In John 17, we hear the Son of God pour out His deepest heart-wrenching desires to the Father. Facing the cross, Jesus prayed some rather unexpected words.
Instead of praying for Himself, for strength, for some way out, Jesus prayed that His death and His followers would honor God.
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23, HCSB).
In His great high-priestly prayer, Jesus asked the Father that He would complete all the Father had sent Him to do. “Glorify me,” He says, “as I glorify you.” Then His attention abruptly turned to everyone who believes in the name of Christ.
These words are only a small part of His prayer, but they are a salient part. He prayed that His followers would be one. He prayed for unity through which somehow the world might know who God is.
Jesus said that the manner in which believers unite with one another would prove to the world that He is God. That command is a tall order, reminiscent of John 13:34-35, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Unity in Denominations
No one in the church world that I know disagrees with these powerful statements. The real question is how to apply Jesus’ words, and how we live those words in our churches. That verse is a broad command, right? “The church should be united.”
We can see unity on the denominational level. Though not perfect, many denominations began for the singular purpose of unity.
In the polity of most groups, denominations are churches that cooperate in mission. The purpose is to pursue a common goal—unification for a common mission. That goal is certainly the design, but sadly, it's often not the case.
Unfortunately, many know my denomination more for its squabbles and arguments than for its unity. Often those disagreements are over secondary or tertiary issues, not things of primary importance.
So, even denominations need to work on unity.
Unity Beyond Denomination
If we can’t agree and unite in one denomination, how do we even think about unity with other denominations? How do Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals relate? What about Lutherans and Methodists? Are they in unity? If so, what is the unifying principle?
How do Presbyterians and Baptists—who disagree on pivotal theological distinctions—unite? Not theoretically, but in practice?
The denominations I’ve mentioned thus far are Protestant evangelicals. How do these denominations relate to others in the broader historic Christian tradition? For example, how does an evangelical church relate to those in an Eastern Orthodox church or to Roman Catholics?
Or, taken a step further, how we might work with people outside the broad Christian tradition, such as Mormons?
Levels of Cooperation
I am comfortable cooperating, unifying on different levels, depending on what the focus of our cooperation is.
I am in a denomination and that is a level of partnership. In my denomination, people disagree on escatology, spiritual gifts, and more.
In addition, I associate with the National Association of Evangelicals and serve on the board, so I am definitely for unity and cooperation across denominational lines.
However, there are places where partnership does not work (and it should not).
For example, I don’t think Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals should plant a church together since they do not share a common theology on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And, Presbyterians and Baptists might not plant a church together because they wouldn’t know whether to bring a cup or tub for baptism.
Evangelicals share a common belief, that (among other things) we were each once dead in our trespasses and sins, but through a conversion experience we become new in Christ. This point can unify evangelicals.
But should we cooperate with those who don't agree that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone? That the Holy Spirit arrives in the believer sometime after salvation?
It depends on the purpose and point of the cooperation.
In the coming years people of faith who hold similar views around certain cultural issues—though they have divergent belief around essential theological issues—will end up working together more. We're going to see in the next few years more evangelicals working with those outside our evangelical faith tradition— Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even Mormons. On some issues I imagine this will include devout people of other faiths.
As the culture becomes more secular people of religious faith will find themselves fighting for shared values within society. For example, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, conservative Catholics, and Evangelicals all have a stake in how their schools can thrive and survive in the new cultural moment where we find ourselves— and I imagine we will work together to make that happen.
Since we are working together, some will want to affirm that all people of faith are the same. That’s a normal impulse historically, though it tends to not end well.
Others will say, that we are simply co-belligerents. We fight common battles together, like those for religious liberty, but we maintain our theological differences. We stand with our Catholic friends on sanctity-of-life issues, but we maintain that salvation is by grace through faith (alone) in Christ (alone).
My thought is that we will need to learn to be co-conspirators, co-belligerents in some huge political and cultural battles in the days ahead. We must learn to work together without losing the essence of what we believe, the gospel and its implications.
It won’t be easy. However, the other paths have always failed. When historic Christian groups who don’t agree on the gospel try to partner, the lowest common denominator is the result—a generic Christianity worth no one’s commitment.
Instead, as Evangelicals, let’s stay Evangelicals with our beliefs and our passion. And, let’s work with other Evanglicals to show and share the love of Jesus to a broken and hurting work. Let’s learn from one another and plant churches that believe what we believe.
Then, let’s work together with people of others faiths (or even no faith) who share our values around key issues.
The end result will be step toward the unity for which Jesus prayed without losing the gospel for which Jesus died.