The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, my faith tradition in Christianity, has since its inception held Christian unity and the restoration of New Testament Christianity as its chief goals. When first I counted myself a part of this movement, I saw this in stark terms. Restoration meant a very conservative form of evangelical Protestantism (though at the time I wouldn’t have put it that way) and Christian unity was the abandonment of denominations by followers of Christ in favor of an “undenominational” movement of people and congregations. While I still hold to both ideals, I now see them in very different terms than earlier in my journey with Christ. Right now I’d like to take another look at the concept of Christian unity.
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21 NRSV).
The passage above is often cited by groups working for Christian unity (such as POEM), and is even incorporated into the official symbol of the United Church of Christ. The use of this verse by mainline ecumenical groups has long seemed humorous to me, and now as I read the relevant passages with new eyes I have even greater difficulty in seeing corporate, denominational unity in the prayer of Jesus.
The problem, as I see it, is that we’ve been reading this passage wrong. When it is brought up, people say that the unity of believers, whether in a congregation or across denominations, will convince non-believers that we are the “real thing.” Now, I’m certain that Jesus did not have our modern denominational situation in mind, and I’m further convinced that He was not contemplating a sort of “showcase” Christianity that would persuade a fractured world to find faith through a harmonious worldwide church. Jesus had a missional body of followers in mind, a group to take His good news to all the world.
Jesus was as practical as He was visionary. The purpose of unity is the fulfillment of God’s mission. Where Israel failed to be light to the nations, first by indulging in the sins and idolatry of the nations, and then by becoming obsessed with legalistic purity after the partial return from captivity, Jesus and then His disciples would succeed. Unity’s purpose was not primarily to show the world what unity looks like, but rather to accomplish the work of God on earth.
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18 NRSV).
Did you catch that? The Father sent the Son, and the Son sent His disciples, the reborn children of God. The mission finds its origin in the heart of God, is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and is carried to the world by those set apart by the life-destroying/life giving message.
The purpose of unity is to be able to function, to work well together to complete the holy task set before us.