In the midst of the ministry battles of today and the ensuing clash of beliefs, there is often a call for unity. Understandably so. But will it ever work to make unity the goal? At best, such an attempt can only produce a surface unity. True unity is a by-product, not a goal.
Jesus speaks to this truth, praying for the disciples in the great high priestly prayer of John 17:
“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:21-23).
“That they all may be one” is often misunderstood to mean a unity of doctrine and practice, and in some cases, this misunderstanding could lead to compromise. Therefore, some emphasize “the Spirit of truth” mentioned in the discourse preceding this prayer would never lead to compromise (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). While it is true the Spirit never leads to compromise, some have imposed their version of “truth” in the name of “the Spirit of truth.” The fact is everyone argues about what constitutes compromise. In the ensuing argument, the attempted unity gets shattered.
There will be no unity of doctrine or practice until we get to heaven. In certain matters, I don’t even agree with myself from twenty years ago! But there can be unity of the Spirit this side of heaven. Unity of the Spirit presupposes faith in Jesus and acceptance of the essentials vital to salvation but is not based upon a particular group’s understanding of truth beyond the essentials and the details of their doctrine and practice.
Thankfully, when Jesus prayed “that they all may be one,” He immediately defined His intent:
“…[A]s thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me.”
The Father was in Jesus, and Jesus was in the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:1). In like fashion we are in Christ, and Christ is in us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:20; 3:27: 1 Cor. 6:19; 12:13). This is the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3).
The unity of believers occurs through life in the Spirit or the Spirit-filled life. The Spirit-filled life is when the Spirit fills us with the life of Jesus as we walk by faith (Gal. 2:20). The goal is Jesus—His life accessed by faith. The by-product is unity with others who pursue the same goal.
When believers walk by faith in the reality of being in Christ and Christ in them, the glory of Jesus shines. Jesus said in His prayer that He has given glory to His disciples in the way the Father gave Him glory. The Spirit of the Father was in Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus is in us—”Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This supernatural dynamic along with true unity in the Spirit positively impacts unbelievers. Jesus said the end result would be “that the world may believe.”
The key is focusing on Jesus leading to experiencing Jesus. This is the Christ-life or Spirit-filled life. The by-product will be unity of the right sort—unity of the Spirit.
John Van Gelderen