Issues Facing the Church: 50. Preserve the Unity of the Church?
[This post continues a study in a series of posts on mission as church renewal by examining Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17--'that they may all be one' (v. 21).]
One argument that has struck many believers as compelling in the ecclesiastical debates in oldline denominations that revolve around sexuality—especially homosexuality—has been that the unity of the Church must be preserved at all costs. This discussion entails figuring out what Christian unity and love are, and what issues may be considered matters of indifference (Greek: adiaphora). What does it mean to preserve the unity of the Church? Here, this question will be addressed with respect to Jesus’ high priestly prayer to the Father in John 17.
That ‘unity of the Church’ is no small matter perhaps gains its greatest strength from Jesus’ prayer for unity among the disciples in John 17. ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,’ Jesus prays (v. 11b). Of course, Jesus’ prayer acknowledges that the ‘world has hated them because they do not belong to the world’ (v. 14b). In the narrative context of the Gospel, the ‘world’ often, as here, applies to Jesus’ opposition. The disciples are ‘sanctified’ or ‘set apart’ from the world, and this occurs ‘in truth’ (v. 19). Jesus has given them God’s word (v. 14a), which is truth (v. 17). The unity for which Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples is a unity established by their disunity with the world and being set apart in the truth. This is no airy fairy unity ethic that focusses on social inclusion whatever one believes or does. Quite the opposite. Social inclusion is based on an exclusive commitment to the truth.
So, John 17 is about more than unity. It is actually Jesus’ prayer that precedes his arrest in Gethsemane (ch. 18) and immediately follows Jesus’ statement that the disciples are about to be scattered (16.32). The prayer for unity, then, is about the danger the disciples are about to face from a hostile world that has rejected the truth that Jesus has taught his disciples, the truth in God’s word that Jesus has proclaimed in his own person. Unity is not an absolute; it is the result of remaining committed to God’s word despite persecution.
Had Jesus been concerned about unity in a more absolute sense, he would have sought common ground with ‘the Jews’ (that is, the Jewish religious leaders rejecting Jesus), his opponents in John’s Gospel. Instead, Jesus draws the line between his disciples and all others.
Some people are, moreover, peculiarly committed to unity within one corner of the Church, a denomination, as though this preserves the unity of the Church itself. They understand unity with respect to their denomination’s unity. This raises the important question, ‘Is a denomination the Church?’ The word ‘ekklesia’ in the Greek Bible is translated as ‘assembly’ or ‘church’ in English Bibles. In the Old Testament, the word translates the Hebrew word for the assembly or people of God. The term refers to the whole people of Israel. This is how the New Testament picks up the word: the Church is the people of God. Paul uses the term to refer to a local people of God in a given city, such as ‘the church of God that is in Corinth’ (1 Cor. 1.2). He also uses the term in a specialized sense to refer to the Christians who are in a locality gathering together for worship. He says, ‘…when you come together as a church…’ (1 Cor. 11.18; cf. 14.19, 28; 16.19). Finally, as in the Old Testament, he also uses the term ‘church’ to refer to the universal people of God—to Christians. Thus Paul says, ‘…I persecuted the church of God’ (1 Cor. 15.9c; see especially the use of the term in Ephesians).
None of these uses directly equates to a meaning that comes close to the term ‘denomination.’ ‘Ekklesia’ never means a group of believers distinguished from others by virtue of their practices or beliefs. The idea that protecting the unity of such a group of believers is in any way a protection of the unity of the Church is actually a significant misunderstanding of the Church. The error is inevitable, as the word ‘church’ has been used by the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox Church precisely because it sees itself as the true Church to which all others ought to be reunited. Certain Protestant denominations have adopted the word in a similar way to refer to the approved institution of the church in their geographical region, such as the ‘Church of Scotland,’ or Presbyterians, and the ‘Church of England,’ or Anglicans. The meaning changes still further when we speak of the ‘Lutheran Church’ or the ‘Reformed Church,’ since here doctrinal and practical differences are in view.
When we refer today to denominations as ‘churches,’ we create a confusion about what ‘unity of the church’ really means. Denominations are at best parts of the church and therefore by definition cannot fulfill any goal of Church unity. They are, more realistically, parachurch organizations, or even, by definition (!), ‘disunity groups.’ Unity is not obtained by agreement with a faction of the Church but by, as Jn. 17 shows, obedience to the word of God, which is truth.
That unity with a faction of the universal Church means disunity with other factions of the Church needs to be stated. Apparently it is not as obvious as it ought to be. Unity with a group of American Episcopalians does not mean unity with the vast majority of African Anglicans, for example. Unity within the Presbyterian Church (USA) does not even mean unity with other American Presbyterian groups.
Surely a desire for unity is a good thing. Abraham Lincoln’s desire for unity and peace in America during his presidency led him to change his mind several times about what to do with slavery. At one point, he sought to affirm the right of slave states to practice slavery in perpetuity so long as there was no spread of the practice to other regions or states. At another point, he supported the view that slave states should be permitted to retain their slaves for another forty years. Such options could have preserved the unity of the country and brought an end to war if both sides had agreed. Ultimately, Lincoln was led to a more radical view: emancipation of all slaves everywhere. The path to emancipation involved continued war. Unity of the states, one might say, was the result of holding to the truth that slavery was wrong, even if that view meant the disunity of war.
This is precisely what Jn. 17 is all about. Jesus prays for the disciples to hold on to the truth in God’s word even though it means enmity with the world (including other Jewish religious groups). By doing so, they would maintain Christian unity—a unity known by the Father and the Son.