I used to think that Jesus’ prayer that all believers would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17) is answered solely in terms of the Holy Spirit who is given to all believers so that they have a common life or reality by the Spirit in and through Christ. While that is true, I believe Jesus would have meant more, a unity which overcomes differences. But I know, given all that has transpired since, that there is sadly much to overcome.
There are significant differences in how matters of salvation are understood between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There are even some striking dfferences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Add to that the differences within churches that came out of the Protestant Reformation, and the thought of unity on some tangible, physical level beyond that of what true believers have in the unity of the Spirit would seem hopeless naive to many, to be sure. Certainly daunting to anyone to the point of humanly impossible.
Jesus’ prayer was to the Father, asking that the Father would make all who believed in him one. So that the world might believe that the Father had sent him. That seems to suggest to me that the spiritual unity needs to be ecclesiastical as well. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
What do we do with differences in our understanding of practices like baptism or the Lord’s Table? This passage doesn’t spell that out. And frankly I’m not so sure what we sometimes have made basically clearcut is all that clear at all. Take for example infant versus believer’s baptism. Or the mode of water baptism, whether immersion, pouring, sprinkling. I have my views on that, but I would think that instead of God wanting us to get all of the details right, he wants us to be faithful in the main, so that the church is attempting to be obedient across the board, and accept what differences there are in various churches. Churches are often quite accommodating nowadays. The Evangelical Covenant Church is a good example of this. They require pastors to know what they believe on water baptism and why- from scripture, but they also require pastors to be willing to dedicate or baptize infants, deferring in the former to believer’s baptism later in accordance with the parents’ wishes. I think that’s a good practice, one that is seeking to be faithful to God’s revealed will, but is helping believers remain united even with differences in those areas.
Even in Paul’s day there were serious divisions, indeed there seems to have been a propensity for such. Take for example the Corinthian church which was divided over what leader they followed (1 Corinthians 3). We can see from that letter and the rest of the New Testament that such division is a sign of spiritual immaturity; after all, this was a young church. Of course some differences might well be justified, at least in the early church. There was the part of the church which was still very Jewish in its orientation and that which was not. The point in the latter for this post might be that such churches do not have to, or maybe even shouldn’t (particularly in a missional, cultural context) give up their differences. But they should be essentially united in the one Lord, in the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus. There needs to be a priority toward unity, but as was said yesterday, a unity that accepts differences.
It is surely impossible to think that all believers will end up united under one church. There will always be some who want to splinter off for this and that reason and start another church. What might be desirable is to work toward the goal of one church in which the truth can be expressed in a way that people of different persuasions can live with. Perhaps such a gift could help break down things which don’t matter while holding on to things that do.
One matter which so divides us, but in the end might help unite us is the practice of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table, Holy Communion. I think we need to take scripture and tradition together to help us toward the unity Jesus is praying for, the early church fathers (and mothers) and what they say as well as how the church understood these matters should have considerable weight. It makes no sense to say all those who have faith (and are baptized) are one in Jesus, and yet withhold Holy Communion and the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and the cup, from those who differ in their understanding of this. If they share in the one Lord, and the one Spirit. This is where, again, we need to work on how to express the truth so as to be true to scripture which includes living out the unity that is ours in Christ.
In the end, as Jesus’ prayer suggests, while we want to be faithful and do the part God has called us to do, it is God himself who will have to bring this unity about. In the meantime, we can keep praying toward that unity, and that by God’s grace that the world might begin to catch a glimpse through us of the reality that is in Jesus.