We are a culture of advocates. Perhaps more than ever before, it's trendy to latch on to a cause and passionately declare our support through colored ribbons, memes, and virtual thumbs up. While I love to see us standing up for truth with passion, in our zeal to champion the people and causes we love, I can't help but notice that we seem to have missed something that matters deeply to God—unity.
Do we value harmony in the Church to the same degree we esteem right theology and defending our tribes?
Sure, we throw "unity" around when we are speaking Christianese. But do we really get it? Do we value harmony in the Church to the same degree we esteem right theology and defending our tribes? Yep, theology matters. Yep, it's okay to align myself with people who help me love and live out God's Word better. But advocacy that cracks the foundations of the family of God misses a massive mark. If we are really interested in understanding and applying Scripture, we won't miss the clear message that unity in the Body matters to God.
With that in mind, here are five biblical reasons to care about unity in the Church.
1. Jesus passionately prayed for unity.
In John 17, we find Jesus praying to the Father in the moments before He was arrested, put on trial, and eventually executed. Since that moment is a little too cosmic for my finite brain to grasp the significance of, I like to think of it as the final huddle that would decide the outcome of a game that had gone into sudden death. Jesus knew what was on the line. It was all or nothing at this point, so He huddles up with the Father and prays a desperate, passionate prayer.
What did He ask God for?
"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 17:21–23).
It's go time. Soldiers are steps away. Jesus knows what's coming, and He gets His game face on by taking some time to pray a short, passionate prayer. First, He prays for the disciples (vv. 6–19), knowing that after His death they would build His Church. But then He pivots and prays for us (v. 20). Here's what He specifically asks the Father for on our behalf:
- That we would be witnesses. (More on that in a minute.)
- That we would be with Him.
- That the Father's love would be in us.
Those are all important things, but they aren't what Jesus asks the Father for most often or most passionately. In this short prayer, He asks the Father to give us unity three times.
- "They may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you."
- "They may be one even as we are one."
- "They may become perfectly one."
Not once does He pray that we would understand and apply the Bible perfectly. He never prays that we would be able to argue eloquently. He doesn't pray for us to become passionate advocates. He prays for us to be unified. And then He prays for it again. And then one more time with feeling. When Jesus looked ahead and saw us, what was He most desperate to see? Unity.
2. Unity is fragile. Handle with care.
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:36–41).
Paul and Barnabas were thick as thieves. The Bible tells us that it was Barnabas who first advocated for Paul after his dramatic conversion ( Acts 9:27). Barnabas accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey (Acts 13–14). Together they traveled more than 1,200 miles over the course of two years. If you've ever been on a mission trip, you know it works like spiritual superglue, bonding you to your fellow travelers like few other experiences can. And yet, despite all of their history and all that held them together, a single disagreement caused them to part ways. One "sharp disagreement" severed unity and put oceans between these two Christian brothers.
Slapping on smiley faces and singing Kumbaya through clenched teeth isn't the answer. Fighting hard for unity is.
Unity is slippery like that. One minute we are living in harmony with our Christian brothers and sisters, fiercely committed to each other and our shared Savior, and the next minute our church is splitting, our small group is fractured, or two Christians are duking it out online.
There is no sense pretending we aren't prone to discord. It has been this way since the beginning of mankind. Slapping on smiley faces and singing Kumbaya through clenched teeth isn't the answer. Fighting hard for unity is.
3. Unity is an evangelism tool.
Pop quiz! What did Jesus say was on the line when He asked the Father for unity on our behalf? (Go ahead and cheat by re-reading John 17:21–23 above. You can even skip to the last line).
"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 17:23).
Jesus wants us to be unified so that the world will know that He is God's Son and that He loves them. Since discord, pain, and fracture are the norm in our fallen world, true unity will draw in the lost like moths to a flame. That's why the Psalmist wrote these words:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Ps. 133:1).
Unity in the Church is an evangelism tool. The flipside is that when the Body is fractured, it undercuts Christ's message. Why God opted to put the weight of that on the shoulders of a group as contrary and finicky as we are is beyond me, but He did. When He prayed urgently for us to be unified, it wasn't just so we could all feel warm and fuzzy. It was because He knew that unity shoots up a beacon of hope in a fractured world.
4. Unity is a commandment.
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).
Loving other believers well isn't a suggestion. It's a commandment, straight from Jesus' mouth. Just in case we are tempted to justify some of the unloving things we say to each other, Jesus spells out just how high the bar is . . .
"Love one another as I have loved you."
We are to love each other sacrificially, even when our fellow Christians don't "deserve" it. (Because Jesus loved us sacrificially even though we didn't deserve it).
What does that look like practically?
- It looks like following the clear model for dealing with conflict among believers outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15–20. This passage encourages us to work out our differences one-to-one and in person. Interacting on a Facebook wall is not the same thing. Neither is a heated Twitter battle.
- It looks like valuing unity above being "right."
- It looks like championing other Christians as often as possible instead of looking for reasons to pick them apart.
- It looks like speaking highly of the Church and its members.
5. Unity protects us.
Unity matters because it is a fence that protects us from the wolves that want to rip the Church apart. I know that sounds dramatic, but listen to how Paul wrote about it in Romans 16:17–18:
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
One commentator pointed out that Paul was addressing the "sin of schism," that tendency that many of us have to cause division. We are a culture accustomed to discord. Our politics are based on two parties in perpetual duke-it-out mode. Our news comes to us through two talking heads debating both sides of every story. But this is not God's model for the Church. God's people are meant to be an oasis from the "schism" all around us.
Unity in the Church is an evangelism tool.
Paul tells us to be on the lookout for those who come against the unity of the Church. Before you take your place on the wall, determined to watch out for anyone who might cause disharmony, check yourself. Are there any ways you are committing the "sin of schism"?
With Jesus' clear call to unity in mind, I'd love to urge (beg, plead!) us as Christians to force ourselves to ask these questions as we write, speak, and post.
- Will this contribute to unity or discord?
- Will someone look at this post, comment, tweet and declare it "good and pleasant"?
- Do I commit the "sin of schism" by strongly opposing other Christians often or in public forums?