The New Testament Church Part 9: (Relational unity)


Jesus prayed for all believers that they ‘may be one,' united with each other and with God just as Jesus and the Father were perfectly united (John 17:21).  Jesus prayed for this in order that ‘the world may believe you have sent me’ (John 17:21).  The unity of the Church is a witness to and sign of the authenticity and credibility of Jesus’ divinity.  Jesus is publicly vindicated when the Church is united.

Institutionalism, schism and ecumenism

But is the Church united?  On the face of it the answer has to be 'no.'  The history of the institutional Church is the movement from local fellowships of believers to denominational or national Church structures resulting in growing institutional and bureaucratic power.  These structures have taken on a life of their own and not only need to be served, but also to be protected and defended - not least from each other!  Competition and various forms of one-upmanship flow from this separation.

The only possible unity they can hope to achieve therefore is superficial i.e. an ecumenical unity - supporting and encouraging cooperation between the denominations of the Christian religion, which are separated by history, doctrine and practice.  What Jesus referred to, on the other hand, was relational unity, and there is a world of difference between the two.

Organisations are not the Body of Christ and only people in relationship can express the spiritual oneness that Jesus referred to.  Institutions can invest money, time and energy in devising structures to find institutional agreement and so-called unity.  They can create numerous ecumenical councils and committees, call conferences and congresses and yet continue to make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the individual Christian and the local body of believers.

Already answered?   

Some argue that Jesus' prayer has already been answered.  The argument goes that the world sees hundreds of denominations, but God only sees the Body of Christ - what we would describe as the organic Church, which includes Christians from every denomination.  The difficulty with this view is that if it is a hidden unity, how can the world believe that the Father sent Jesus (John 17:21). 

An achievable goal?

So is such unity an achievable goal?  The fact that Jesus prayed for unity indicates that it is and that it should be sought after by Christians.  It is inconceivable that the Father would not answer the prayer of his Son.

The Apostle Paul believed unity was possible.  He urged the Philippians to be like minded, have the same love, and be one in spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2).  He appealed to the Corinthians to ‘agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought’ (1 Corinthians 1:10).  A similar appeal for unity is made to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:3, 12-13).

Unity with diversity

We believe that Church unity is not the same as conformity.  Whilst the Church should conform to a universal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and to similar patterns of obedience and purity, we believe it's possible to achieve unity whilst maintaining diversity in practice between local fellowships of believers.

Genuine unity is characterised by voluntary cooperation and genuine friendship, love and respect.  We believe Christians working together, serving and strengthening each other and cooperating with one another on the basis of mutual love for Christ is the bedrock of real unity.  It should also be noted that there is no direct support in the Bible for Christians to separate because of doctrinal differences (unless those differences amount to the denial of the Christian faith). 

One church in the locality

If we’re to take seriously the biblical picture of the organic Church being a body or an army, we need to connect to the piece of the body or platoon next to ours and work together.  This is not the same as networking within a denomination or stream, indeed genuine unity often occurs when we ignore institutional structures.  It’s in our locality that we need to be working together for the sake of the Kingdom. 

An area strategy

So often, congregational Church leaders (both institutional and organic sadly) have failed to submit to the gifts and anointings of other congregational leaders, preferring to believe that each congregation is fully equipped within itself to take the Church forward.

As a result, resources are duplicated and the benefits of synergy are lost.  Leaders devise and develop strategies for their own congregations but fail to create an area strategy.  In doing this, they win small skirmishes, but fail to win the bigger battle – a big harvest in the locality God has placed them.

Relational unity

Breaking the pattern is not easy, but we consider it essential if we’re to see significant spiritual breakthroughs in our locality.  It requires humility, a willingness to die to personal agenda and a determination to develop deep relational unity.  True unity comes out of genuine relationship.

Vision for One Church in the locality

A few years ago, working with a number of other local churches, we developed a vision statement for one Church in the locality:

We see one Church made up of many congregations.  They share ministry, financial and material resources.  No congregation calls anything it’s own, and there’s little duplication.  Each congregation expresses its distinct ethos and works to its strengths; at the same time supporting each other.  We see genuine unity with diversity.

We see the leaders of these congregations bound and committed to one another in covenant relationship, friendship and love.  They submit to the gifts and calling of God on each other’s lives.  The five fold ministries of Ephesians 4 are in operation.  Each leader senses a call to the area, not just to his/her own congregation.  They see the growth of their own congregation as important, but secondary to the overall growth of the Lord’s work in the area.  Success is measured by how much they impact and make a difference to the area, not just to their own Church.  They have an eternal, Kingdom perspective, a forerunner spirit and anointing, and prioritise and live in the light of the Lord’s imminent return.

We see Church members relating across the congregational and denominational divide.  They’re loyal to their own congregation, but committed to the one Church.  We see tremendous overlap between the churches in all areas of ministry.

We see an area wide Vision and Strategy developed by the leaders, designed to outwork God’s purposes for the region.  Each congregation’s vision, whilst important, is subordinate to it, and shaped by it.

We see a heart that reaches beyond our own region to see the Gospel taken to every people group.  We see area, regional, national and international networking - a two-way flow of resources and spiritual life, gaining credibility and strength from what takes place at local level.

We see Church functioning in the home, cell, friendship groups, congregation, schools, colleges and workplace; church is wherever we are.  We see elders, spiritual father/mothers, prophets, apostles, pastors, etc, exercising and exerting influence through their gift, ministry and calling inside and outside the Church.

We see the powers of darkness being pushed back, and hear the crackling of revival fire.  Society is being transformed and the Church is growing!

A decade later we still hold this vision close to our hearts, but have to admit that we’re not where we’d like to be in outworking it.  Talking it is easier than walking it!  Nevertheless, we go on praying, we look for opportunities to build friendships and relational unity as we work together with our brothers and sisters in other local congregations/ministries, and we remain as committed as ever to a vision which we believe reflects the prayer of Jesus in John 17 – that they may be one.

Like to discuss further?

If you would like help to explore these issues more fully, we would love to hear from you.  Here at Christian Spectrum we've a heart to see relational unity established through local communities of believers.  Feel free to contact us.


Mutually beneficial characteristics

It's important to bear in mind the overlap and relationship that exists between the different characteristics of the New Testament Church:

General introduction to series . . .
Part 1 in this series discusses Eschatological focus . . . 
Part 2 in this series discusses Prophetic mandate . . .
Part 3 in this series discusses Meeting in houses and community living . . .
Part 4 in this series discusses Leadership . . .
Part 5 in this series discusses Discipleship . . .
Part 6 in this series discusses Spiritual gifts . . .
Part 7 in this series discusses Pioneers or settlers . . .
Part 8 in this series discusses Identity precedes function . . .
Part 9 in this series discusses Relational unity . . .
Part 10 in this series discusses Kingdom message and proclamation . . .
Part 11 in this series discusses The persecuted Church . . . 

Jesus prayed for all future believers that they ‘may be one,' united with each other and with God just as Jesus and the Father are perfectly united (John 17:21).  Jesus prayed for this in order that ‘the world may believe you have sent me’ (John 17:21).  The unity of the Church is a witness to and sign of the authenticity and credibility of Jesus’ divinity.  Jesus is publicly vindicated when the Church is united . . .

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