As a person opens the pages of the New Testament or history books of the first and second century, he or she is confronted by a Church (ekklesia) that is both growing and impacting society. There are numerous reasons for this growth, but I want to speak of why unity played such an important role in the growth of the early Church and to share why unity is important today.
Let me ask you this question: “How many Christian churches are there in your city?” If you answer anything except “one church,” you have a defective understanding of scripture. This is because there is only one Church with many congregations. “Oh, I know that, Schlafer!” you may say. However, unless your answer is “one church” every time this question is asked, you may not have this New Testament truth as a part of your spiritual DNA.
It is clear from a reading of the New Testament that when the ekklesia was addressed, it was speaking not of a local assembly, but of all believers in the city or region. So to the Church (ekklesia) of Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, for example (Revelation 2-3), Jesus’ words were addressed to a region, not just a local assembly. Were there local assemblies within the region? Of course. However, they saw themselves not only as individual gatherings, but as a part of the whole area.
This resulted in a continuous expansion and growth of the Church. When you read about the persecution of Christians in earlier days, you never read that the persecutors went after the assembly at so-and-so’s house. Rather, the Christians of the city or region were the object of the hate. Even the enemies of Christ saw the Church as one, not separate entities. Because they operated in biblical unity, the ekklesia not only grew numerically, but literally transformed the super power of their day.
What are we to make of this? Does anyone really believe that when Jesus prayed that “that they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I in you,” that he was indicating that if we simply do a few meetings together with other followers of the Lord Jesus then we have fulfilled this prayer? Or if we gather together to pray once a month, then we have displayed an answer to this prayer of our Lord?
When preaching on this issue, at this point I often break congregations into two groups. One group sings the chorus of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” while the other sings the chorus of “Jesus Loves Me.” When we finish, I ask, “How did that sound?” Of course the answer is terrible. Two songs, both about Jesus, produced dissonance.
Then I have them sing together “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” slowly and in harmony. This sounds much better. What is the difference? I coordinated the singing. If each is functioning independently, they are in competition and the result is dissonance. What we need is coordination, “the harmonious functioning of the parts for the most effective results.” That is exactly what Jesus was talking about in John 17 and what the early ekklesia understood (1 Corinthians 12:27). They were to operate together in biblical unity.
We should be so connected relationally with other followers of the Lord Jesus that the non-believing world thinks we are one. John Armstrong once wrote,
When followers of the Lord Jesus Christ live out their spiritual unity with Jesus in the way he prayed for, the results will be exactly what Jesus asked [the Father] to give us. “Then the world will know that you [the Father] sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). The Church will be the visible example of the relational and spiritual unity of the triune God.1
“Impossible, Schlafer. It will never happen,” is what I hear all the time from Christian leaders. To this, I say two things.
First, I am not speaking of what is currently true; rather, I am speaking of what is to be. Jesus prayed that this relational unity would come to pass. Since he is the author of prayer, it must mean that he is going to answer that prayer. Therefore, I choose to be obedient to what he prays and make biblical unity a priority in my life and ministry.
Second, biblical unity is the term for our day. God seems to speak certain words to the Church at various times in history. The words have always been in scripture, but have been unheeded by the vast majority of Christians. For example, “The just shall live by faith” was always in Romans. However, when God whispered it to Martin Luther’s heart, it ignited the Protestant Reformation. It was a word for that season. It has been this way throughout history: things contained in scripture suddenly burst into conscious understanding because God wills it so for that period of history.
Recently, I received an email that contained this statistic: Five years ago, there were 639 unreached people groups. Today, there are less than 200. I happened to be preaching the next Sunday and said to the congregation, “Let’s suppose that these statistics are only ten percent correct. All I know is that we are far more into end times than I realized.”
It is no wonder that biblical unity is a term we hear more and more today. Jesus is coming for a bride, not a harem. If we are moving into the last days, then it makes biblical sense that unity would be on the Spirit’s agenda for our day. We cannot continue to do ministry the way we have been doing it.
I recently came across Matthew 7:23: “On judgment day many will tell me, ‘Lord, Lord, we prophesied in your name, and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply ‘I never knew you. Go away, the things you did were unauthorized.”
It was the word “unauthorized” that stopped me cold. In other words, we can do all kinds of ministry, but unless it is authorized by God, it is an abomination. Biblical unity has been authorized by our Lord. The question for us is: are we doing it?
1. 2010. Your Church Is too Small. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 44.