In recent years, there has been much talk about reconciliation and unity. Most of this discussion has been beneficial and Biblical, and much overdue. Unfortunately, the well-meaning desire for unity has shifted the goal posts so that it might be more easily achieved. If we are to work towards Biblical unity, we have to have a Biblical definition as a common starting point and finish line.
The last prayer of Jesus in John 17 contains Jesus’s farewell prayer for the Church. His final desires for his disciples and those who would come later expressed through praying to the Father. One of the recurring themes of this prayer is his desire for the disciples to be “one” (John 17:11, 20-23). This ‘oneness’ is unity as defined Biblically.
I’d like to offer a Biblical definition of unity, and encourage us all to continue to strive for that God-inspired, Jesus-purchased, and Spirit-powered reality. In order to understand what unity is, I’m going to start with a few similar ideas that are often confused with unity, namely “ cooperation” and “collaboration”.
Cooperation – Working Together (Hands)
Cooperation is where most Christians stop in their pursuit of unity. Simply getting two or more churches together to do an event can be a herculean effort. Something as simple as a bookbag drive, community cleanup, or even a cookout becomes infinitely more complicated when multiple church congregations get involved. So much so that most churches are content to not cooperate at all. If asked why they don’t cooperate with the church down the street, the church members will tell that same story of “the one time they tried”.
For those who do attempt cooperation regularly, the sheer workload surely deserves the Biblical commendation Badge of Unity. All those hours coordinating multiple schedules, volunteers, even ordering cool new shirts must indicate the struggle of achieving unity. Cooperation between churches around events is a beautiful thing. It is an apologetic unto itself to see churches working together, especially across denominational and cultural lines. This should be celebrated and sought after, but this is not unity.
Collaboration – Thinking Together (Head)
One step past cooperation is collaboration. This is nearing the Biblical peak of Unity as it involves churches not just doing events together, but thinking about ways to serve their cities and their members in deeper more significant ways. Most collaboration happens within denominations or networks, but there are some organizations that seek to reach across those identity markers. An example in Charleston would be the Hub, or Mission Charleston. These organizations are about more than churches doing things together, the goal is to think, pray, and work together.
Collaboration often looks like cooperation but the nuance of difference is what makes it special. The major difference between cooperation and collaboration is when the invitation comes. With cooperation, a church may have an idea of an event to do, and they will invite another church to participate. The key is that a church has something in mind that they are inviting others into. And usually if the invited church decides not to participate the event is going to happen anyway. With collaboration, there is no event without another church being on board. It’s a “together or not at all posture”.
Unity – Feeling Together (Heart)
For those reading who have pursued cooperation, and have attempted collaboration you may be a little anxious to continue reading. Cooperation is hard. Collaboration is slow and tedious at times. What more could there be?!
In Corinthians 12 Paul lays out a multi-layered metaphor of unity within the church. But, if you’re not reading closely, you might miss the actual definition:
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. 23 And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, 24 which our respectable parts do not need.
Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, 25 so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. 26 So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1 Corinthians 12:20–26)
Did you catch it? Look again at verse 25. Paul is contrasting unity with its theological opposite, division. This verse contains the simplest definition of unity I’ve found in scripture: “having the same concern for each other.”
Unity is more than an issue of the hands (cooperation) or head (collaboration), but it is an issue of the heart. Do we care about each other in the same way? Does our heart mourn with those who mourn? Do we feel the pain of injustice, loneliness, desperation with our brothers and sisters? Does a church bombing in another country cause us to mourn? Does a church growing in our own city excite us? Do the cares and concerns of our brothers and sisters become our cares and concerns? Cooperation is good. Collaboration is needed. But unity is commanded. Unity is what Jesus purchased by his blood. Jesus didn’t just die to make sinners into saints. Jesus died to make sinners into saints who are siblings. You are adopted into the family of God, and you are not an only child. We are irrevocably connected with each other. The Bible would go even as far to say that we (you and I) have become one in Christ.
To achieve this change of heart is impossible in own strength. Needs in the community can spark cooperation. A dynamic leader can inspire collaboration. But Unity is a work of the Spirit. It comes through prayer and a willingness to move from where you are to where God wants you to be. This is what Jesus died for, and this display of Unity is what the world is waiting to see.
“May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.” – John 17:21