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“It is not possible to account for the contentment with the divisions of the Church except upon the basis of a loss of the conviction that the Church exists to bring all men to Christ. There is the closest possible connection between the acceptance of the missionary obligation and the acceptance of the obligation of unity.” (Lesslie Newbigin, “The Reunion of the Church”, p. 11) 

The Benefits of Christian Unity

The eager pursuit and solemn maintenance of visible unity among believers produces, by God’s grace, a host of invaluable spiritual benefits within the body of Christ.  For instance, our evangelistic witness to the unbelieving world is directly dependent upon our unity with one another.  As Jesus himself has taught us, much of the efficacy and evidential staying power of our testimony to the watching world obtains from our being “one” with each other in the Lord (John 17:20-23; cf. Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-33).  Our collective urgency for and commitment to unity with one another reflects our dedication to this overarching cause.[1]  As Lesslie Newbigin contended:

“The disunity of the Church is a denial of the promise and a contradiction of the purpose for which the Church is sent into the world.  How can the Church give to the world the message that Jesus is able to draw all men to Himself, while it continues to say, ‘Nevertheless, Jesus is not able to draw us who bear His name together’?  How will the world believe a message which we do not appear to believe ourselves?  The divisions of the Church are a public denial of the sufficiency of the atonement.”[2]

Francis Schaeffer once famously quipped that our greatest apologetic is love, and while this is doubtless correct, I would want to further qualify it by insisting that united love is the most powerful witness possible to the dark world of unbelief.  Similarly, our evangelistic appeal will be interpreted as unimpressive if it comes from the mouth of a divided community.[3]

Furthermore, when Christians dwell together in unity, they experience renewed, deepened maturity in their walks with Christ.[4]  We see this clearly in the flow of thought of Ephesians 4:1-16, where the unity of believers allows for the mutual edification and employment of the gifts of the Spirit, which in turn gives rise to enhanced displays of the fullness of Christ in our midst—the very goal of our redemption.  Christians perpetually stand in sober need of the richly diversified gifts and insights of other believers, and apart from genuine relationships in the context of unity such opportunities will be forfeited and immaturity will needlessly remain.

Likewise, passages such as Matthew 18:19-20—as well as widespread Christian experience and testimony throughout church history—demonstrate that sustaining unity among believers is often accompanied by prolonged interludes characterized by the dynamic and intensely transforming presence of God in our communities.  When followers of Jesus take seriously the call to unity, the gospel seems more real and compelling, God is more powerfully present through His Spirit in our hearts, and Christ is honored mightily in the world.  Doubtless a multitude of other unforeseen desirable benefits will likewise result from continually striving in faith to preserve the sacred bond of unity in Christ with which we have been entrusted.

Regardless, the church of Jesus Christ is unfathomably diminished and weakened through her untold divisions in the world.  We are a phantom specter, a mere faint glimmer, of what we could be by God’s grace were we to take His vision for the church seriously.  Along with John Owen, I invite you to dream in faith of a day when “religion will have another appearance in the world” on account of the presence of a reunified Body of Christ, internally displaying and embodying both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit:

“I confess I would rather, much rather, spend all my time and days in making up and healing the breaches and schisms that are amongst Christians than one hour in justifying our divisions even therein wherein, on the one side, they are capable of a fair defense…When men have labored as much in the principle of forbearance as they have done to subdue other men to their opinions, religion will have another appearance in the world.” (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 13, page 95)

[1] “The early believers were characterized by a oneness of purpose, and they were highly effective in their testimony…The company of believers tends to grow when their witness is united, whereas there may well be a negative or canceling effect when they compete with or even criticize one another.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1140)

[2] Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age, p. 9

[3] “The spiritual failure of Christianity in the modern era stems in many ways from ongoing division.  Our complacency about division undermines our mission…division breeds never-ending diversion from authentic mission.” (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, p. 33, 35)

[4] “When the church unites under Christ as its head, there is a maturing Christian experience.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1137)