Study in John’s Gospel. Presentation 82. Mark of the Church: Unity Chap 17v20-23. Presentation 82. Introduction.
"Considering all the divisions that have plagued Christendom for two thousand years, it is amazing that God has continued to use the church to extend his kingdom." John White’s words, introduce us to the subject of Christian unity in two important ways: first, by portraying the lack of unity that has plagued the church throughout its history and, secondly, by suggesting why Jesus asked that the church might be marked by unity at this point in his prayer.
The divisions that exist today hardly need comment. That Christ prayed for unity indicates that he foresaw the differences that would exist and asked for the establishment of unity among his own in spite of them.
Notice that Jesus prays for unity at the point
at which he begins to think of all those who
"shall believe on me through their word."
But what kind of unity is this to be? If Jesus means an organisational unity, then our efforts to achieve it will head in one direction while, if it is a more subjective unity, then our efforts will be expended in another.
In the early days of the church there was much vitality and growth but little organizational unity. Later, as the church came into favour under Constantine and his successors, the church became increasingly centralized until during the Middle Ages there was literally one united ecclesiastical body covering all Europe.
But was this a great age? Was there a deep unity of faith? Was the church strong? Was its morality high? Did men and women find themselves increasingly drawn to this faith and come to confess Jesus Christ to be their Saviour and Lord? Not at all!
Certainly there is something to be said for some form of outward, visible unity (at least in most situations). But it is equally certain that this type of unity is not what we most need, nor is it that for which the Lord prayed. Tie two cats together by the tail and you may have a visible union but you do not have unity.
Another type of unity involves conformity; that is an attempt to ensure that all are seen to come from the same mould. There are those who strive for an identical pattern of looks and behaviour among their members. As a student I visited such a church, dressed in a three piece suit - I know that dates me - they were in vogue at the time but I was told that none of their members would dream of wearing such a suit. The members of that church not only dressed alike, they spoke alike and shared the same opinion upon everything.
This is not what Jesus is looking for in this prayer. On the contrary, there should be the greatest diversity among Christians, diversity of personality, interests, lifestyle, and even methods of Christian work and evangelism. This should make the church more interesting, and certainly not dull. Uniformity is dull, like rows upon rows of baked beans on a supermarket shelf. Variety is exciting! It reflects the variety of nature, character and actions of our God.
What then is the unity Jesus had in mind? Notice that Jesus uses the Godhead as his model, “That all of them may be one Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them, and you in me, may they be brought to complete unity” v21, 23. The church is to have
a spiritual unity involving the basic orientation, desires,
and will of those participating.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, saying, "There are
different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are
different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There
are different kinds of working but the same God
works all of them in all men" 1 Cor. 12v4-6.
This is not to say that all Christians actually enter into this unity as they should. Otherwise, why would Christ pray for it? The reality is that unity is something given to the church but also something for which the body of true believers should strive to maintain.
There is a sense in which we already are one in Christ. But there is also a sense in which we must achieve and then maintain that unity. It is possible to pull the body of Christ apart!
The various images used of the church in the N.T. help us to see the nature of the unity that is to be achieved. One of the most valuable is that of the family. We begin with this image because the terms, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, are the most common terms used by Christians of one another in the N.T. This familial language reveals the basis of the love that Christians had for one another;
"Now that you have purified yourselves
by obeying the truth so that you have
sincere love for your brothers, love
one another deeply, from the heart”.
1 Peter 1:22
The Christian family relationship is based upon what God has done. This goes far beyond the popular understanding of the brotherhood of man. Christian brotherhood is something that God has intervened to establish among his own regenerated children. And this has two important consequences.
First, if the family to which we belong has been established by God, then we have no choice as to who will be in it or
whether or not we will be his or her
sister or brother. On the contrary,
the relationship simply exists,
and we must be brotherly to
other Christians, whether we
want to be or not.
The second consequence is related to the first. We must be committed to each other in tangible ways e.g. helping each other. A colleague walked into his bathroom and found one of his children sitting on the floor
with a large pile of unrolled toilet paper beside her.
He asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm unrolling the toilet paper," she said.
"Why are you being naughty?" he asked.
"Because nobody helps me to be good." She replied.
She had identified a very real need. We need help
to be good. And, we must be ready to give help to
other Christians, just as we would to a needy
member of our own immediate family.
I think that we often fail to be as helpful as we could be. We feel unable to bring real needs to Christian brothers or sisters because we fear they might decline to offer us any real help. If we are serious about being a Christian family, here is a place where we can achieve and demonstrate a real bond of unity. Besides, it is an area in which the world, saddled as it is by its own selfishness, will take real notice.
The distinguishing mark of the early
Church was recorded as follows.
“See how they love one another”
A second image used to portray the unity of the church of Christ is the word ‘koinonia’ - ‘fellowship’. Unfortunately, the English word ‘fellowship’ commonly means a loose collection of friends, “We have great fellowship in the golf club”. Actually, the root meaning of ‘fellowship’ has to do with ‘sharing something or having something in common’. In spiritual terms, koinonia describes those who share a common Christian experience of the gospel.
But fellowship is not only defined in terms of
what we share in together. It also involves
what we share out together. This
involves a community where
Christians actually share their
thoughts and lives with one
How is this to be done practically? Some churches have tea after their services and lunches or organise themselves into smaller house groups where smaller numbers can meet to study the Bible, share concerns, and pray together.
John Stott, over the years experimented with many similar groups in his own London parish and writes,
“The value of the small group is that it can become a community of related persons; and in it the benefit of personal relatedness cannot be missed, nor its challenge evaded. . . . I do not
think it is an exaggeration to say,
therefore, that small groups,
Christian family or, fellowship
groups, are indispensable for our
growth into spiritual maturity.”
Once again, this is an area in which Christian unity can become a visible and practical thing, and its unique and desirable qualities can be made known to the world. What does this say about those who do not want to associate with other Christians at this level? Not only are they impoverishing their own lives they are denying others the opportunity to be enriched by theirs.
The third important image used to stress the unity of the church is ‘the body.’ One part of the body simply cannot survive if it is separated from the whole. The image also suggests a diversity of function; for the hand is neither the foot, nor the foot the eye and so on. However, the function of the body, which is unique to this image, is service; for just as the family
emphasizes relationships, and fellowships emphasize
sharing, the body emphasizes work.
The body exists to do something and since we are
talking about unity, we must stress that it exists to
enable us to do this work together. Without some
common concern and service, the fellowship of
any Christian group is paralysed.
What might your area of service be? What will you do? Obviously you cannot change the whole church, but, as one writer puts it, "You can begin in your own life to be an answer to the prayer of Christ. You can become a small focus of change." How?
First, you can become aware of that great family, fellowship, and
body to which you already belong, and you can thank God for it.
Secondly, you can join a small group, where the reality of
Christian unity is most readily seen and experienced.
Thirdly, you can work with that group to show Christian love
and give service. If you are willing to do that, you will find God
to be with you, and you will be overwhelmed at the power
with which he works both in you and in others whom he will
be drawing to faith.
But perhaps you are not yet a part of that family, the family of God. You may have a long religious tradition and yet may never have been born into God's family. It is surprising just how many people fit into this category. If that is the case then run to Jesus and put your faith in him as Saviour.
Ask him to radically alter your life. Seek his
forgiveness which is offered freely on the basis
of the death he died in your place. It is possible
to be a church attender and even a member of
a local church group and yet not to be in Christ.
Are you united to Christ in this way? Make this
a priority and then discover the unity that is
yours with others who are members of the
family of God.