What do the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and modern-day Evangelicalism have in common? All three groups (and leaders of these groups) stress the need for outward, visible unity of all who “love Jesus” or claim to “Call Jesus ‘Lord’.” And, all three groups cite Jesus’ prayer in John 17 (“That they all may be one”) to support their plea for visible unity among all who profess to “Name the Name of Christ.” Of course, millions of people within these three groups do not agree on how one becomes a child of God; how true or authoritative God’s Word is; how to interpret the Scriptures; or even how to live the Christian life in a way that glorifies the Lord. Does God give us instruction and insight on what “spiritual unity” actually entails? We believe it does. Let us consider just three biblical, doctrinal principles for true Christian unity from Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
First, the form or type of unity of which the Bible speaks, particularly in John 17, is spiritual, not visible or organizational. This unity involves fellowship (“that which is shared in common”) based, first of all, upon the reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of the believer who possesses a relationship with God. Jesus did not ask His Father to bless and author a unity among believers and unbelievers, or even among believers who disagree on doctrinal truth. On the contrary, in John 17:20-23, the unity for which Jesus prayed entailed a spiritual and invisible unity brought about by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit—something believers cannot see, yet something that gives them power and ability to influence the lives of others. In John 17:21-23, Jesus used the relationship between Himself and God the Father as an analogy to describe the type or form of unity for which He prayed for those who believe in Him. Just as the Father is in Christ (vv. 21, 23) and Christ is in the Father (vv. 21, 23), those who believe in Jesus Christ will be in Them (vv. 21, 23). In other words, just as the Father and the Son are both one but distinct in identity, all believers are one body (the “church”; the “body of Christ”) despite their distinct identity as individuals. This unity is spiritual, not physical or organizational. This unity for which Jesus prayed came to pass initially on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended and indwelt all believers, and it continues to come to pass whenever any person believes in Jesus Christ and is added to the body of Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12:12-13 says, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” Romans 12:5 adds, “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” This is the unity (spiritual, invisible) for which Jesus prayed!
Second, the basis for organizational or ministerial unity among those who truly believe in Jesus Christ is agreement on doctrinal truth—the Word of God. For religious leaders today to establish the criteria for unity as 1.) those who say they love Jesus and 2.) those who say they have been born of the Spirit is to establish a criteria that is foreign to Scripture. Millions of unbelievers, and millions of believers who embrace false doctrine claim to love Jesus and claim to be born of the Spirit and, therefore, may participate in the man-made unity for which many seek today. But the basis for true organizational and ministerial unity among believers is doctrinal truth as found in God’s Word—it begins with the Gospel message itself and extends to the Biblical teaching concerning how to live the Christian life in a way that glorifies God day by day. In the early church, the Word heralded forth by the apostles served as the basis for unity (Jn. 17:20). Unity among believers begins with the Word of God and is based on a unified message. Correct doctrine is the ultimate basis for Christian unity. Charles Spurgeon well stated the following concerning true unity:
“To remain divided is sinful! Did not our Lord pray, “that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn. 17:22)? A chorus of ecumenical voices keep harping the unity tune. What they are saying is, “Christians of all doctrinal shades and beliefs must come together in one visible organization, regardless … Unite, unite!” Such teaching is false, reckless and dangerous. Truth alone must determine our alignments. Truth comes before unity. Unity without truth is hazardous. Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 must be read in its full context. Look at verse 17: “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy Word is truth.” Only those sanctified through the Word can be one in Christ. To teach otherwise is to betray the Gospel.”
It is evident that genuine unity among Christians is based upon the truth of God’s Word because 1.) the Bible teaches this fact (for example, see Philippians 1:27, 1 John 1:3, and Revelation 2:14-15) and because 2.) the Bible commands believers to separate from (refuse to fellowship or associate with) any believer (including a church or ministry) that fails to embrace and obey the teaching of God’s Word (note, for example, Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6, 14; 2 Timothy 2:19-21). Among the realm of professing Christendom today, thousands of individuals disagree on Biblical doctrine. Some believe water baptism is the doorway into the church. Others believe God speaks today apart from the Scriptures (through visions, dreams, tongues, etc.). Some believe law-keeping plays an important part in salvation. Others believe Christians must endure the Tribulation before Christ returns. Still others embrace the theory of evolution in its various forms. Disagreement abounds in matters pertaining to salvation, prophecy, revelation, and many other areas. These disagreements are not merely “minor differences” but affect one’s entire theology and understanding of Scripture. It is impossible for church leaders to join with every church in their community while, simultaneously, defending the faith and obeying God by warning about the false doctrines embraced by the very churches with whom they are partnering. Fellowship (“that which is shared in common”) can only abound among those who truly share common doctrine!
Third, the purpose of unity is to honor and glorify God. Again, John 17:21-23 stresses this point. God is honored and glorified when a lost sinner enters into a relationship with Him, and He is honored and glorified when that believer lives a life consistent with His will and purpose. When a believer yields himself to God’s will by obeying God’s Word, the world will notice a difference in that individual. Only by possessing the Holy Spirit and being a part of the body of Christ can one effectively minister to others and, thus, bring honor to God. The new birth is always the starting point. Once an individual becomes a believer, his testimony to the world is anchored in Bible doctrine. Notice John 17:23—the world will only know Jesus Christ through the proclamation of doctrine. Therefore, the doctrine must be correct! Belief in Jesus Christ by unbelievers is the result of this unity (v. 21), and the world must believe not in the actions of believers but in the Word they proclaim. This cannot happen when professing believers unite to evangelize or do ministry and they do not even agree on what the Bible teaches or how it is to be interpreted. Christians only honor and glorify God by 1.) being in Christ and 2.) enjoying fellowship with Him. When the people of God minimize the truth of God’s Word for the sake of unity and, actually, disobey God’s Word by joining with those who fellowship with unbelievers or embrace false doctrine, God is not glorified. Therefore, any individual or church that desires to truly glorify God cannot be a part of such an endeavor. Unity should never be forged at the expense of sound doctrine. God is glorified only when His Word and will are obeyed, regardless of the cost to the believer.
We praise God that Jesus’ prayer was fulfilled and answered following His death, resurrection, and ascension! When Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, all who truly trusted in Him and His perfect work alone for their salvation became “one.” This blessed unity is further amplified by believers who embrace the truth of God’s Word and seek to live it out in their lives daily for God’s glory. Genuine spiritual unity is an incredible blessing. Forced, man-made “unity,” on the other hand, is empty at best and spiritually dangerous at worst. — Pastor Matt Costella