Thursday, October 18, 2012

Church Unity

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Church Unity:

Q:  If Jesus desires, as He prayed in John 17:21, that His followers would be one, why are there so many different churches and denominations instead of all Christians joining together as one?  As long as we all believe in Jesus, shouldn’t we overlook our differences on other matters?

John 17, often known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, has been the object of growing interest during the past century.  As denominations and individual Christians have increasingly sought to transcend denominational boundaries and definitions, they have often turned to several verses from this chapter as support for their effort. 

In this prayer, it is correct to conclude that Jesus desires unity for His Church.  He expresses this desire not just once, but three times, in the course of the prayer, asking His Father “…that they may be one…” as He speaks, first of His eleven remaining disciples, then of those who would hear their message, then of all future Christians. 

This could appear, before more careful study, to justify the idea that there should be no denominations or divisions within Christianity, and that Christians should overlook their differences to form a single, visibly-united, world-wide church.  However, as we look more carefully at Jesus’ language, as well as statements made elsewhere in the New Testament, we see that the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. 

It is clear from this text, as well as from supporting passages elsewhere, that Jesus does desire a unified Church, without divisions or disagreements.  In fact, the New Testament almost unanimously speaks, not of “churches,” but of “the Church,” and seems to speak of the unity of the Church as an accomplished fact.  This is not only because it was true at the time, but because it is irrevocably true at all times and places. 

This is because the unity of the Church is not based on our effort or ability, but rather on our One Lord.  Because the Church trusts Jesus, it is united—across nations, races, languages, and even denominational differences.  However, this unity is invisible.  It is a spiritual unity based not on human organizations, but upon the accomplished fact of Jesus’ redemption of Christians as their substitute in living a God-pleasing life and dying to bear the punishment of the world’s sin.  When the Bible speaks of The Church, it is speaking of all people of all times and places who trust in Jesus. 

At the same time, we live in the reality where there are many churches, and The Church is hidden from our view.  This is a reality that, this side of the Last Day, we will continue to experience.  These divisions exist because some have departed from the pure truth.  While all people who recognize God as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who acknowledge Jesus as fully God and fully human, and who trust only in Him to forgive their sins, are Christians, various denominations have diverged on many questions beyond this point, and this is the reason that Christianity became, and remains, divided. 

Jesus makes it clear in His prayer that the unity He prays for is not one where people agree to disagree, but rather where they “agree” and are of “one mind” as the apostle Paul later phrases the idea.  Jesus does this by praying that His followers would “be one, even as we are one.”  Jesus desired that the unity of Christians in the Church would be as close as that which He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit experience with one another in the Trinity.

In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul acknowledged that differences had already arisen in the Church during His time, even explaining to Christians that such a thing was necessary, “so that the genuine among you may be recognized.”  Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament authors desire a united Church, but they desire that this unity be one of agreement and common teaching, not one where each individual believes their own thing under a broad umbrella. 

While The Church is already united by Jesus Himself, and while we certainly desire to make this unity more and more visible, we do a disservice to all people if we achieve this by masking our differences rather than resolving them, and while churches may be more or less divided at various times, it is only on the Last Day, when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, that the One, united, Church will become a visible reality. 

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