I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. John 17:21

 Having served as a pastor for more than twenty years in three different congregations in the United States and having been privileged to work with pastors around the world, I have a great love for the church. Yet in my work I’ve also seen and experienced much that concerns me. The night before He went to the cross, Jesus prayed for the unity of His people—His church—“that they will all be one” (John 17:21).

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were some two thousand Christian denominations, but today there are tens of thousands of denominations worldwide. Clearly, as author and social critic Os Guinness wrote, differences make a difference”—and some of the differences that tend to divide us are of great importance. Many of the differences between denominations are significant, and I’m not suggesting that the existence of different denominations is necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, this high degree of division isn’t the ideal. Instead, what we’re called to rally around as our point of commonality is described by Paul, who wrote:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

Notice that Paul says that this is “most important.” The gospel becomes the common ground upon which we can stand together. How exactly? First, because it unites us in the work of the Savior who bought us with His own blood, and second, because that good news gives us a mission to unite around. This unity, I think, occurs on two levels—at the local church level and at the global body of Christ level. Our focus will be on the local church.

Within any local church family there will always be differing opinions about concerns facing the people there, so church leaders and all believers must be prepared to work through the resulting disagreements.

Pastor Arthur Jackson wisely reflects on the challenges we face: The journey to realize and live the oneness we have in Adam (as humans) and in Christ (as believers) is fraught with dangers, toils, and snares. This is especially true given the social and political realities we currently face. While we needn’t be paranoid, we do need to be self-aware and careful so that biblical correctness will win over social or political allegiances. My prayer is that the body of Christ would genuinely lead the way in showing what common decency looks like and what it means to truly follow Jesus in treating all people fairly and respectfully.

It can be overwhelming to conceive how this might happen on the level of the fragmented global body of Christ. But we can begin in our local churches and the communities that we serve. How? By loving one another as the truest of neighbors (Luke 10:27) with the love of Jesus and the respect deserved by an image bearer of God. The Scriptures don’t ask us to sacrifice important doctrinal distinctives or to ignore or condone sin. Those same Scriptures, however, do urge us to “keep [ourselves] united in the Spirit, binding [ourselves] together with peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Notice that it’s the Spirit’s unity that’s in view here. As believers in Jesus, we’re not called to create unity but to maintain (keep) it—or, at the very least, not to disrupt it. And as we await the time when we’ll be with Christ, we’ll need to humbly work through many issues for which we don’t have perfect understanding. Our thinking is to be guided by the wisdom of the Bible and the Spirit of God who dwells within us, His children, so that our church communities on earth now reflect the unity that will one day be complete when we share this oneness of God with His people forever together in unbroken harmony.

As John Fawcett’s timeless hymn put it:

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

As we endeavor diligently to maintain the unity found in the Spirit, may that like-mindedness be our goal. I’m confident that Christ’s presence and guidance can lead us to experience a deep love and purpose as He helps us engage our conflicts and differences with His unifying wisdom and grace.

                                                                                                                               – BILL CROWDER

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