*To see the previous post in this ongoing series, click here.

Our Lord says [in John 17] that He has given this glory to those who believe in Him ‘that they may be one even as we are one.’  Being children of God must mean being–in some recognizable sense–members of one family.  All our rationalizations of schism and all our evasions of the plain meaning of Scripture will not enable us to side-step the logic of that argument.  In some sense those who are children of one Father must be recognizable as members of one family…In the middle of this world God has set His Church as His witness.  He expects His Church to be recognizable as His family.  He expects that the glory which He gave to His Son, and which has been given to us, will be visible to the world in the common life of a redeemed brotherhood.  He expects that the world will be able to recognize that the Church is the place where His love is actually at work drawing together into one men of every sort and kind.” (Lesslie Newbigin, “Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age”, pp. 20, 24-25)

The Visibility of Christian Unity

Christian unity cannot be conveniently relegated to the realm of the “spiritual” or “invisible,” excusing our complacency as we all go our own separate ways and never interact in sincere and sustained fellowship with one another.[1]  We are called to exhibit our mutual unity in Christ not only in word and talk, but also in deed and truth (I John 3:18).[2]  Unity among all believers must be demonstrated visibly and plainly in every geographical area where a Christian presence exists in the world.[3]  Such publicly perceptible demonstrations of our bond in Christ provide what Francis Schaeffer (in his memorable little book The Mark of the Christian) called “the final apologetic” to the watching, unbelieving world around us.

That Christian unity is necessarily visible can be deduced from several factors.  First, it must be visible because it is divinely designed to be seen by the world, that is, by unbelievers outside of the community of faith (John 17:21, 23).[4]  Second, the lack of unity among various Christians can be rebuked when it is violated or disrupted (I Corinthians 1:10-4:21, Philippians 4:2-3).  Third, unity between believers can be prayed for (John 17) and sought after in practical ways (Romans 15:5-7, Philippians 1:27-2:2), which assumes that as such it is not automatic or necessarily present in the church at all times and places.

We cannot hope to make either heads or tails of this biblical trajectory if Christian unity is mainly mystical or “spiritual” in an invisible sense.  As Schaeffer notes:

“To relate these verses in John 13 and 17 merely to the existence of the invisible Church makes Jesus’ statement a nonsense statement.  We make a mockery of what Jesus is saying unless we understand that he is talking about something visible.  This is the whole point: The world is going to judge whether Jesus has been sent by the Father on the basis of something that is open to observation.” (The Mark of the Christian, p. 35)

Christian unity which attains to the standard of the Scriptures must be outward, tangible and experientially realized in the life of the church on a perpetual basis.  It does not exist irrespective of our structural divisions, personal attitudes or worldly actions toward fellow believers.  Therefore, I concur with the challenging yet appropriate words of Newbigin here:

“There is, unfortunately, a loose use of the word ‘spiritual’ which enables people in ordinary speech to put asunder the two things which Scripture unites—the one body and the one Spirit.  People talk of a ‘spiritual unity’ as something separate from unity in one body.  It is often difficult to know what this means.  Sometimes it means a feeling of unity which can express itself in occasional courtesies, or in occasional joint demonstrations, but is not strong enough to stand the strain of living together in one body.  When people are content with this, feeling degenerates into sentimentality.  When Paul speaks of ‘one Spirit’ he is talking about something far removed from this.  He is talking of the one Holy Spirit of God given to believers.  And he links this indissolubly with ‘one body,’ because the proper fruit of the presence of the Spirit of God is a love that is not sentimental but strong and enduring and patient as the love of Christ Himself.  Such love expresses itself in more than occasional demonstrations.  It expresses itself in a deep and enduring commitment to one another to live as brethren in one family.  If we think that a ‘spiritual unity’ which is content with mere feeling and does not seek visible expression in that kind of steady and enduring commitment, is an adequate expression of our unity in Christ, we deceive ourselves.”[5]

To acknowledge the irreducible visibility of Christian unity requires our unapologetic dissent from every cheap imitation of the genuine item surrounding us in the Western church today.  It is to commit oneself not merely to a floating, pleasantly abstract idea, but to something so this-worldly that it can and must be measured empirically–at least to a significant degree.  It requires taking up our cross daily and dying to our old self and the corresponding sinful agendas which can do nothing but divide us from other believers outside the immediate privacy of our inner circles.  The visibility of our bond in Christ means we must put our money where our mouth is, or else be exposed as hypocrites and disobedient servants.  We must be deadly serious about this pursuit, for everything must come to the light one way or another.  And unity between brothers and sisters in Christ was always meant to come to the light, anyway.

“The bond that joins Christians to God and to each other, though grounded in the interior working of the Holy Spirit, is not meant to be invisible; it must have a visible edge.  To work against the visible manifestation of the unity God has given us, or to accept its absence with resignation, is therefore resistance to God’s Spirit and exposes us to God’s judgment.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 15).

Next Week: The priority of Christian unity

[1] “In a word, the unity of the body of Christ, is not a tenet that may be relegated to the transcendental realm of invisible, spiritual relationship, but a truth that governs, regulates, and conditions the behavior of the people of God in the communal, covenant relationship which they sustain to Christ in the institute of the church…Hence, to maintain that the unity belonging to the church does not entail ecumenical embodiment, is to deny the catholicity of the church of Christ.  If the church is catholic, then unity is catholic.” (John Murray, “The Nature and Unity of the Church,” pp. 332-33)

[2] “What obligations have Christians…with regard to the Church’s unity?  Not to create it, as if it did not already exist, but to acknowledge and express it in every way possible.” (J. I. Packer, “The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity,” in Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer: Serving the People of God, Vol. 2,  p. 40) 

[3] “This unity, though primarily spiritual in character, nevertheless exists objectively and really, and it does not remain completely invisible.  It manifests itself outwardly—albeit in a very imperfect way—and at least to some degree comes to light…” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4, p. 321)

[4] “Clearly the unity among Christians for which our Lord is praying here is to be a visible unity if, as he prays, the world is to learn from it that the Father has sent him.  G. C. Berkouwer rightly declares that ‘the Church may not be viewed as a hidden, mystical, mysterious present reality full of inner richness, which the world cannot perceive…To flee here to the continuing sinfulness of the Church as an ‘explanation’ of her disunity or into the reassurance that a hidden unity can survive in the division does not take Christ’s prayer seriously.’” (Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 840, n. 5).  Cf. these similar sentiments: “[T]he unity of which Jesus speaks [in John 17] must be in some way visible, because it is meant to be seen by the world.  Invisible unity has no evangelistic power…Unity must be recognizable as unity without an extensive theological gloss.  One must be able to see that the church, in its ordinary life and practice, is one community reconciled in Christ.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 32, 43)

[5] Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age, pp. 16-17