How Seriously Do We Take Jesus’ Words on the Need for Christian Unity?

How Seriously Do We Take Jesus’ Words on the Need for Christian Unity? January 22, 2014

How seriously do we who are Christians take Jesus’ words recorded in John 17:23? Here we find Jesus praying to the Father on the eve of his crucifixion: “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; ESV) Given the suffering that awaits him in John’s account, we should realize just how important unity among his followers is to Jesus; it occupies his thoughts and prayers during his most troubling hours. In view of the Lord’s concerns, how important is Christian unity to us?

We can hide behind claims that Christians are invisibly united through faith in Jesus Christ even in the midst of visible disunity. I seriously doubt that Jesus had in mind invisible unity that was somehow divorced from visible unity. Invisible unity must be visible; otherwise, it is illusory.

I spoke on the theme of Christian unity at Roman Catholicism’s Mount Angel Seminary during its Christian Unity Week a few years ago. I was moved by the intentionality and passion of my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to pursue Christian unity with a Protestant Evangelical and his community. How intentional and passionate about Christian unity are Protestant Evangelicals like me?

Certainly, there are significant differences that separate Catholics and Protestants, as one leader in the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged just the other day. Cardinal Kurt Koch indicated that “a major difficulty lies in different understandings of [ecumenism’s] goal.” The Cardinal made clear the central difficulty from his vantage point: “The Catholic view, (which) is also the Orthodox view, (is) that we will re-find the unity in faith in the sacraments and in ministries.” On the other hand, Cardinal Koch claimed that “the vision that I find today in the Protestant churches and ecclesial communities (is that) of the mutual recognition of all the ecclesial communities as churches.”

Surely, there are major difficulties, such as those noted by the Cardinal. His emphasis on sacraments and ministries draws attention to the Catholic Church’s conviction on visible ecclesial institutions serving as the basis for Christian identity and unity in contrast to the Protestant emphasis on individual/invisible relationship with Christ by faith as the ground of Christian identity and unity. Nonetheless, it needs to be made clear that neither side wishes to discount concern for holding together invisible and visible unity. Both are vitally important. They are not mutually exclusive.

Having spoken of key differences and dividing points, there is still much that unites all Christians, as Pope Francis emphasized most recently. For one, ecumenism is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity: “Ecumenism is in fact a spiritual process, that is realized in faithful obedience to the Father, in fulfillment of the will of Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” I would go so far as to say that the Father’s missions of the Son and Spirit demonstrate to us the visible and invisible reality of the Christian faith: Jesus is the Word made visible as flesh and the invisible Spirit is the one who personally unites each of us by faith by grace through the Scriptures to Jesus in and through and in relation to the church, which is his body, and inclusive of its sacraments and institutions.

In addition to the Trinitarian faith that we share, Christians of various persuasions also share a deep concern over the increasing secularism in society. As the Pope spoke with a delegation of Lutheran leaders, he said,

…ecumenical relations lately have been undergoing “significant changes, owing above all to the fact that we find ourselves professing our faith in the context of societies and cultures every day more lacking in reference to God and all that recalls the transcendent dimension of life.”

“For this very reason, our witness must concentrate on the center of our faith, on the announcement of the love of God made manifest in Christ his son,” the pope said. “Here we find space to grow in communion and in unity, promoting spiritual ecumenism.”

The form of ecumenism or ecclesial wholeness for which I contend does not make room for an “anything goes” kind of Christian unity that affirms anything and everything, including “easy-believism,” agnosticism, or closet secularism. Rather, it is the kind of rigorous unity for which Jesus called in John 17 and throughout that gospel: it is grounded in the truth of the Trinitarian communion of the Father and Son in the Spirit. Perhaps the lack of such unity based in the reality of the triune God is what gives rise to various forms of easy-believism, agnositicism, and secularism today; after all, Jesus himself said that the world will know that God has sent him and has loved his followers with the same love the Father has for his Son when his followers live in unity. When we don’t live in unity, we act as if God did not send his Son or love us like his Son; so why should the world believe?

By no means do I intend to devalue my Protestant convictions. Rather, I wish to place the highest value on these convictions. I champion the same values that Martin Luther professed in his treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he intended to serve as a bridge for understanding and peace and Christian unity with the Pope at that time. Never should we go around our biblical convictions; but we should not stop short of dialogue either. Christian unity and gospel witness to the whole world is at stake. Therefore, Protestants such as I should move through such biblical convictions in search of unity in the truth and grace and faith in and of Jesus Christ through the Spirit. In my view, the Reformation tradition with its emphasis on sola Scriptura among other “solas” is a reforming movement for the sake of the whole church’s unity and its witness to the entire world. The Reformation teaching is a reforming word, not the last word. The right of finality belongs to the Living Word, Jesus, to whom Christian Scripture points.

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

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