“Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5, NASB).
There is one outstanding lesson we can learn from church history: Satan’s primary strategy involves destroying unity among Christians. He is the author of confusion, insensitivity, false doctrine, and church splits. Turning to the Bible, one soon discovers the power whereby Satan’s strategy can be defeated. It’s the power of “one-mindedness” in the body of Christ.
Christ’s Prayer for Unity
In Christ’s prayer to the Father in John 17, He made direct reference to at least four major elements in the incomparable message of Christianity-salvation (17: 1 b-3); incarnation (17:4-6); sanctification (7:17-19); and glorification (17:24). Central in this beautiful and profound prayer is one major request-that His disciples (and Christians of all time) might experience unity and oneness. “Holy Father,” prayed Jesus, “protect them by the power of Your name-the name You gave Me-so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).
Later, Jesus amplified this request: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Methrough their message, that all of them may be one, Father,just as You 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. I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as We are one; I in them and You in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.”(John 17:20-23).
Jesus Christ’s primary concern for His church stands out boldly in this prayer. It is a visible unity-a oneness-that reveals the very essence of the Christian Gospel. And that essence comprises the fact “that God was reconciling the “world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19).Jesus Christ was indeed God in the flesh. He was (and is) one with the Father.And oneness in Christ’s body in some miraculous andmarvelous way reveals to men who observe that unity that Christ was indeed God. If He had not been God, there could have been no plan of salvation. Christianity would be just another man-made religion.
Earlier I mentioned that Satan’s strategy throughout church history has been to destroy unity in Christ’s body. This makes a lot of sense from Satan’s point of view. If he can destroy unity, he has destroyed the most powerful means of communication to lost men that Jesus Christ was God. When that message is obliterated or even blurred, man is doomed to eternal despair. Man cannot come to know God apart from coming to know Jesus Christ who was the Son of God (John 20:30-3 1).
When Christ was on earth, He worked miracles to convince men He was God. When He went back to heaven, He left His church to communicate that truth. And the ingredient in the church that convinces non-Christians that Jesus was God is unify-being of “the same mind with one another.” This, too, represents a miracle because men everywhere tend toward disunity. History flows with lack of harmony among mankind. Wars have been the norm-the standard for human behavior. And when non-Christians see true unity and true oneness, their hearts cry out to be a part of that kind of love.
It was no accident, of course, that Jesus, when praying that His followers might be one, also made this request: “My prayer is not that You take them out of this world but that You protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Jesus knew in advance that Satan’s tactic would be to destroy unity in the body of Christ. Thus He prayed that God would protect believers from those things that destroy oneness while they fulfilled God’s purpose on earth.
The Jerusalem Church-A Dynamic Example
Immediately following Christ’s return to heaven, the church in Jerusalem emerged as a direct answer to Jesus’ prayer. Their unity was profound. Luke records, “And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46, NASB). And later Luke adds, “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).
This does not mean that there were no problems that Satan did not try to destroy their unity. Luke records that certain widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. This created unhappiness and complaints-in short, lack of unity. But the apostles, facing the problem with wisdom and discretion, appointed qualified men to handle the situation. The problem was soon solved. Once again unity was restored. (See Acts 6:1-4.)
What is more significant than these accounts of unity are the results of that unity. These appear again as a direct answer to Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17. His prayer was that unity might reveal the fact that He had come in the flesh to save all men from their sins. In Acts 2, following Luke’s report of unity in the Jerusalem church, we read that they enjoyed “the favor of all the people”-obviously the non-Christians in Jerusalem. We also read that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Following Luke’s account that “all the believers were one `in heart and mind,” we read: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was with them all” (Acts 4:32-33). Again we see a direct correlation between unity in the body of Christ and the result of that unity in the lives of non-Christians.
It should not surprise us, then, that we see the same pattern in Acts 6, following the restoration of unity that was interrupted by the needy widows. Once they had faced the problem and solved it, “the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7)
Paul’s Primary Concern
We’ve already noticed that Jesus’ concern for unity in the church was also Paul’s concern. Christ’s prayer was also Paul’s prayer: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).
Earlier in his Roman letter Paul had already exhorted: “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). And again: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
Paul gave the same basic exhortation to the Ephesian and Philippian Christians. To the Ephesians, he wrote: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). And to the Philippians, he said: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
We conclude that a functioning church must be a unified church. In fact, unity is a reciprocal dynamic. Unity creates effective body function; effective body function creates more unity. Where there is unity, there will be a dynamic witness for Jesus Christ. “Body visibility” that reflects oneness also reflects the heart of the Christian Gospel-that Jesus Christ is truly the God-Man. He was in God, and God was in Him. He was (and is) one with the Father.
Practical Steps for Developing Unity in Your Church
Realize first that unity is possible. There is, of course, a spiritual unity that binds all believers together within the universal Church. Even those we do not know-and never will know till we are in heaven-are one with us in Christ. But the unity that Jesus and Paul prayed for is a concrete, visible, and practical unity that can exist among believers who are bound together in a particular geographical location. It is day-by-day, gut-level unity. It involves flesh and blood people in relationship with each other. This is what was obvious in Jerusalem.
Unity and oneness is possible, then, in a local church. Though many different personalities are part of any given local family of believers, yet they can be drawn together as one heart and one soul.
This is a great mystery, but it is possible in Jesus Christ. If it was the spiritual dynamic of many of the New Testament churches (and it was, even where slaves and slave owners sat side-by-side as brothers in Christ), then it can also be true of 20th-century churches who also “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
Realize that unity in a local church is not automatic. As Paul exhorted, it takes effort. True, there is positional unity -because we are in Christ. But the practical and visible unity comes when every believer does his part.
Imagine what would have happened to the unity in the Jerusalem church if the apostles had not faced the reality of the neglected widows. No doubt it would have resulted in the first major local church split.
Imagine what would have happened if the leaders in Antioch had not faced the theological problem created by the Judaizers (Acts 15). If they hadn’t solved the problem with the help of the Jerusalem council, it may have resulted in theological confusion and division all over the New Testament world. But because they faced the problem and did something about it, unity was restored.
All of this says that maintaining unity is two-dimensional. First, Christ prayed (and is praying) for us. We have supernatural help available to defeat Satan. Second, we must “make every effort” to see that we do not allow human factors to create irritations to bring about misunderstandings which divide us. Satan delights in using trivia to destroy local churches.
Realize that the key to unity is Christian maturity, reflecting love. This, of course, is what the previous article in this series was all about. And this is best illustrated (in a negative fashion) by the Corinthian church. They were woefully immature and unloving in their attitudes and actions. Consequently, they represent the most carnal, divisive, and disunified church in the whole New Testament world.
Next time (“Accepting One Another”) we will deal with the practical aspects for creating unity. Plan to read it carefully and evaluate your own efforts at creating oneness in Christ’s body.