The meaning of “Christian Unity”

By David W. T. Brattston

Editor’s note: the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was proposed in 1908 as the Octave of Christian Unity by Fr. Paul Wattson, cofounder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. It is generally observed between Jan. 18 and Jan. 25. In the southern hemisphere, where January is vacation time, churches often find other days to celebrate the week of prayer, for example around Pentecost. The theme for the week in 2017, which is also the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, is “Reconciliation — The Love of Christ Compels Us.”

What is Christian unity in the Biblical sense? Is it merely two neighboring congregations of the same denomination sponsoring a joint meal? Or two congregations of different denominations doing so? Intercommunion agreements? Co-operation in the World Council of Churches, and similar national and local organizations? Or did Jesus and his first followers mean nothing less than the thoroughgoing structural union of two previously independent denominations? Does Christian unity require a complete structural merger from different denominational families, such as Episcopal with Lutheran?

Jesus called for unity among Christians, as indicated in John 10.16 (“there will be one flock and one shepherd”) and his oft-cited prayer in John 17, which contains the phrase “that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee.” However, these passages do not tell us exactly what Christian unity is, or how we can know it exists in a particular situation or community.

We must therefore examine the Bible and the earliest non-biblical Christian sources to see what “unity” means and how we can work towards it. As an aid to interpretation of the New Testament, let us look at the writings of Christians from the era when memories were still fresh with the unwritten teachings and Bible interpretations of Christ and could recall what he and the apostles did in practice, before there was opportunity for the gospel to drift far from its roots. Consulting the earliest post-biblical sources enables us to ascertain the meaning of such unity in the practice of the apostles and how “unity” was understood in the next few overlapping generations.

In John 17, Jesus prayed that Christians be united in the same way that he and the Father are united. Not knowing the mechanics of heaven, we humans are little assisted by this statement in determining the quality and extent of unity, except to observe — important later in this article — that the Father and Son are persons in constant or perpetual contact with each other.

The essence of Christian unity later in the first century AD was the considerate treatment and mutual acts of brotherly love among Christ’s followers at the congregational level on a frequent basis.

In the first century, while some apostles were still alive, the congregation at Rome wrote to the one in Corinth a long letter urging the Corinthians to reinstate congregational office bearers they had unjustifiably unseated, resulting in a rift in the congregation. The letter encouraged restoring the office holders in order to re-establish peace, love and unity among Christians who were in at least weekly contact with each other. In both biblical and non-biblical first-century letters, the contexts assume a single local church in a single city or town, and do not speak of relations between the addressees and Christians in other congregations, let alone other denominations, such as the Gnostics.

Shortly before his martyrdom in AD 107, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch encouraged Christians to be united to God, and also to the apostles and each congregation’s clergy. In the early third century, a church manual stressed unity of clerics among themselves in a congregation. Both Ignatius and the manual pressed for greater consolidation and comity within the existing ecclesiastical or congregational structure to improve relations between Christians who had daily or weekly interactions with each other. In AD 197, the church father Tertullian wrote of Christian unity as being the gathering together of Christians in local public worship and sharing this world’s goods as a voluntary unity of property.

Preached about AD 249, Origen’s Homilies on Joshua saw effective unity in two or three Christians agreeing in prayer on a joint request, and in the apostles praying with one accord. These examples are of persons in each other’s presence cooperating towards a common spiritual goal. Origen was the foremost Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of his own time and for centuries afterwards.

For confirmation of this view as to what the ancients meant by Christian unity, let us look at what the above authors classed it with as desirable Christian traits: peace, love, gentleness, compassion, courtesy, meekness, lowliness, longsuffering, forbearance, hospitality, and recognition of the spiritual gifts of other Christians.

According to the same authors, Christian unity is incompatible with strife, jealousy, dissimulation, arrogance, overthrowing congregational leaders, wisdom in one’s own conceits, repaying evil for evil, and thinking too highly of oneself.

All these are attitudes, qualities of character, or modes of interacting with people or conditions of relating to people with whom one is in personal contact. In the biblical sense, unity is thus a pattern of mind and behavior, a method for conducting interpersonal relations among Christians in frequent contact, and which fosters Christian peace, love and harmony at the neighborhood level.

Not mentioned in the Bible, although Christianity had divided into different sects by the first century, formal interdenominational mergers contribute to Christian unity only to the extent that they promote these local objectives. The shared communion between Episcopalians and Lutherans is one of these objectives, for it enables us to gather together, pray together, accept each other as equals in Christ, and share together in a foretaste of heaven.

When planning or beginning a new inter-church project, we must avoid expressions — or even thoughts — such as “forgive,” “reconcile,” “repent,” or “we are glad you see the matter our way.” This is another method of accusing the cooperating denomination and its members as having long been morally or theologically inferior to our own. An attitude of “them” and “us” or of winning or losing concerning a former difference between the denominations is the opposite of peace, love, courtesy, and lowliness/humility.

Such words and attitudes exhibit a continuing lack of longsuffering, forbearance and recognition of the spiritual gifts in what the other church had always done. Part of Christian unity is forgetfulness of past variances and stifling temptations to think about past differences in non-essentials. I doubt that the Father and the Son, as persons in perfect unity, communicate this way with each other.