Jesus prayed that his followers would be One.

 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:21-23)

This prayer has not been answered fully until now. Perhaps it was answered more in the first 250 years of Christianity, the time before the Council of Nicaea – yet even then it was not fully answered. The Emperor Constantine tried to legislate doctrinal agreement using a top down approach in which 300 bishops were called together to nut out a Creed which would define what was Orthodox Christianity. The Nicene Creed resulted and was recited in churches from that time. Yet after this time, the divisions only got worse and worse. The church had effectively married the State in the 4th century, and from that time different bishops fought for greater political and religious influence against those other leaders and bishops who believed differently. Councils were called and those disagreeing with the results were branded heretics and liable to be executed by the State. So in this way, some kind of unity was enforced to a certain extent, but it was not the kind of unity which Jesus spoke of in his prayer in John 17. 

Fast forward til today. How is it that we now have upwards of 22,000 denominations or splinter groups in Christendom? Most of these groups say they base their beliefs on the Bible – so how can so many different views and often opposing views be held to? How can this state of affairs exist?

The answer is multi-faceted and complex. 

Firstly, it should be noted that Christian people don’t only follow the Holy Spirit. They follow human leaders. Some might like to think they only follow the Holy Spirit, but if you put such in a room together and talk about what they should believe and do, disagreements will arise. Churches can only grow beyond a certain size and influence when enough people are willing to trust a human leader or group of leaders whom they believe to be set apart by God to lead them as a church. Many small groups do not and cannot grow because the people in them cannot tolerate anyone among them having the pre-eminence and taking things somewhere. They naively believe that the Holy Spirit alone will guide people independently to the same conclusion about how to work together – without elders/pastors/overseers or other ministry gifts taking a leading role.

The churches that do grow in influence are those that follow human (hopefully God-appointed) leadership. But not all human leaders see things the same way. Sometimes it is a matter of a difference in emphasis only. Some leaders might emphasize evangelism, whilst others emphasize prophecy in some way. Some might emphasize what they call “sound doctrine”. Others emphasize acts of love and good deeds. Some emphasize prayer. People will tend to follow the leaders with whose vision they resonate. They will follow the systems created by such leaders and ignore the systems created by other leaders. If those systems include doctrinal beliefs, then they will tend to follow those also.

Other times, human leaders are following somewhat different doctrinal systems. Christians divide on issues like water baptism, what is necessary for final salvation, speaking in tongues, casting out demons, free-will and church government, just to name some of the more obvious ones. When it comes to doctrine, many pastors and teachers copy what they learned from the people who taught them. That seems safe, and promotes a fellowship of people who think the same way, and are therefore more likely to get on together. Even though such leaders might want to SAY they base their beliefs only on the Bible (Sola Scriptura) the reality is that they actually base their beliefs also on the interpretations of the Bible that they and their group have come to accept. Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans was about half the size of the actual letter itself, and in it he sought to influence how people would understand that book. The Roman Catholic church has a whole truckload of Traditions that they claim were handed down orally from the apostles. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have a different set. And as the Protestant Reformation started by people like Martin Luther started to take root, more and more people felt led to start their own systems of interpretation and practices. These differed from group to group, from place to place. So, as these groups started to multiply, different permutations and combinations of various elements of Christian faith also multiplied. This has continued until the present day, where there are tens of thousands of officially recognised denominations and cults based on the Bible in some way. If one was to be a little cynical, one might say that with the advent of Social Media and the World Wide Web, there are now almost as many belief systems within Christianity as there are professing Christians in the world!

For more thoughts on this issue, visit my article here.

How Can Jesus’ Prayer for Unity Ever Be Answered?

The answer to this question is not that we will achieve unity by holding more and more Councils about Doctrine. Jesus said in John 17 that the  “glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: “. Unity then, will come as a result of the glory of Jesus in and upon us. This glory is a result of being deeply Spirit-filled and empowered though obedience to the truth especially when it means personal and corporate suffering.

 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Romans 8:16,17)

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

The ultimate glory and unity is in heaven, but we are to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To the extent that glory shines through the people of God, to that extent there will also be a mutual recognition and love of one another leading to the kind of unity of the church that Jesus desires.

So What Can We Do About Unity?

We need to individually pursue the fullness of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis, with all that that implies (see Ephesians 5:18-20). We need to pray for unity based on the will of God being done.

We need to seek to be helpful to other Christians much more than we need to seek to be critical of their faults.

In short, we need to love one another much more. Let’s seek to do it as much as Jesus did it for us. In fact, that is His command to us (John 13:34,35) and John repeats the exhortation to love one another many times in the Book of 1 John.

Instead of merely criticising those we don’t agree with, or who have done us wrong, we should pray for them. We should pray for them that they be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding so that they may walk worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:9). If we have first prayed like this, and often, then we need to consider whether we believe that God is answering our prayer or whether we need to take the matter up and get involved by speaking or writing – if indeed it is appropriate for us in particular to do it.

We need to really listen to the other person before we speak and try to correct them. Maybe we ourselves have something to learn and our own learning is more important right now!

A lot of disunity is caused by selfishness as well. The love of money and religious political power will motivate a lot of people to dishonor and betray their fellow Christians. Jesus told us that the agape love of many will grow cold in the Last Days, but people need to endure to the end to be saved (Matthew 24:12-13). So before a significant part of the church becomes unified by the glory of God, there will also be a lot of selfishness and evil in the Church first. Pray that you and those you love will not get caught up in all that.