Christian Unity Now

[1] 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?

[2] Jesus called for unity among Christians, as indicated in John 10.16 and His oft-cited prayer in John 17, but these do not tell us exactly what Christian unity is, or how we can know it exists in a particular situation or community.

[3] 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, the present article looks 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.

[4] 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.

[5] The essence of Christian unity later in the first century AD was the considerate treatment and mutual accommodation among Christ’s followers at the congregational level on a frequent basis: Romans 12.4f, 1 Corinthians 1.10, Ephesians 4.3 and Philippians 1.27 and 2.2. The contexts of all these Scriptures are a single local church in a single city.

[6] Also in the first century, while some apostles were still alive, the congregation at Rome wrote to that at 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.[1] 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.

[7] 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.[2] In the early third century, a church manual stressed unity of clerics among themselves in a congregation.[3] 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.[4]

[8] Preached about AD 249, Origen’s Homilies on Joshua saw effective unity in two or three Christians agreeing in prayer on a joint request (Matthew 18.19), and in the apostles praying with one accord (Acts. 1.14). These examples are of persons in each other’s presence co-operating towards a common spiritual goal.[5] Origen was the foremost Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of his own time and for centuries afterwards.

[9] 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.[6]

[10] 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.[7]

[11] 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 with who come into frequent contact, and which fosters Christian peace, love and harmony at the neighborhood level.

[12] 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. Shared Holy Communion in each other’s house of worship 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.

[13] It would appear that there is no further need for organizational efforts toward Christian unity. The major churches have already attained a sufficient degree of harmony and mutual acceptance to fulfill Jesus’s call for unity among Christians in John 10.16 and in His oft-cited prayer in John 17. We must now concentrate on more vital endeavors.

[14] Look at mainline denominations. Most of them have intercommunion agreements, fellowship and joint ventures with other church bodies, and cooperation in local, national, and world council of churches. Any disunity is largely illusory, with the differences being only in nonessentials which other major church bodies are willing to tolerate.

[15] Even if we substitute the phrase “Christian unity” in its Biblical sense by the “organizational unity” or “structural unity” that fringe denominations and some members of mainline churches mistake it for, believers of every denomination can practice John 17 now, in their daily lives. Even when we narrow down the meaning of Christian unity to structural or bureaucratic arrangements, there is no longer any sense to regard disunity as a problem, for there exist far too many avenues for churches to share and cooperate with each other, such as intercommunion agreements, open Communion, unhindered mutual acceptance, joint ventures with other church bodies, and cooperation in local, national, and world councils of churches.

[16] In the last hundred years, the tireless efforts of many leaders of major churches and the goodwill of local laity towards their counterparts in other communions have achieved a real, viable, and practical unity through many branches of Christendom, which answers Christ’s prayer. Let us honor them or their memories, and concentrate instead on redoubling Christian efforts more towards feeding the hungry masses of the Global South. Even here there is opportunity for interdenominational cooperation.

[17] How about a “Week of Prayer for Starving Peoples”?


[1] First Clement passim.

[2] [2] Ignatius Ephesians 1.2; Ignatius Trallians 7.1; Ignatius Magnesians 7.1.

[3] Didascalia Apostolorum 11.

[4] Tertullian Apologeticum 39.

[5] Origen Homilies on Joshua 7.2, 9.2.

[6] Ephesians 4.2-3; Philippians 2.2; 1 Peter 3.8-9; 1 Clement 62.2, 64.1.

[7] First Corinthians 1.10; Philippians 2.3, 1 Peter 3.9-10; 1 Clement 63.2; Ignatius Trallians 4.1; Origen Homilies on Joshua 9.2; Origen Homilies on Leviticus 5.12.3.

David Brattston

Dr. David W. T. Brattston is member of the oldest Lutheran congregation in Canada. Since 1995 he has been a volunteer at the Lunenburg Inter-Church Food Bank.