Why Isn't There Unity Among Christians?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips July 8, 2001

Tonight’s Question Box deals with the subject of Christian unity, or rather the lack thereof. The question is “Why can’t we have unity in the Church? Why is it so hard to get things done? Why are there so many differences that separate us from each other?”

That accurately describes our experience in the church, and the first reason for it is sin. We don’t have unity because we have sin working in our midst, and sin divides rather than unites. James wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight” (4:1-2). Another reason for disunity is our finite natures. It is inevitable that some will have this interest, others will have that, different people will have different perspectives. We tend to organize relationships along these lines, and if you then add sin into the mix we often have a nice little disunity on our hands.

There are three main approaches to this matter that I find. The first is to de-emphasize anything that causes professing Christians to be unable to get along. Normally, this has to do with doctrine. Thus, the pulse of the modern ecumenical movement is to minimize truth claims so that more people can call themselves Christians, can join our group, and that we will not fight about doctrines. Let’s leave our differences behind, we say, but often there is little left.

I went to the World Council of Churches web site and could not find a statement of faith. The National Association of Evangelicals, which you would think is more stringent, has seven items on its statement of faith, all of which I agreed with. Not long ago I read an article on what makes one evangelical, and there were only three distinctives: personal regeneration, personal evangelism, and biblical authority (although no particular view was needed about biblical content).
My point is not to critique the lists, but to note how short they are, how minimal Christian truth has become in the interest of Christian unity. Usually, people argue that this is what Jesus would want, because he talked so much about love. The fact is, however, that Jesus was constantly engaged in some controversy over truth, often in heated terms – both with his enemies and with his friends. Jesus seems to have had a very high view of truth!

Under the influence of minimalist creeds, many Christians have jettisoned our rich heritage of robust truth, which is the very thing our world so greatly needs. Minimalist Christianity quickly becomes irrelevant Christianity, ultimately resembling little more than a lifestyle preference. People say, “We should never divide over truth.” I would reply that truth is the one thing we should divide over, for without truth we perish. No amount of party spirit will help us if we lose our emphasis on truth, and as unpleasant as disunity may be it pales compared to the loss of truth. When Paul warned Timothy about days when Christians would be divided, he did not call for minimal truth to bring people together, but rather commanded him, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), and charged him to defend the pattern of sound doctrine (1:13-14).

The second approach to Christian unity has to do with formal, organizational consolidation. This is what we mean when we complain about so many denominations. It is embarrassing, people say, that we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Church of God, Assemblies of God and so on, instead of just one Christian church. Let me say that such longing reads church history very poorly. The church has always fared worst when she was most centrally organized in a formal sense. That is when we start thinking about Christendom more than Christ.

The more I go along, the less alarmed I am about denominationalism. It may seem foolish for Christians who agree on almost everything except, for instance, the issue of baptism, not to formally join together. But if we do, what inevitably happens is that we will spend all our time arguing about baptism. Denominations help us to work together with those with whom we share a great body of truth, while helping us also to get along with other Christians with whom we have honest differences. We don’t have to spend our time fighting over which faction will be in charge, who will be moderator, but can cooperate informally with a wide range of Christians while formally organizing with those with whom we have close and extensive agreement.

That means that there are things we will be unable to do in our present situation. We have to be careful about letting other ministers preach from our pulpit, because it easily leads to controversy that hinders the Gospel work. We may decline to let others to use our sanctuary for a meeting or perhaps even a wedding, because our convictions may be compromised by a brother in Christ. This is not disunity, but respect for each other and for the importance of truth.

That leads to the third approach to Christian unity, and that is to argue that Christians are not, in fact, divided. This is my own conviction. We may not be able to all share money and buildings and ministries and pulpits. But we share union with Christ himself and from him we have unity in the Holy Spirit. This, in fact, is a conviction we express every Sunday morning in this church, in the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we say. We mean not the Roman Catholic Church but the universal church, which is what the word catholic means. (By the way, this constitutes my answer to the question I received about why we say that in the creed). There is only one church of Jesus Christ in this world, although there are many denominations. We are bound together spiritually and by love. Jesus prayed in John 17:22-23 that God would make us one, and he has made us one in Christ. We do not have to create unity among Christians but simply to love one another. Jesus did not say, “By this they will know you are my disciples, because you share buildings, and money, and work off the same strategic plan and vision statement.” He said it would be because we love one another. It is my experience that once we stop striving for unity at the sake of truth, stop seeking organizational consolidation, and start respecting reasonable boundaries based on convictions, it becomes easier to actually have unity in love and charity for those who call on the name of Jesus Christ, what Paul calls “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). 

But, people complain, this makes it harder to get things done. Like what? I respond. Does that make it harder to preach the Gospel? I think it makes it easier. Does that make it harder to worship God and to seek after Christ-likeness? I think it is easier to do this when we are not focusing all our energies on issues of organizational unity. So much of the drive for unity in the church is based on the view that we will triumph when we can organize the largest block for action or votes or money. But this is not how the Church serves Jesus Christ and wins its battles, but by the proclamation of a crucified Savior as we trust wholly in the Lord. “My power,” he says, “is made perfect in weakness,” and his is the only power we really need.

I look forward to the day when the unity we have now will come into perfect maturity in the new heavens and new earth, when all the barriers to love and worship together will be removed. Ultimately, this is why it is so hard for us to experience the fullness of our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, because Jesus has not yet returned to make all things new and to make us truly what we are truly meant to be. But until that day comes, and in our longing for his coming, all of us Christians have a unity of faith and hope and joy.

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