So now we come to the end of Jesus’ prayer for himself, his disciples, and us. This is a very moving passage, and I’d like to focus on two main issues raised here.
Christians who take the Great Commission seriously have spent a lot of time pondering and planning about how to reach the lost world for Christ. What’s the best method? Tracts? Open air preaching? Servanthood evangelism? All of these methods—and a lot more—can be used by the Lord in reaching out to those who need Christ. But I want to drop a reminder here: Jesus prays for all of us who believe through the message of the Apostles. And what does he specifically pray for us? What does he desire to see? Unity. “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” When the world watches us, do they see unity? Or do they see Christians fighting each other?
I myself come from a background in the Southern Baptist church. I’m proud of our heritage as far as evangelism, missions, and taking the Bible seriously. But there’s one thing in particular I’m not proud of. When people hear the term “Southern Baptist,” all too often they think of Christians who can’t get along. And that’s a problem.
But we need to approach this with wisdom. Everybody loves unity—on their own terms. I’d love to have perfect unity, as long as by that you mean people thinking like me. When people call for unity, they usually mean two things: A) People need to drop beliefs which are really important to them, and B) Agree with the person calling for unity.
My dear siblings in Christ, we’re never going to have complete doctrinal unity this side of Glory. The Bible’s not as clear on a host of subjects as we'd like it to be, and we also have to deal with human nature which doesn’t tend to be open to listening (really listening) to those with whom we disagree. On one point I think we can all agree with Calvin: Where the Bible is clear, we need to be dogmatic. Our steadfastness on a subject should be proportional to how clear the Bible is on it.
So how can we be unified? If not to the degree Jesus wants, then how can we improve? Well, first and foremost, I think we need to carefully distinguish what’s essential to the faith versus what’s not essential. In the first category, I’d put things like 1) Authority of the Scriptures, 2) The nature of God and the individual members of the Trinity, 3) How to receive salvation, and 4) The exclusive claims of the faith (like John 14:6). In the second category, I’d put things like 1) the exact relationship between our free will and God’s sovereignty and 2) Someone's eschatology. I don’t mean we can’t have our own answers to nonessential questions; I certainly do, but I try to be careful about making the right distinctions.
Second, I think we need to be charitable with those who disagree with us over nonessentials. I’m not my sibling’s judge. I don’t know his heart. I might disagree with him, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. And if someone agrees about the essentials, then they’re part of the Body of Christ as far as I’m concerned. And even if they’re wrong in the essentials, I’m still required to love them.
I certainly don’t know exactly how to bring unity to the Body of Christ, but I do know that it’s important to our Savior. In the last few moments before he was arrested, this was on his mind, and he asked the Father for it. And I think—both for the sake of his glory and for the sake of a lost world—we need to as well.
Lord Jesus, I know that you’re Truth Incarnate, and so I don’t want to sacrifice truth for some notion of “unity.” Help me to speak the truth in love, and to find the right balance between the two.