically possible, and that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole.”


Sarah’s frustration is understandable.  She is highlighting the contrast between the unity that Jesus desires and the lack of unity evidenced among his followers today.  For those of us whose faith heritage is to some extent rooted in the Restoration Movement on the American frontier during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the theological concept of unity has been a highly valued emphasis that predates the formation of our movement.  For good reasons, the expression, “In matters of faith, unity, in matters of opinion, liberty, and in all things, charity (or love),” has been one of the most repeated statements throughout our history.

We understand Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 to be especially important since, according to John’s Gospel, the prayer occurred so late in his ministry.  We assign a special prominence to Jesus’ final instructions, much like we would give prominence to the most recent instructions persons give regarding end of life matters. His prayer in John 17 functions on a par with the Great Commission in the sense that it is among his final hopes for and instructions to his disciples.  The night he is arrested, after instructing the eleven disciples (the contents of John 13-16) Jesus prays for his disciples and those who will become disciples through them.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 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. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is to the gospel of John what the Great Commission in Matthew 28 is to Matthew’s Gospel. Unity is as important to Jesus as is evangelism, though for different reasons.  Jesus wants others to come to the Father through him (evangelism), and he also wants those who come to him to live as one.

We can assume that if Jesus prayed for his followers to be unified, unity is achievable, and if Jesus wants ALL of his followers to be one, unity should be common and widespread.  Given Jesus’ desire for unity, the uncommonness of it is what perplexes Sarah.  So why does unity appear to be so rare?  Let’s consider two sets of assumptions.  The first set we will call, “Unity through Agreement.”  These assumptions include:

  1. To have unity with other Christians means “to be in fellowship” with them.
  2. We can be in fellowship (i.e., consider to be Christian) only with those persons whose doctrine and practice is biblical (i.e., correct).
  3. In matters of doctrine and church practice, there can only be one right answer to every question or issue.
  4. All questions regarding Christian faith and practice must be weighed equally when considering whether or not another Christian or group of Christians can be fellowshipped.  In other words, there are not core, non-negotiable issues and fringe issues (about which we could disagree).  There are only core issues.
  5. We have the right answers. Therefore, those who disagree with us have the wrong answers.
  6. Those who have the wrong answers are not really Christians.
  7. Unity requires that we see things alike, that we have matching opinions on doctrinal issues and congregational practices.  Unity cannot exist between true Christians (that is, those with correct doctrines and practices) and inauthentic Christians (those who have any incorrect doctrines or conclusions).  We cannot fellowship (cannot recognize as Christian) those who disagree with us on doctrinal matters.  Consequently, we cannot be unified with those who do not agree with us.

Those whose approach to unity is through agreement would cite 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 as a text to legitimize their approach.

14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)


Advocates of this view believe extending fellowship to others who wear the name Christian but with whom they disagree is to endorse all of their doctrines and practices.  And “we are not to be yoked with unbelievers”, for “what does light have to do with darkness?”

Christians in my tradition have differed on a number of issues:  whether or not Christians can eat in their church buildings, use multiple cups or a single one in communion, believe the Holy Spirit indwells believers or operates on believers by means of Scripture only.  Approaching unity through agreement means that I can only have unity with you if we share common conclusions in all these matters.

Let’s examine another approach to unity, one we will call, “Unity through Humility.”  Here are its assumptions:

  1. Widespread unity will never be realized if it must be based on uniformity or agreement.  Jesus desires widespread unity, therefore unity must be based on something other than all Christians sharing identical doctrines and practices.
  2. Unity has to be intentionally sought. The easiest path when people disagree with each other is the path of division.  Disunity is often the starting place for people who have differences of perspectives and/or practices.  Unity has to be purposefully pursued and preserved.
  3. Unity is based on demeanor, not doctrine.  If unity is to be common it must be rooted in an uncommon attitude, that of humility.  I must acknowledge that my thinking may contain error and my knowledge has limits.  If you and I are to be unified we must agree to disagree on some matters and love and fellowship each other anyway.
  4. There are a few exceptions to unity through humility.  Those who believe Jesus is not divine may call themselves Christians, but they are not.  John is explicit about this in 1 John 218-23 and 4:1-3. The divinity of Jesus is a non-negotiable issue.  Those whose lifestyle is blatantly out of step with Christian morals are also not to be fellowshipped.  Jude 4-19 employs direct language and bold analogies to teach this truth.  The pursuit of purity is a core issue.  Biblically speaking, however, as far as unity is concerned there are not as many issues of faith or practice that merit the label “non-negotiable” as those who opt for the “unity through uniformity” would have us believe.

Those who approach unity through humility would cite Philippians 2:1-4 as a text to authorize their approach.  (Interestingly, the “unity through agreement” folks also point to this text, but we’ll get to that.

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Whatever problem Paul is attempting to correct in this letter, he is convinced that the humility of Christ is the solution.  Philippians 4:2 indicates that two sisters in Christ, apparently prominent in the church in Philippi, were at odds with each other.  “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

Philippian Christians to embrace a spiritual posture of humility towards one another as a means to unity. That this is a core issue in the letter is signaled by the word “plead” or “urge,” a word Paul uses in his letters to signal the primary reason for his writing.  To overcome their differences, to agree with each other in the Lord, Paul calls them to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2)  Note the similarity in language between 4:2 and 2:2.  Both places indicate the solution lies in being of the same mind.

The unity-through-agreement advocates would say that Paul’s instruction to be “like-minded” in 2:2 means that they agree in their opinions on matters of Christian doctrine, Christian living and congregational practices Paul urges them to “agree with each other in the Lord.”  Here, however, “agree “ does not mean, “have identical opinions about doctrine.”  It means get along even though you have differences.  Unity is not about being in total agreement with others.  Unity occurs when we agree to accept other Christians just as Christ has accepted us.  Paul teaches this elsewhere in two other contexts in which unity was threatened by existing differences.

11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  (Colossians 3:11-14, NIV)

1 “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  (Ephesians 4:1-3, NIV)

Once again, the path to the unity named in Colossians 3:14 is the possession and manifestation of the attitudes in 3:12.  In Ephesians, to succeed in the task of “keeping the unity” (Ephesians 4:3) requires us to be completely humble and gentle towards each other (Ephesians 4:2).  The solution to the problem of disunity is in our attitude and disposition toward each other.  And the attitude we are to embrace is that of humility, the same humility in Christ that prompted the Incarnation (Philippians 2:5-8).  We are to let a spirit of grace towards each other trump our differences with each other.  All other approaches have failed to deliver the unity for which our Lord prayed.




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