the weblog of Alan Knox

Real Unity – Is it possible?

Posted by on Mar 17, 2010 in books, community, discipleship, love, unity | 16 comments

In his book Your Church is Too Small, John H. Armstrong begins his argument for real, relational unity from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23 ESV)

Early in his book, Armstrong says, “I knew that I couldn’t be satisfied with loving a concept of the church. So I set out to find God’s people, to get to know people outside of my own tradition.”

Concept… We love in concept. We’re united in concept. We’re family in concept.

But, Scripture doesn’t describe or exhort a concept of church, love, unity, and family. Instead, as we read about the church in the New Testament, we read about a reality of love, unity, and family. However, like Armstrong, whenever I talk to people about unity, I hear these kinds of interpretations (taken from Armstrong’s book specifically of John 17):

  1. We should never try to unite different churches or congregations. The union of churches or denominations is not in view here. Jesus is not interested in such unity.
  2. We should never engage in serious dialogue with churches that we believe to be unfaithful to the truth. We will become disobedient if we follow this course.
  3. There is no common mission that churches are called to engage in; thus there is no reason to work together to achieve Christ’s mission in our communities.
  4. There is no concern in this prayer for the worldwide church, at least as seen in a visible form, since this will lead to ecumenism, a great twentieth-century enemy of the gospel.
  5. We must always keep in the forefront of our practice the serious biblical warnings about compromise and false teaching (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Revelation 18:4). These great truths always trump concern for visible unity among churches and Christians.

How would you respond to the five objections above? Yes, no, why, or why not?

And more importantly, how do we as believers move forward toward unity, and how do we encourage churches to move forward toward unity?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-17-2010

    1. I agree and disagree, we can unite congregations but we shouldn’t force such a unity, but two congregations can.

    2. That depends and is too loosely defined without more context what we call untruth today may not have been a concern for Christ.

    3. There is a common mission for the Church which is to make disciples, how and what methods may not have uniformity but there is a “common mission”. But he used “churches” which I struggle with that term I guess.

    4. Agreed,

    5. I agree but again we have to come to some type of gauge on what this means but often it is used as scapegoat.

  2. 3-17-2010

    Also Alan,

    We move towards unity when we don’t see the walls that seperate us. However too often our fight for the “local” church often hinders our unity. You once told me “whoever Jesus brings in my life I am responsible for” and those words have never ever left me 😮

  3. 3-17-2010

    “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.” Rev. 7:9-10

    I am pretty certain they were properly segregated by age, marital status, dress code, denomination, doctrinal divisions, favorite translation, liturgy, number of Calvinist points held, etc. John must have just forgotten that part of the vision…I mean even the tribes of Isreal were arranged in order to camp around the tabernacle right? Couldn’t have all those palm-wavers all mixed-up like that – God is a God of Order. Must be a three-point, illiterated, uh, I mean alliterated outline there somewhere…

    Acts 15 is a good model. It’s a pretty short list the elders at Jerusalem whittled down to send to the Gentiles to require of them to be “in fellowship” – only four items. Can you imagine? Out of the whole of Jewish law?

    More importantly, what did James use as the argument for this acceptance of the Gentiles? God’s word spoken through his prophets. They were already instructed this would happen.

    We have already been instructed how to deal with brethren and “the world” (and they aren’t the same). It sometimes requires wisdom, discernment and judgment. That takes work and seeking after God, his commands and his judgments. We prefer practicing what I call zero-tolerance religion. We want a template, pattern, list of rules, etc. to earn our salvation by and make a yes-no comparison of ourselves and every person to the template. Of course, our preferences have a lot of effect on the template we choose.

  4. 3-17-2010

    Yesterday, a a man talking about planting churches and making disciples stressed that “transformation happens through tension.”

    I am a conservative, dispensational boomer with a private ten page doctrinal statement (I’m smart enough to have a minimal two pager for sharing with others–or I could associate with almost no-one on the basis of precisely aligned theology I fear–but I do have strong views, adjusted yearly). I am seriously uncomfortable with the mess the church is in, and I’m not sure I want to play nice-nice with proponents of the generally accepted, worldly churchianity.

    The hearts of many old friends, friends who have passed on, and some present friends would be revolted that I want to find a way to love and be open to work with all saints everywhere.

    I think the church is locality based, and the ground of acceptance is the foot of the cross.

    These things are in tension inside me, to the point I have tears well up thinking about how distant we all are. I feel a deep sense of loss when I see walls put up, when I the walls go up inside me. If I’m going to get past the neat conceptualizations and into the messy living rooms and kitchens and halls, I’m going to have to live through and work through a ton of confusing tensions. I’m guessing I ain’t alone in that.

  5. 3-17-2010


    Whether I agree or not with any of the points is irrelevant.

    If I am going to be seen to be a member of Christ’s Body, I must be willing to fight for the right of people to believe what they do. It is totally counterproductive to demonstrate the very common “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude.

    In the meantime I will exercise my responsibility to show these people a better way as I seek to serve, and love them and speak the truth, as the opportunities arise.

    We are to make disciples, followers of Christ, not converts to a system of belief, no matter how correct it may be!

    In doing this I do not have to compromise Biblical truth!

  6. 3-17-2010


    Thanks for the comments. Here’s something to think about: if our unity is supposed to be relational, can this unity be maintained institutionally or organizationally?


  7. 3-17-2010


    I think the organization can be the catalyst; however, I don’t believe the organization/institution can sustain or nurture because whenever one loses interest in the organization the so called relationships fail.

    This is how I know for sure that many (I was in this number but have begun to go the other direction) so called Christian relationships are really orgnizational relationships. Whenever somone/family leaves a church very rarely does the leaders or the people they were in bible studies with or small groups with continue to maintain and nurture the relationships. Most of my ongoing Christian relationships were actually people I met outside of the church, those I met inside have dissolved, no matter how much you try to keep in contact with them. Some have sustained but the majority have dissolved.

    Its sort of funny because the institution/organization usually builds these psuedo-relationships around the organization and often times and think they are building real relationships when they are only building allegiance to the organization. In some churches cross pollenization is often frowned upon. I might go with most but I haven’t been to most though the most I have been to have worked that way. They want to monitor and police the meeting of the saints so that bad things don’t happen.

  8. 3-17-2010


    Are we on a last name basis now? 🙂

    I agree. My post tomorrow will discuss some of these issues. We are creating followers of our organizations/institutions, not followers of Jesus.


  9. 3-17-2010

    I meant Alan LOL, I didn’t really notice.

  10. 3-17-2010

    I hope those who read your comments Alan realize this list is one made up by good Christians who find all kinds of ways to avoid relational unity based upon these types of concerns. I am not saying that all of these are unimportant. I am sure you will make this clear in further posts. Reading the comments underscores why this book needs to be read in context and read whole to get the central point I am making. We all have so many arguments and positions about unity and few of us will read a book like this whole unless something/someone (maybe the Holy Spirit?) in us prompts us to conclude, “Maybe I can learn more about the precious body of Christ and the oneness Jesus gave to us and longs for us to experience in all our Christian relationships.”

    Your comments are helpful and I am grateful for them personally. A great way to get the gist of the book gist at where Dr. Packer’s foreword can be read and where readers can order the book and assist our mission since ACT 3 gets a small percent of Amazon orders placed there.

  11. 3-18-2010


    I hope my blog posts, and others, will prompt others to read your book and seek unity with their brothers and sisters in Christ.


  12. 8-1-2011

    I would suggest that (perhaps simplistically) that in the face of suffering, injustice, sickness, lonliness, hunger and fear we might find enough unanimity even in our differences if we respond as Christ in these things. In debate, argument, discourse and politics we probably are best to keep to ourselves for the most part unless we are most interested in listening and not speaking.

  13. 8-4-2011

    What if it were as simple as “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” or “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”? What if? If only someone of significance had said those words. If only someone of consequence had said, “…the greatest of these is love”. Could you imagine what it would be like if there was someone who had demonstrated that love for us? Who had shown us how? Oh, how the world could be so different if only one had laid down His own life for another. To show us truly how to love and serve one another. Hmmmm…

  14. 8-4-2011

    If I am dead in my sins and my transgressions then there is absolutely NOTHING that a dead man can do. Check any grave yard for signs of activity. It’s pretty dead over there. But, if Christ Jesus who is real and alive is living in me’ and I in Him, and He in His Father and His Father in Him and the Holy Spirit in the Father and the Son and so therefore in me then He can live His life through “my” physical body. As Paul said, “…it is not I, but Christ who lives within me'”. I have nothing to offer. I am dead. It is only by the indwelling life of Christ that there is any live expressed through my body at all. Even Jesus said, “…there is none good but the Father”. If that is true for Jesus, His son, it is true for me’. But because I am in Him and He in me’, and Jesus is in the Father, then Christ, in-spite of me’, can express love. Christ, in-spite of me’, can serve one another. I can do nothing, but Christ strengthens me’ with His life. I am dead. He is alive. Oh what a Christ!!!

  15. 5-2-2012

    Oh yeah, we can have that unity. The caveat is that the “we” in question is whomever the we is that is part of your immediate circle. Mass communications and methods have done just what Macluan said they do; transform the medium into the message. The result is that we ere in thinking that the gospel, teaching, preaching and even discipleship is a message. The gospel is a Person and His character qualities, that can certainly be broadcast about via media. But He can only be truly experienced via the Holy Spirit in others and by Himself.
    I’ve noticed in the last few decades that we use the word “role” to describe obedience and responsibility.
    Roles are fake personalities played by actors for entertainment.
    All the church is a stage, and everyone a player on it?
    Unity is being in one accord, which is very different from being in agreement.
    Unity is the result of crucifixion of dis-unity, which is expressed as “My Jesus is different than your Jesus by 6 degrees of separation and so we can’t agree”
    King David must have spent a lot of effort explaining to both sides of the civil war in Israel that God wanted to reunite them and the way He would do that was thru a new King, who loved all equally. All that they had to do was trust Him, and not allow anyone to drive a wedge between anyone in the nation. David would not cut off the bottom of King Sauls garment and the angel would not argue with Lucifer when claiming the body of Moses. The first record of Gods people being in one accord was under David, and the only other record is under Jesus in Acts.
    So that’s the movie script for me.
    But we are like snooty children in the playground when it comes to understanding how God set up and runs His Kingdom. Unity is commanded, because we don’t really want it, and we think we have the time to take generations to agree on it’s practicability. We’ve certainly taken that time and have the results to prove it. Would that a John the Baptist would come out of this wilderness and call Gods people to repentance, and threaten the earth with a curse unless the hearts of the fathers turn to the children.
    But of course, wev’e all read the book and know that that kind of talk gets your head on a plate, and your back on a cross, and that at the hand of Gods people.
    Maybe one of our kids will step up to the plate.
    Or we can just do it, right now.

  16. 5-2-2012


    Yes. When people attempt to unite around anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ (even teachings about Jesus Christ), then that “unity” will end up being divisive. True unity is only found in Jesus Christ.