For the past several months I’ve had the fascinating privilege of editing my great-grandfather’s memoirs. A Mennonite farmer who lived in the Crimea during the Bolshevik Revolution, he saw the persecution and affliction of Christian people in Russia as an atheist regime closed in. Of the days before he escaped to America, he wrote:
There were no ministers left in those days. All denominational barriers had fallen away as a result of persecution, and of course, that is how it should be in reality. Our obstinacy with respect to this, in our present day, cannot remain, and I feel that God will somehow yet force us to work together.
These words are especially challenging to me when I recall the history of his people. The Mennonites are one offshoot of Anabaptism, a movement which also gave rise to the Amish and Brethren, and more indirectly, the Baptists and Puritans. Anabaptists came into existence during the Protestant Reformation, but unlike most other groups, they refused to be backed by any state power. They were hunted down, persecuted and martyred by the thousands — mostly by professed Christians with differing theological and practical convictions.
Today, Christian groups don’t usually kill each other. But it seems we are far from united. Through all of our history, the prayer of Jesus for His people echoes, at once a haunting indictment and a never-rescinded call.
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one . . . I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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 17:11, 20–23).
That They May Be One
Unity is one of the most repeated themes in the New Testament. In fact, community is the whole context of the epistles: They were written not to individuals, but to God’s “peculiar people” — His one body, the church.
The biblical directive to love each other, walking in a family relationship that is the essence of unity, is clear.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8).
. . . that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart (1 Peter 1:22–23).
Knowing that unity is God’s design makes the current state of Christianity particularly heartbreaking. It’s no secret that we are a fractured people — the World Christian Database includes 9,000 distinct Christian denominations, and the list is far from exhaustive. Church splits are commonplace, leaving wounded hearts behind them. I’ve known congregations of different ethnic backgrounds to meet in the same building at different times but never once come together to form relationships. And elitism is rampant, as we relegate other believers to the status of “lukewarm,” “unspiritual” or “so-called Christians” for any number of reasons — in this, I am as guilty as anyone I know.
Paul once lamented that Christians were calling themselves after different missionaries instead of only after Christ: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). But today, it’s the rare Christian who doesn’t claim a secondary affiliation of some kind.
In light of all that, phrases like “having one mind” provoke me almost to despair. I dearly want to carry out the commandments to love one another and live as the family of God, but I don’t know how. Once upon a time, I think, the church may have been a united body. But it isn’t now. And I can’t help thinking it may never be again.
We Are a Miracle
In thinking so, I am missing the extraordinary truth that Christian unity isn’t, first and foremost, something we have to achieve. In the most important sense, Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. Our unity is a fact. That’s why the church earned a place in the historic Apostles Creed, right alongside doctrines like the virgin birth, the Holy Spirit and the resurrection: “I believe in the holy catholic church.”
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two . . . For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:14–15, 18).
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many (1 Corinthians 12:12–14).
The fact is plain: Christians are one.
Our oneness does not come from our efforts. It is a spiritual reality, one that is enacted when we become members of Christ upon trusting in Him for salvation. Our oneness is in a Person, and it is a miracle.
It’s probably too much to ask that whole denominations and congregations will suddenly get serious about the biblical call to unity — acknowledging each other as brothers and sisters and committing to walk together in love, despite our differences, for Christ’s sake. But that’s OK, because like most things, unity starts with individual hearts.
Hearts like mine.
Practical unity, a real relationship with other Christians even if they are outside of “our” circle, starts with what I believe about you and what I do with that belief — it starts with what you believe about me and how you live that out.
Some might cry foul at this point: “We can’t,” they would say, “throw out truth and conviction in the name of love and solidarity.” And they would be right. Doctrine is important. So is practicing righteousness. But our unity is not based on these things. Statements of faith are not the Spirit of God who makes us one. No one denomination has cornered the market on truth. Our standards are not always God’s. And personality conflicts are no excuse to disown your own family.
If you are trusting in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, no matter where else our beliefs may diverge, we are family. We are “one new man,” we are “baptized into one body”; we all “drink of one Spirit.” And God asks us to live as though this is true.
Walking As One
Oneness in Christ affects every other human relationship. It affects marriage by bringing the roles of husband and wife into a larger, eternal context. It affects the nuclear family by challenging us to let go of clan mentality and embrace those who are family in spirit — and in the same way, it affects our way of understanding race, class and the many social divisions common to humanity.
When we stop using exterior things as the basis of our unity and instead use the miraculous work of Christ as that basis, we can stop holding each other at arm’s length. We can stop being brothers and sisters on probation. And that’s true even if our brothers and sisters are sinning or are deceived on some point of truth. (When was the last time anyone thought amputation was the best possible solution to an infection?) As members of a united body, we don’t seek to be separated from each other. We seek to heal, to bring truth and to turn those who are straying to repentance.
The unity fact means that I can’t disassociate myself from the larger body of Christ, dismissing others as legalistic, worldly, heretical, religious, et al. If the body of Christ is infested with heresy, it is I who should cry out for healing. If the body of Christ is bound up in rules, it is I who should seek to bring freedom. If the body of Christ is so much like the world that it’s impossible to tell the difference, I should be on my knees for repentance — and doing all I can to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). One prayer at a time, one relationship at a time, I want to learn to love the church as Jesus loves it. And in turn, I want to let that love change me as I become more and more consciously part of the greatest family on earth.
The one thing I can’t do is wash my hands of my brothers and sisters in Jesus. They are Christ’s body. If I love Him, I am bound to love them. No matter how I feel about it.
For He has made us one.
Copyright 2011 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.