John 17 is the longest recorded prayer of Jesus and it reveals what was important to him. After praying for himself (vs.1-5) and his disciples (vs.6-19), he prayed for all who would believe in him – for the church yet to born (vs.20-26). Nearest to Jesus’ heart was his concern for the unity of his followers. So how are we doing at being “united”, as Jesus prayed? The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that there were 34,000 denominations in the year 2000 rising to 43,000 in 2012. These are all “Christian” denominations, not those of other faiths or beliefs systems. All declare Jesus as Lord yet each has a distinct approach to areas such as leadership, structure, or a certain doctrine or emphasis. Some see themselves as right and others as wrong.
A Worldview Shift
Back in 1995, I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me about seven “strategic shifts” that the church needs to make in our time [these are outlined fully in my book Transforming Your Church]. One of the shifts is a “worldview shift” which requires us to shift from a narrow local church focus to a much broader kingdom mentality. The “kingdom” refers to God’s work in the world. It is the domain where God rules. God rules everywhere but the expression of that rule is yet to be fully revealed. That is why we continue to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The “church” is a local expression of what the kingdom is like, made up of disciples of Jesus. It is local yet also global, made up of all true followers of Jesus. We are to preach the good news of the gospel and when people respond they are born into the kingdom of God then added to the church. God’s kingdom is much bigger than any expression of the local church. God’s work in the world is way beyond our small church community, as important as we may be.
How can we work towards helping Jesus prayer for the unity of his church become a reality?
1. Be Humble, not Proud. Each local church is special and unique and we should be proud of our church. It should be the best church - for us. However, we also need to value the uniqueness of others. No ministry or local church has it all or is God’s only instrument or the only one true church. We are a part of the body of Christ, which is made up of every Christian and every church that declares Jesus Christ as Lord. Humility demands that we have a sober or balanced view of ourselves. We all need each other. The Great Commission is too big for any one of us to fulfil. We need all churches and all Christian ministries working together to achieve God’s purposes. Praise God for the huge variety and diversity of ministries he is using today. After all, it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.
2. Be Inclusive, not Exclusive. God desires us to seek to include others rather than exclude them. Christian love is expressed by an open, warm, embracing attitude toward other people, ministries and churches. We should look for common ground and not focus only on our differences (Philippians 1:15-18). God wants us connected to others, not isolated from them. God has called us to build bridges, not walls. In the Old Testament, there was only one nation of Israel, but it was made up of 12 different tribes, which were further made up of many different households and families. So it is in the church today. There are many different denominations, associations, networks and groups of churches and ministries. Each is unique and has its own distinctives, but we are all a part of the one true church. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We must avoid prejudice against other churches and ministries and watch out that we don’t develop stereotypes of other ministries based on gossip and hearsay, rather than personal experience.
3. Discern, Don’t Judge. It is sad to see the amount of people today who spend their time throwing mud at or criticising other Christian ministries, claiming that so-and-so is a false prophet or spreading heresy. Jesus does call us to discern ministries (by their fruit) but to go beyond this and place a judgment on a person is something we are strongly commanded not do. The apostles tell us to test all things, to hold on to the good, and let the bad go (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. 1 John 4:1-3). The test is what people say about Jesus - who he is and what he has done. We should, however, place final judgement on nothing before its time (1 Corinthians 4:5. James 4:10-12). God is the true judge, and each person will stand before him (not us) and give account for all they have done. Christian love requires us to avoid a critical attitude that is quick to pull down and point out flaws in other people and their ministries (Matthew 7:1-5). We see this gracious attitude portrayed so beautifully in the advice that Gamaliel gave to the Pharisees when they were considering persecuting the early church (Acts 5:33-39). He told them that if a ministry was not of God, it would die down and come to nothing. However, if it was of God, they should leave it alone lest they be seen as fighting against God. We would be wise to take his advice today as we observe other ministries and churches.
4. Love, Don’t Hate. God has commanded us to love all people but especially other Christians who also love Jesus. We are to pray for God’s blessing on other churches and ministries. We are to rejoice when they thrive and sorrow when they struggle. We are working together for the benefit of God’s kingdom. We are not in opposition or competition with each other. We’re all on the same team. God is actually angry when we fight and hurt each other. Jesus said, “By this will all people know you are my disciples … by your love for one another” (John 13:35). God’s desire is that we come to the “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) and eventually to a “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13). The world will know we are Christians by our love for one another, and that is demonstrated by how we relate to other churches and Christian ministries.
It’s a new day. God is breaking down the walls. He is bringing his body, the church, together as a mighty force in the earth. It will take the whole church, taking the whole gospel to the whole world, to complete the Great Commission. The last prayer of Jesus that we would all be one as he and the Father are one is one prayer that will be answered. Let’s work together for its fulfilment in our time.
Reflection Discussion Questions
- Reflect on your experience with the local church. What churches have you been involved in and what have you learned from this experience?
- Consider your experience with Christians from other churches. What have you learned and what do you appreciate about different parts of the body of Christ?
- Read Mark 9:38-40. In what ways can we be like the disciples today? What does Jesus response teach us?
- What are some ways we can avoid the isolation that comes by being totally consumed with only our own church and its activities, needs or concerns?
- “Church-hopping” is a major problem today. What are some key factors a person would be wise to consider before changing churches?
- In what ways is Christian unity a tremendous “apologetic” (witness, defence or explanation) for the good news of Jesus Christ?