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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?