All who dip their toes into the world of ecumenical thought should immediately recognize the relevance of John 17:21 to the project of Christian unity; it is an excerpt from an earnest prayer spoken by the Son of God that directly pertains to, and asserts, the necessity of oneness among the members of His Body. Because Christ prayed that it would be, oneness is indeed necessary. But contemplating the notion of unity betwixt Christians brings along with it some very serious—and sometimes difficult—questions. Please consider these two: “In what manner should we understand the oneness that must describe Christ’s Church?” “Are faithful Christians currently united?” In the words that follow, I shall attempt to bring some clarity to these questions and others; but before I do, it is imperative that we take a brief look at the Biblical passage mentioned above. Petitioning to the Father, our Lord prayed:
“May they 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 sent me.”
The sincerity of this prayer is undeniable, and the subjects which this segment concerns are all those who may believe in Jesus following the work of His original disciples (namely, the Church). For these reasons, a united Church is something that should be desired by all those who have faith in our Lord. It is a God-honoring endeavor to hope that, as the Body, we “may be one” just as the Father and the Son are.
Considering the importance of this request being a reality, one crucial question must be reiterated: Is the Church, at present, united? I believe that we can answer this inquiry in a couple of different, yet complementary, ways:
Is the Church United?
- Affirmative: True Christians are indeed presently united by the Holy Spirit as a result of the faith that they have in Jesus and in His saving work. This perhaps otherwise unconnected body of believers is sometimes referred to as the “invisible church.” The invisible church consists of all who have been authentically saved—no matter which denomination or Christian tradition they stem from. For those who truly believe, they have been united to Christ and He is their head (only God knows all of whom this church is comprised of). In this spiritual sense, it is impossible for the body of Christ to be anything other than united.
- No Way: In contrast to the entirely united invisible church, there is also the notion of the “visible church.” I would define this concept in the following manner: The visible church is composed of all those Christian bodies and particular churches (i.e., different denominations, individual local churches, etc.) that profess belief in Christ, proclaim the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture, and uphold the fundamental tenants of the historic Christian faith (think Apostle’s Creed or Vincentian Canon). These visible bodies of professing Christians, as we all know, are not unified.
How are the invisible and visible churches different? While there is—ideally—a major overlap, not everyone in the Christian community is a true believer; not everyone who attends a church service, outwardly acts as saved, and/or professes to have authentic faith has truly received the gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8). Many who are a part of the visible church do not have membership in the invisible.
Are there any denominations that should not be described as being a part of either the visible or invisible church? I would characterize those self-proclaimed “churches” that concede to the world and make their faith subservient to the values of contemporary culture as not true churches.
The Ways in Which the Church Maintains Division
There are several ways in which the outward manifestation of Christ’s Church evades oneness. Here are three:
- It does not have institutional unity; the visible church does not possess a single governing structure or system of authority.
- It lacks full communion. Many Christian churches have barred outsiders (those from other denominations) from receiving the Lord’s Supper with their members because of doctrinal differences.
- It, in some instances, refuses to recognize the Christianity of all its members. As a result of opposing convictions, some believers from one Christian tradition cannot see the authenticity of the other’s faith, or that it is even possible for the other to believe because of their denomination’s incorrect teaching. Although less prevalent, this form of disunity still persists; it usually (but not always) results from a lack of understanding.
Why Visible Unity is Imperative
I have heard it suggested that the project of fostering greater Christian unity in the visible church is an unnecessary detour to the Church’s task of carrying out the Great Commission, yet Scripture indicates otherwise.
In John 17:21, Our Lord prayed for His followers to be one “so that the world may believe.” Consequently, It seems imperative for Christians to be visibly united (at least in some manner) so that the world would recognize the momentous work of Jesus in them—so that unbelievers might believe that the Father sent His Son into the world to save their souls. Indeed, a lack of unity in the Body, especially if there is hate among its members, only impairs the Christian witness to the world. It is therefore crucial that we love our Christian brethren and seek oneness wherever and whenever possible (Yet we must never gloss over our differences!). If we do this, unbelievers shall surely gaze upon Christ’s Church in amazement; they will see a supernatural love that only the Son of God can generate.