In two previous posts, I’ve discussed John H. Armstrong’s book Your Church is Too Small (see “Your Church is Too Small – a review” and “Real Unity – Is it possible?“). Armstrong argues that the unity for which Jesus prays in John 17:20-23 is relational unity, not only spiritual unity.
“Relational unity” is visible, palpable. It can be pointed out and experienced. It can also be quenched and grieved.
Few (if any) would argue that the church today rarely shows relational unity across denominations, theological systems, historical traditions, institutions, organization, or even “local churches”. We occasionally attempt to relate to those who are like us and who believe like us (although even this is difficult in today’s church where acquiescence to a set of beliefs has replaced true community).
Thus, the church today is splintered and fractured, and lives as an anti-apologetic to the good news of Jesus Christ.
For those of us who are grieved by this state of affairs, how do we take steps toward relational unity. First, we must realize that we cannot create the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed. God creates unity in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We can only maintain or quench this unity.
Second, we must realize that we cannot make the choice of maintaining unity for others. I cannot force you into relational unity with me. However, I can make the offer and be open to relational unity, whether you desire unity with me or not. I can love you and serve you, whether you accept me or not.
Finally, we must realize that relational unity cannot be organized or institutionalized. Now, don’t misunderstand me. Organizations and institutions can help or hinder relational unity, but neither organizations nor institutions can maintain relational unity.
“Relational unity” is relational (seems simple enough, doesn’t it). This means that relational unity is based on relationships between individuals and communities. What does this mean for us?
Let me give an example. Let’s assume that two of my neighbors are believers, and each of them are part of different denominations than myself. That makes three believers and three different denominations. If our denominations choose to interact with one another, that choice will not create relational unity between myself and my neighbors. If our denominations decide not to interact with one another, that decision will not destroy relational unity between myself and my neighbors.
So, what is it that creates or maintains relational unity between myself and my neighbors? God creates the unity, and we decide the maintain that unity in the way that we treat and interact with one another. If we decide to ignore one another, even though we say we are brothers/sisters and even though we live next door to one another, we will quench the work that God is attempting to do in our lives in creating and maintaining relational unity.
However, if we choose to spend time with one another (regardless of what our denominations decide), and if we choose to accept one another and treat one another as brothers/sisters, then we are working to maintain the unity that God has created in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
This is the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, and this is the kind of unity that Jesus said would demonstrate to the world that the Father sent him into the world.