Someone may ask, “But will not all these little house churches scattered throughout a city cause division and disunity within the Body of Christ in that town?”
The truth is that little churches cause no more division than big ones. Very large churches and very small churches have the same challenge when it comes to unity.
ORGANIZATIONAL UNITY OR SPIRITUAL UNITY
In the late 1970 s I was involved with a new Christian organization called “John Seventeen Twenty-one.” It was an effort to help encourage and promote unity within the Body of Christ both in the United States and in other countries.
This organization was based on the prayer of Jesus found in John 17:21: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
Over a period of several years we tried to bring God’s people together in retreats, encounters, happenings, parades, marches, prayer gatherings and in every possible way. We believed that through our organized “unity” the world would see and believe.
It was one of the most frustrating efforts I had ever been a part of. It was not that these events do not have their place of importance. Surely, they do. But we were trying to organize unity, and unity just was not happening.
Unity will never happen through organization. It must happen in the spirit through an understanding of what unity is.
One day I began to question our understanding of John 17:21. I saw, first of all, that we had not rightly interpreted Jesus’ prayer. He was not praying for organizational unity in that passage. He was praying for spiritual unity.
Moreover, Jesus was not praying for spiritual unity among believers. He was praying for the individual believer’s union with the Father, not for the union of believers with each other.
This whole passage of Jesus’ prayer deals with the individual’s union with the Father and the Son. It does not deal with the believer’s relationship with other believers.
A wrong interpretation of this passage causes much painful frustration. It also misses the true meaning of what Jesus is really praying for.
John 17:21 could be paraphrased as follows: “That each one of them may be one with You, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”
The world will never be convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, by means of organizational union. God always uses men and women who have that same united relationship with the Father that Jesus had.
God’s plan is still the same — to fill men with His Spirit and demonstrate His love and power through them. What He did through Jesus, He wants to do all over the world.
He wants to live in us and walk in us. He wants to do works of love and grace through us, just like He did through Jesus. This is the meaning of John 17:21.
ONE CITY—ONE CHURCH
The only kind of unity that is dealt with in the New Testament is spiritual unity and its results. We search in vain to find any word in the Bible concerning Christian organizations, societies, missions or anything that looks like our present organizational structures.
What we do find in the New Testament is spiritual authority being sent out in the ministry of apostles and prophets. We see that authority being received by the churches. We see a united church within each city held together by “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
Paul the apostle never wrote to the “churches” of any city. He always addressed his letters to “the church” of that particular city.
There was and is only one church in each city, or locality. He writes to “the church” in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and so forth. However, he writes to “the churches” in Galatia, “the churches in Asia,” and so forth. This is because these were provinces and not cities.
There may be scores or even hundreds of “churches” that meet in Jesus’ name within a given city. However, there is really only one church in that locality. This one church consists of the many smaller Christian gatherings in that city. Just as all the churches in all the cities in the world make up the Body of Christ, the churches (congregations) within a locality make up the church in that city.
KEEP THE UNITY
In Ephesians 4:3-6 we read, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism: one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
In the above passage Paul did not say, “Establish the unity of the Spirit.” He said, “keep the unity of the Spirit.” It is as if this unity were something that was already established. He speaks here as if unity is something that comes automatically as a part of the whole Christian “package.”
We are born again into unity because “there is one Body and one Spirit… one Lord… one God and Father.” Our part is simply an acknowledgment that we are already one.
To fulfill the command to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is to keep something that we already have, for you cannot keep what you do not yet have.
This unity is not in external structures. It is not born in external ties, nor is it maintained by external ties. It is born in the Spirit and in the heart. It is an interior attitude. It is an attitude toward people — the people of God.
UNITY WITH DIVERSITY
We can have all the diversity we want in organizations, denominations, corporations, societies, clubs, fellowships, movements, crusades and campaigns, and still have unity in the Spirit.
We are not held together by “paper membership.” We are held together by “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
On the other hand, you can have one giant organization that includes every Christian on earth and still have no real unity in the Spirit. You may have organizational oneness without real unity.
The “bond” in Ephesians 4:3-6 speaks of something that ties together like a rope or belt. That bond is “peace.” It is called “the bond of peace.” The opposite of peace is strife or war.
If you have an attitude of love and acceptance toward your brothers and sisters in other churches, you are “keeping the unity” with them. You are not creating it. You are keeping it alive in your own spirit.
That is where unity exists — in the spirit or heart. Unity is manifested in different ways, but it exists in the spirit by means of the Holy Spirit.
Conversely, if you have an attitude of strife, divisiveness or sectarianism, you are not keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
AN INWARD STEP
The only step to unity, then, is found in Romans 14:1 and 15:7: “Accept those whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters…. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.”
The word “to accept” means to welcome, embrace, receive — to acknowledge kinship. To accept means to confess and declare the fact that we are one.
We are one because, by the new birth, we have all been born into the same spiritual family. We are all brothers and sisters because Jesus is our Savior, and God is our Father! Just as Jesus received us with all our brokenness, faults, and immaturity, so let us receive one another.
TAKE THE STEP NOW
This one step to unity can be taken right where you are this very moment. You can turn to the Lord right now and pray, “Father, in the name of Jesus Christ my Lord, I do acknowledge that I am a member of Your spiritual body, the church in this city and throughout the world.
“I do accept and receive every one of Your children as my brother or sister because You are our Father. It doesn’t matter where Your children live. It doesn’t matter from what race they come. It doesn’t matter what peculiar beliefs or practices they may have.
“It doesn’t matter if they baptize by sprinkling or by immersion, or whether they are Arminianists or Calvinists. It doesn’t matter if they go to church on Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. It doesn’t matter by what denomination they are named.
“I do now declare, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth the Son of God Almighty, that I am one with every other born-again believer that lives, that has lived, or ever will live in time and in eternity. I will accept them. I will receive them.
“I will love them and support them. I will pray for them. As You direct me, Lord, I will work with them. I will endeavor to keep this unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Amen!”
Will you pray this prayer now? If you can sincerely pray the above prayer, you have taken the one step to unity.
“But,” you may ask, “what about doctrinal unity? How can we walk together unless we agree?”
In the first place, God is not directing us all to walk in the same direction. In the second place, we are told in Ephesians 4:13 that we are to keep this unity of the Spirit “until we all come into the unity of the faith.” This verse is simply saying that we can have spiritual unity while we are coming into doctrinal unity.
ONE CENTRAL TRUTH
There is only one central truth around which we can all declare our unity. That truth is not a teaching, a concept, a principle or a doctrine. It is not a church, denomination or a movement.
That Truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
When we come to Him, He gives us life. We are born again! When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the answer was not, “Believe our doctrine and join our organization.” It was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30,31).
We believe on the person of Jesus and are born into the kingdom of light. When we are joined to Jesus we are joined to one another. We are one in Him.
He who has Jesus has life. He who does not have Jesus does not have life. We are saved, not by embracing a doctrinal position, but by receiving Jesus Christ Himself.
RECEIVE ONE ANOTHER
In every church, whether it is a house church or some other kind of church, we must teach the people to accept every other believer. We are members of the same Body without regard to denominational affiliation.
God will lead us at times to cooperate together with others in projects for spreading His kingdom. However, the most powerful expression of unity is not coming together to show outward solidarity by promoting special projects. It is in accepting and affirming one another in what we are already doing with the Lord.
MANY LEADERS-ONE ARMY
We are all in warfare and there are many generals, lieutenants, captains and foot soldiers. However, there is one Head, our Commander in Chief, Jesus Christ Himself.
He said, “I will build my church,” and that is what He is doing (Matt 16:18). Let us make room for Him to do it. He has charge of every small unit of His mighty army.
We may be in different divisions, in different units, on a different front, but we are still one army. We are one people, fighting the same war against the kingdom of darkness.
Let us affirm and support one another in our various places of service. Let us not think that we are separated just because we’re not all in the same place doing the same things at the same time, under the same standard bearer.
MANY TRIBES — ONE NATION
There were twelve tribes in Israel, each with its own territory genealogy, leaders and banner. But they were still one people — Israel.
We may be made up of hundreds or thousands of denominations, organizations and churches. However, we are one people — the people of God — the Israel of God.
We do not have to be physically together doing the same things under the same flag in order to be one. We are already one. So let us boldly proclaim our unity. Let us go about our business of extending His kingdom while affirming, accepting and receiving one another. That is “keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”