I’ve recently published an article in Missio Dei: Tyndale Seminary’s Journal of Missional Christianity, entitled “That the World May Believe: Mission and Unity.” It’s not a long read, and not overly specialized, since Missio Dei is a journal aimed at all Christian leaders, not just academics. The journal aims to utilize the expertise of faculty and friends of the Tyndale community in such a way as to help equip Christian leaders in their day to day participation in God’s mission.
The article begins with John 17, in which Jesus prays for the church to be one, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This text suggests that there is a strong connection between Christian unity and Christian witness. However, Christians have never really been able to agree as to what Jesus was really saying when he prayed “that they may be one.”
The article proceeds with a discussion of seven different approaches to Christian unity: spiritual, visible, structural, doctrinal, service, mutual recognition, koinonia. Some of these approaches are usually identified with one particular Christian tradition, but they are not mutually exclusive, and can be combined in various ways.
The second half of the article suggests that evangelicals in particular could re-examine their aversion to one of these approaches: visible unity.
I would also suggest that, in a post-Christendom context, it is time to re-examine evangelicalism’s characteristic aversion to conceptions of “visible unity.” In a previous era, when established state churches could institute a kind of false unity by coercion, it made sense for evangelicals to resist such conceptions of “visible” unity and stand up for our freedom to assemble and worship according to conscience. However, we no longer live in a time when state power is aligned with one particular denomination, and so the idea of a “visible unity” need not carry those connotations. We have also rightly resisted approaches to unity which pushed towards the building of a “superchurch” with a centralized bureaucracy. But “visible unity” need not be taken in this direction, either.
To say that our unity ought to be “visible” is simply to say that the church’s unity must take shape in the world, as the church lives out its life in space and time. We can’t just pay lip-service to the unity we have been promised in Christ. In order for our unity to serve the purpose of witnessing to the world about Jesus, it must be a unity that is on display for the world to see.
Head on over to Missio Dei to read the whole article, and while you’re there, check out the archives.