In John 17, shortly before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus prayed some incredibly important words for the church:
“20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 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 17:20-23
For Jesus, the unity of believers was of utmost importance to the mission he had for his followers. Notice that this prayer is directed not simply to the apostles or the extended circle of disciples, but to “those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus isn’t praying only for the people with him at that moment. He is praying for you and for me.
While it’s clear this was the desire of Jesus, it is also clear his followers have struggled (at best) to fulfill it. Even among the particular faith traditions there is very little unity. The first town I worked in as a full-time paid minister had dozens if not hundreds of Baptist churches, many of which I am sure were products of past problems. Although we might like to think we are better, anyone who has been within the Church of Christ for any length of time knows we are not. I was talking recently to someone about how many church splits had occurred in the last 20 years only in my hometown. We counted between 5 to 10 church splits among Churches of Christ (that we know of) in only 20 years in just one town. I’d like to think this is an anomaly, but I know it is more likely the norm.
Of course, if you extend this discussion beyond a particular organizational structure, and look at the broader picture of Christendom in general, the lack of unity is all the more apparent. I can think of a dozen different groups that meet within a 10 or 15 minute drive of my house. Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and a number of non-denominational churches, along with a Church of Christ or two. That we are not one as Jesus and the Father are one is painfully obvious.
We could spend a lot of time asking why this is the case, and an even greater deal of time on the more important question of how we should attempt to resolve the problem, but right now I simply want to ask the question: why does it matter? Why does it matter that we are unified? Why did Jesus want us to be one, instead of splintered as we are?
In the context of John 17, the answer should be obvious: because when we are one, we reflect the oneness of the Triune God, and this unity makes it possible for people to accept Christ for who he is. In other words, our unity impacts our ability to make disciples. If we want to follow the Great Commission to go and make disciples of the nations, then a focus on unity is essential.
When we exist in constant division, and especially when we even take pride in our division, we do significant damage to the mission of the church. If we can’t even reconcile with each other, how can we invite others to be reconciled with God through Christ? (2 Cor. 5:20) If we can’t be in unity with each other, how can we reflect the unity of Father and Son to the world? (v. 21, 23)
This is Christ’s reasoning, not mine. I accept it on his authority, but I also have personal experience that supports it. During a recent two week trip to Japan for work, I had two separate conversations brought up by non-believers about their confusion because of various churches. In one scenario, I was taking photos in Hokkaido with a guide, when we happened upon a Russian Orthodox church. Only a couple hundred feet away was a Catholic church. The guide voiced how silly it was – why were there two churches so close to each other? It seemed to him a waste.
How does one respond in such a scenario? I tried to explain that I was from a tradition which sought after unity. My friend Kota thought this was a good philosophy. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he would experience the pursuit of unity in many of our churches. In fact, I fear he would experience the opposite. We can offer all kinds of reasons for why it’s okay to be divided given a specific circumstance, but our reasons will not change the fact that division impedes our mission. Division impedes our ability to glorify God and to make disciples. We should not take pride in this, but rather mourn it.
As I said, the question of how we can truly be one in Christ, and achieve the fellowship we need for our mission, is a different – and more complicated – matter. But the how will not matter until we understand the why. We need to understand what is at stake when we fail to be unified in Christ. When we fail to be unified, there is much harm done: the cause of Christ, the glory of God, the mission of the church, and our obedience to the Great Commission, are all significantly impeded. We may fail in achieving unity, but if we fail in honestly pursuing unity, then we have not taken seriously the consequences of this failure.