When Jesus prayed for his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, he also prayed for every believer who would ever receive their message. Among his poignant requests, Jesus petitioned the Father for his followers to be one, just as the Son and his Father are one and have always been one (John 17:5, 24).
Yet when we look at the church today—local and universal—one wonders if the prayer got lost in transmission. Scripture prevents us from doubting the efficacy of his prayer (Heb 5:7; 7:24), but sometimes the unity for which he prayed and the disunity that we can see leave us perplexed. How should we understand the unity for which Christ prayed? A few qualifications and gospel-centered reflections may be helpful.
First, church unity does not mean the absence of strife. While Christ prayed for unity, he also prayed for the sanctification of his church (John 17:17). The need for sanctification assumes the presence of sin, and sin’s presence promises disunity. Jesus knew this and did not pray naively. He prayed knowingly for immature churches, persecuted churches, proud churches, churches filled with sinful people—churches like the ones Paul addressed and Jesus rebuked in Revelation 1-3. His prayer is what glues sinners together, and it is by design that conflicting sinners would dwell together. Why? Because Jesus uses the nagging sins of others to expose our own sins, creating opportunities to forbear, forgive, and fulfill Jesus greatest ecclesial instruction: Love one another (John 13:34-35). In this way, strife in the church that naturally leads to disunity has the possibility of refining the church when the underlying sin is confronted, confessed, and the gospel of grace is applied (Matt 18:21-35).
Second, church unity does not depend on earthly similarities. In fact, a church that is held together by musical agreement, median age, or ethnic identity alone is in danger of being sub-Christian. While churches in one location speaking one language will naturally have a threshold for diversity, the church built by Jesus is not constructed with personal affinities. The Spirit unites blood-bought, born-again believers. In fact, as a church grows larger, its potential for division will likely increase as new members are added. This is especially true when a church reaches people from divergent backgrounds. But this is part of God’s glorious plan (Matt 28:19; Gal 3:28). As diversification increases within the congregation, gospel-centered unity around the cross becomes all the more pronounced and needed, because earthly diversity threatens heavenly peace. Yet this is where Jesus’ prayer overcomes. Jesus doesn’t simply unify fraternity brothers, he reconciles enemies (Eph 2:11-22), and he creates “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” that we are called to maintain (Eph 4:3). Consequently, when we see tension and divisions arising in our midst, we should not be disheartened but compelled to pray, and to pray with confidence that we are echoing Jesus’ prayer for unity among a mixed multitude (Rev 5:9-10). This kind of “peace” cannot be explained by sociological patterns alone or produced through research and programming. It is a peace that surpasses human understanding and comes from the Prince of Peace.
Third, church unity depends on the Word of God. Just before Jesus prays for unity in verses 20-21, he prays that God would sanctify his people. Jesus’ prayer insinuates that unity is based upon sanctification, and sanctification is based upon the word of Truth (v. 17). Only as we humble ourselves under Christ’s authoritative word and gather ourselves around his life-changing message can spiritual unity endure. Unity built on anything else—personality, ministry, or even Bible translation—is destined for failure. Going one step further, only when the Word of God is central, can sinning members be reconciled. Therefore, a church’s unity depends upon its commitment and understanding of God’s Word.
Finally, church unity will not be fully realized until Jesus Christ comes again. Too often, we expect today what is not promised until Christ’s return. In this way, future hope distorts present perception. We need to remember that we live in a time when the Spirit and the flesh co-exist and war. Satan deceives and works in our midst. Our expectations for unity should be hopeful but not unrealistic. While we must pursue peace with everyone (Rom 12:18) and show ourselves to be God’s children as peacemakers (Matt 5:9), we must not be surprised when we see disunity. Instead, we should follow Jesus’ example and pray for the peace of Israel. We must evaluate our own contribution to the strife; we must remove the log from our own eye; and we must hope afresh in the gospel of Jesus Christ. His peace is already but not yet!
Until he comes ushering in an age of peace (Isa 11:1-10), we must daily strap on our boots of the gospel of peace and proclaim pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, because Jesus has prayed for his church and he is in the process of bringing peace to sinners like us. In this way, we battle to make peace.
So beware of perfect peace in your aspiration for church. Whether you are looking to lead a church to perfect peace or to find one that does not have conflict, you search will be more successful if you look for a church who has a perfect peacemaker, because perfect peace in this fallen age will only disappoint. Yet perfect peace is promised and it is coming. It is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we who know him are closer to that peace than we have ever been before, even if we are engaged in battle.