The Unity for Which Christ Prayed

What would I pray for if I were about to die?

I have thought about that. My mind immediately goes to my family and loved ones and to God’s flock, as well as my own relationship to God. At times like that we pray about what is vitally important. Before his death, Jesus prayed for his followers as well as for us who would later believe. Basically he prayed that they would be kept from the evil one, that they would be holy, and that they would be one – John 17:11,20,21. Everything depended on these men. Jesus’ death was very near. He had given up his place in heaven in order to save the world. He had worked hard during his ministry. He would soon give his life on the cross. Jesus knew any house or kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. He wanted the saving gospel to succeed in the world. Jesus did not want his work and his death to be in vain.

What if Jesus’ apostles had not respected this prayer?

What if the apostles had been as ready to divide as we often are today? What if each apostle had started his own separate church and rejected all the others? Would people have believed the gospel preached by the apostles? Would we be hearing the gospel today? We may know the scriptures, we may baptize many people and plant many churches, but without unity our work will largely come to nothing. In our fallen, fleshly nature we find it easy to divide. Only by the Spirit can we keep unity. God wants the church to be united and strong and to reach the lost for Christ

Our divisions undermine the gospel.

Jesus prayed that we might be one “so that the world may believe.” We must demonstrate the love and peace that we preach. Unbelievers are repelled by the fighting and competition in the church. How many more would have been saved if Christians had not divided? How different would our world be? How does Jesus feel when he sees us divide? How does he feel when he sees us remain one?

No peace – no light.

Paul wanted the Philippians to live in peace and unity so they could shine as lights in a dark world – Philippians 2:14-16. If the Philippians did not keep unity, said Paul, his work in the gospel would be in vain. No wonder Christians are commanded in the Bible to keep unity – 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:1-6. This is an issue of obedience. Unity is a decision we make. It is something we choose. The more we care about lost souls and the success of Christ’s kingdom, the more we will care about unity.

Biblical unity does not mean that we have exactly the same opinion about everything in scripture, nor that we all have the same traditions in our worship. It means we are united in our core beliefs and purposes and in love for each other and for the lost. It means the welfare of the church and the reaching of souls are more important to us than our own preferences and comfort.

Unity is not optional; it is a fundamental doctrine

The unity of the body of Christ is one of the seven fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – Ephesians 4:4-6. When we divide unnecessarily, we ignore a fundamental doctrine, we disobey the commands of Christ and the apostles, we disregard the prayer of Jesus, we care little for the lost, and we heap up judgment against ourselves.

Our divisions hurt and offend God.

God loves his church and hates and judges those who cause division – Proverbs 6:16-19; Titus 3:10,11; Romans 16:17,18. I do not like it when someone attacks and hurts my body. I am angry when someone confuses my own family and causes trouble. Division tears and wounds the body of Christ. It confuses and divides the family of God. Division causes lost people to stumble and keeps them from believing in Christ. Through division many Christians become hurt or embittered in their hearts and stop following Jesus. God loves the lost. God loves his family. Therefore the judgment of God is strong against those who cause division. Listen to some of the judgments of God against division:

Jesus warned us not to do things which cause people to sin and turn away from Christ:

If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. – Matthew 18:6-9 NIV

Paul wrote about people who destroyed the church, the temple of God, by divisions:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. – 1 Corinthians 3:16,17 NIV

If we love each other, all people know we are Christ’s disciples. If we fight and divide just like unregenerate pagans, we deny the gospel of love we preach. Nothing destroys the work of the gospel more than our divisions.

Who will be accountable at the judgment for the souls who missed Christ because of our divisions? Why do we emphasize other doctrines so much more than we do the doctrine of unity?

The Biblical Doctrine of Unity

The whole Bible teaches peace and unity. God made man and woman and said they should become one (Genesis 2). And Jesus said, “What God has joined, let not man separate” – Matthew 19. Abraham said to Lot, “Let there be no quarreling between you and me, for we are brothers” – Genesis 13. When Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to divide Israel by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, God caused the earth to open and swallow up the rebels. David wrote, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” – Psalm 133 (all quotes NIV). Unity of the body of Christ is a fundamental New Testament doctrine. We need to listen to it. If we believe and teach other New Testament doctrines, we need to also believe and teach the vital doctrine of unity.

Two Foundations of Unity

In the New Testament, unity has two foundations, a spiritual foundation and a doctrinal foundation.

Ephesians 4:1-3 gives the spiritual foundation of unity:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (NIV)

Unity is of the Spirit. Christlike humility makes unity possible. Our proud, sinful fleshly nature loves division. Read the list of the “acts of the sinful nature” in Galatians 5:19-21. Notice that hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy are classed together with adultery, drunkenness, adultery and witchcraft. Half of the sins listed there are present in almost every church division, every divorce. But read the list of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22,23. Unity is easy when people are like that.

Without the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which conquers the old nature and changes us to be like Christ, we cannot keep unity. We give scripture as the reason for dividing, but often the root cause is pride and a struggle for power. Even if we agree on all doctrinal matters, our selfish pride will still find a way to divide if we are walking in the flesh.

The forefathers of the Restoration Movement tried to unite all believers around scripture. They showed us clearly how to unite around fundamental Biblical doctrines while allowing freedom of opinion. But they did not teach very much about the spiritual causes of division. We must.

In Ephesians 4:4-6 Paul gives us the doctrinal basis for unity. He names seven fundamental doctrines that we must all believe in order to be one.

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. (NIV)

Compare 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 where Paul lists the matters of most importance in the gospel:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. (NIV)

These are bedrock truths that make us who we are. Take away even one of them and we cannot be the church of the Lord. We must all accept them in order to be one and accept each other. We are not free to unite with anyone who denies even one of these truths. We cannot give up even one of these truths in order to keep unity.

The scriptures also teach that we cannot remain one with Christians who commit serious types of sin and do not repent – 1 Corinthians 5; Matthew 18:15-20. And it is wrong to remain one with a person who causes unjustified division – Romans 16:17,18; Titus 3:10,11. The Bible treats division as seriously as it does adultery.

In most of our divisions, grace is the real issue.

Either we are saved by our complete correctness, or we are saved by undeserved grace – Galatians 5:4. We cannot have it both ways. Unity is based on grace. We are one with God only because of his forgiving grace. We are one with him not because we are perfect but because our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. In the same way, we are one with each other through grace and forgiveness.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. – Romans 15:7 NIV

God accepted us as imperfect people, and so must we accept each other as imperfect people.

As I have loved you, so you must love one another. – John 13:34 NIV

Christ loved us as imperfect people and so we must love one another. Unity cannot function without grace. God has given us some rules and we must honor them. But Christianity is not about rules. It is about a loving, trusting relationship with God. The greatest difference between Christianity and all other religions is grace. God will judge us without mercy if we have no mercy in our relationships with others – James 2:13

Some judgments must be left up to God.

We have seen that there are some fundamental doctrines which we must all believe or else we cannot be one. We must be religiously separate from anyone who rejects those fundamental doctrines. But the Bible also recognizes that there are many smaller, “disputable” matters on which honest, faithful Christians with imperfect understanding can differ and still be one with God and with each other – Romans 14. This is an important part of the Bible’s doctrine about unity. What kind of issues are not salvation issues or grounds for division?

1) Jesus says some commandments are more important than others – Matthew 23:23; 22:35-40; 5:19. We should be careful about all the commandments but some are more serious and more basic than others to our identity as God’s children. This is in no way intended to encourage disobedience. Any size commandment can become a salvation issue if our disobedience is deliberate and defiant. Yet we do not put people out of the church over smoking like we would over adultery or murder.

2) Some teachings are clear in scripture but others are difficult to understand – 2 Peter 3:16. The teachings that affect our salvation are very clear. Matters that are difficult to interpret or understand, matters that depend much on our fallible human reasoning, cannot be salvation issues or reasons for division. Thomas Campbell in his Declaration and Address said inferences drawn from scripture must never be made terms of fellowship.

3) Some commands in scripture are at the center of what it means to be a Christian and a child of God. Other commands are concerned with much smaller and more peripheral matters. Teachings about love and faith and honesty are much more central than arguments about procedure in worship. Being sincerely mistaken about the length of a woman’s hair is not as dangerous as disbelieving the resurrection. The Pharisees were mostly concerned about outward rituals and ceremonial cleanness but had neglected the more important and more inward matters of the law. Jesus pointed them to the scripture, “I desire mercy [steadfast, relational love], not sacrifice [ritual]” – Matthew 12:1-7; 9:10-13 NIV.

God knows that because we are humanly weak, and because we are not all mature in faith, we cannot see all things clearly in his word. He gives us grace in those matters and he commands us to do the same for each other – Romans 14:1-15:7. This includes questions about what we believe and practice in the church. When we get to heaven we will all discover that we were wrong in some of the smaller things we believed. No one understands or obeys all scriptures perfectly. We are saved by grace. If God by grace accepts me in spite of my errors, he can also accept my brother/sister even though his/her errors may be different ones than mine.

Many of the things we fight and divide over in the church are not salvation issues. But unity is a salvation issue. It is a fundamental doctrine. Division is deadly. Yet there are some Bible truths about unity that many in the church do not understand, and ignorance of these truths has perpetuated division. Examples:

1) We are not even to welcome a weak, overly restricted brother if he comes to fight about lesser, disputable matters – Romans 14:1.

2) Christians on both sides of disputable matters can be saved even though at least one of them is wrong. This means that matters where there is real room for honest brethren to differ cannot be salvation issues.

3) The fact that a brother differs with me on an interpretation does not mean he fears God any less or is trying any less to obey him.

4) Paul’s Romans 14 command to tolerance includes more than issues of personal lifestyle. Belief about holy days affected church meetings and worship activities. In the congregation at Rome, if they obeyed Paul, there was much more diversity in interpretation and practice than most churches today would allow.

5) The brother with a more restricted conscience who judges his brother for doing “wrong things” is causing division just as much as the brother who does things which offend his restricted brother. In the past we have almost always put the responsibility for division entirely on the person who began doing some new thing. That is wrong. Romans 14 does not teach that. He who judges and rejects his brother over a disputable matter is just as guilty of causing unscriptural division.

When we understand Romans 14,15, we can and must remain one even though we disagree with each other about disputable matters. From this scripture we see can see clearly that

1) God commands us to keep on working together because of the fundamental things we do agree on, and to leave the smaller disputable matters for God to judge.

2) I can work together with others in the church even though I may not agree with them on some smaller things they do and believe. God does not hold me accountable for everything my brothers and sisters do, or that my church does. He does hold me accountable for undermining the gospel and destroying God’s temple by division.

3) A matter may be disputable in the Biblical sense even though I have strong convictions on it. To the extent that fallible human interpretation is involved, there is a possibility that I may be wrong in my belief. On disputable matters Paul says I am to keep my faith between myself and God and refrain from judging God’s other servants.

Our forefathers in the Restoration Movement summed up the New Testament doctrine of unity in the slogan, “In faith, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.” This is solidly Biblical. Yet the conservative heirs of that movement have seldom ever been able or willing to treat disputable matters as such.

Though some separations are necessary because they are about fundamental doctrines, many divisions happen because we do not understand the Bible’s teaching about grace. Grace and truth are not in opposition to each other. They are both used to describe the character of Jesus – John 1:14. Jesus combined the greatest mercy and patience with the greatest concern for truth.

Paul says to Christians, “You are not under law but under grace” – Romans 6:14 NIV. Paul’s readers (like many today) thought grace meant a license to do whatever we want. But Paul firmly rejected that. We do not have to be afraid of how grace will affect obedience of the truth. Grace always produces more overall obedience than legalism with its narrow focus on a few selected external rules. Grace changes our hearts and makes us want to please God.

Gracious acceptance of those we differ with on disputable matters does not mean we are endorsing what we see as their error. It does not mean giving up a single Biblical conviction. We are to be very careful to follow our consciences in our own behavior and to teach others what we believe scripture is saying. But if they don’t see our reasoning on a disputable matter, the Bible says we must still love and work with them. Romans 14 says some judgments must be left up to God. Keeping unity with those of different opinions is itself a command, a conviction, a part of New Testament doctrine. The Bible clearly teaches that the members, even the elders of a congregation can and must work together without having to agree on every controversial matter. A church can grow beyond 100 members without dividing. But to do so, we have to be better at recognizing disputable matters than we have been. It will help us if we remember the heart of Jesus as he prayed passionately for unity so that the lost would believe in him.

—B. Shelburne, originally published in the Servant newsletter of South Houston Bible Institute and now available under Bible Lessons at