Unity

20″My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that 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. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I 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. 24″Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25″Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

[John 17: 20-26]

“…that all of them may be one”.
I’ve been thinking about church unity quite a bit recently. Michael Spencer has posted on this in the last few days (here and here), but thoughts on this have been running through my head for months now…

Have you even wondered at why so many of the prayers and prophecies in the bible seem so resolutely unfulfilled? Like Psalm 103:3 or the above prayer from John 17. Jesus himself prays for us, those who would believe through the message of the apostles, that we would be unified in Him and each other.

…well, that one’s not true, is it?

Which gets me thinking. Is it that we are deluding ourselves, far from the truth? That God doesn’t exist, or at least that what we see revealed in the bible is untrue? Or perhaps is it that we are not co-operating with Him, in seeing His prayer fulfilled?

I am a great fan of the diversity of the church. I really wouldn’t want every London congregation to look like mine, especially not with our severely limited ecclesiology… I think it is great that there are groups of believers gathering together who express different elements of God’s character, or His passion for the world, or our response to the Gospel.

But what frustrates me is that we don’t see this diversity as strength, we often are unable even to recognise other streams of our faith as valid. Churches meeting within half a mile of each other, each desperately passionate about their community never meet together, never pray together. They put out a hideously fractured view of the bride of Christ to the community they care so much about.

“I pray …that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

So I ask myself, is it possible that we live as enemies of Christ’s purpose, because we are so stubbornly uncooperative to His prayer? Are the church leaders and watch-bloggers and prayer ministries and aid charities and all the other diverse expressions of this Christian family failing because we don’t actively seek to engage and fulfil this prayer?!?

We’ve talked on this blog about the criticisms of the emerging church laid out by characters such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Challies. I’ve highlighted them not because I take any joy in being critical back, but because the fact that we are not striving for unity rends my heart. We are meant to be one! Not identical, not united in perfect theological and ecclesial conformity, but recognising each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as colourful and valuable facets in that beautiful bride.

This is not a vision or a prayer that will miraculously be fulfilled; we will not wake up one day and suddenly find that all those divisions have melted away over night. Our human nature means that we have an inbuilt drive to tribalise, to define the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. We will always see differences in belief, and even expression of that belief, as controversial and divisive. We have to fight those impulses, and deliberately, consciously move towards loving expressions of mutual worth.

“In essentials, unity;
in non-essentials, liberty;
and in all things, love”

***

I had a conversation with someone about church unity at a party during August (which says something about the kind of party I go to). I was asked how we get towards church unity, because it seems such a hard road to walk down. Now, I don’t pretend to have all the answers: I hope that is not the impression I give on this blog. This is the gist of what I said.

I think unity has to grow as a grass-roots thing. Its not that ecumenical councils don’t have their value, or that church leaders are inherently prejudiced; but our leaders have a high level of buy-in to their particular church ‘flavour’, and it is very hard for them to look beyond that to see the value of different expressions… Let me paint you a picture.

There’s a murder, or a violent attack in your neighbourhood. It shocks, appals and probably frightens both you, your Christian friends and your non-Christian neighbours. In conversation with some friends you ask “what on earth can we do?” and you decide you should pray. It starts with you and a couple of friends from your church who live nearby. Then one of you mentions it to a friend in the area from another church, who asks if they can join you… Slowly more people join to pray with you, now from several different churches, some in that neighbourhood, some from across the city. There are no leaders; just ordinary Christians appalled by a horrific incidence on their doorstep.

There is no limit to how far this can go. When we pray with people we realise that there is actually very little that separates us. We all believe in Jesus, in His love and compassion, and in the power of prayer. As we pray we might notice differences in style, in wording; people who pray at once, who pray in turns, who use strange phrases and other languages. But we choose to be enriched by this diversity rather than offended by it, because we recognise the earnest desire in our fellow pray-ers to see change in our community.

Over time, who knows? Maybe joint meetings and celebrations, maybe parties and new friendships… but there is a level of unity at that most base level: here is someone who cares for this community as I do, who calls to the same Lord in hope and desperation… Here is my brother.

Peace
andy

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