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Christian unity in light of the Cross
[Jesus prayed]: "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may 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 have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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 17:20-23 -ESV)
From this passage, we can see Jesus interceding before God the Father for His people who will be given to Him out of this world. Jesus prayed for unity among His chosen ones so that the world may know that Jesus has been sent of God and that Jesus loved His people even as God the Father loved Jesus.
This passage has been interpreted by many people to emphasize the need for Christian unity, even to the extant of ecumenical gestures with Rome, liberal churches or Orthodox churches, in order to present a united front of Christianity to the world. However, is that what Jesus meant when he prayed that prayer?
To answer this, we would look at how the Apostles treat divisions in the church and later on look at the entirety of Jesus' High Priestly prayer.
In 1 Cor. 1:10-13, we can see how Paul tackle one such case of division in the church.
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:10-13 -ESV)
Here, Paul tackles the division in the church of Corinth by reminding them that all of them follow Christ. In such a scenario, Paul views the division as a sign of immaturity on the part of believers.
In Gal. 1:8-9, 3: 1 and 5:12, Paul, however, seems to act differently towards the church of Galatia. He reprimanded them severely and even proclaimed condemnation on a sizable minority in the church which were proclaiming the circumcision heresy, to the point of challenging these Judaizers to castrate themselves. Paul similarly pronounced excommunication on a adulterer in the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Here, Paul doesn't seem very interested in the unity of the church, or is he?
A look at the verses in context will tell us that Paul was for unity of the church in the sense that we should not quibble over such unimportant things like who we follow as occurred in the church of Corinth. However, the Bible contends that we should separate from and disassociate from those who bring in destructive heresies into the church, or who commit great sins like adultery, until they repent (2 Cor. 2:5-10). This is the consistent stand of all the apostles in the Bible, with John telling us that we should not receive a false teacher into our house or greet him (2 John 1:10), and others warning about false teachers who will get into the church to destroy the flock (Jude 1:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1)
From what we have seen so far, the Apostles were for unity only when the Truth was not compromised. From the passages cited so far, we can already see that true Christian unity must be based on truth.
In Jesus's High Priestly prayer, we have seen Jesus praying for unity of true Christians so that they can together bear witness for Him.What many of these ecumenical folks seem to forget are the preceding verses in the Lord's High Priestly prayer.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17: 14-19 -ESV)
As we can see, Jesus before praying for the unity of Christians prayed that they would be sanctified in the truth, as revealed in the Word. Thus, our unity is to be based on the truth of God and therefore all ecumenical movements are therefore wrong.
Unity to be worked for?
Another misunderstanding that people have is that we need to help Jesus fulfil His prayer. These well-intentioned people look at the state of churches in the world today with its many denominations and thus could not see unity in the body of Christ. From this observation, they could not see how Jesus' prayer has been answered and thus assumed that it hasn't been answered and fulfilled. However, there is no biblical proof for this. On the contrary, Jesus' prayers were said to be heard by God (Heb. 5:7). It would thus appear as if the unity which Jesus prayed for has been heard and answered by God, or has it?
To come out with a solution, we must note that our unity is to be based on truth and that God's Word is authoritative, not our experiences. Therefore, if experiences go against what Scripture says, then our experiences are to be re-intepreted in light of Scripture. In this case, similarly, we must affirm that what Scripture says about God hearing Jesus' prayer is correct and therefore, Jesus' prayer for unity in believers have been answered; Christian unity has been achieved. Therefore, how do we go about evaluating our experiences? This is where we go on to the second premise, where our unity is to be based on Truth. Thus, although unity is already there, it is to be found in Truth as seen in Scripture and personified in our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason for the existence of many denominations is to be found, therefore, in ourselves, where some people do not submit themselves to the Word of God due to their Traditions and thus cause division in the Body of Christ. This is of course not taking into account of the many false prophets and pseudo-Christian cults who intentionally set about destroying the name of Christ and Christianity by appropriating the respective names for themselves (the anti-christs). However, after taking into account all these factors, there still seem to be differences in opinions, e.g. between Baptists and Presbyterians. However, when it comes to such minor differences, it could be found that there is unity between these denominations which could be seen in, for example England during the 18th and early 19th century.
Therefore, unity is not something we work towards achieving, as Christ has achieved. it for us already. Rather, Christian unity is something we attain by working towards Christ. The problem with the former view is that it could lead to compromise like what the ecumenicalists are doing so as to achieve unity, whereas the latter, biblical view encourages us to work on our relationship with Christ, and unity would naturally occur among brothers and sisters in Christ. By taking our focus off unity and placing them on Christ where is ought to belong, the risk of compromise grows dim.
[Correspondence with a dear brother in the faith regarding unity]
[Link article: True unity in the Body of Christ