(John 17:20–21 ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
“So that the world may believe” was a major theme of the early Restoration Movement, and the goal wasn’t merely that this new denomination be united, but that “those who believe in” Jesus be united — just as Jesus prayed.
How is this to be accomplished in a world in which the church is divided into warring denominations, dividing from each other and dividing within each other?
1. One approach is the ecumenical movement. This was a product of the 19th Century, eventually becoming a worldwide effort by church leaders to unite through periodic gatherings to discuss differences, promote greater interdenominational understanding and respect, and to issue white papers.
Institutional leaders tend to see unity as an institutional matter, and when institutions define themselves by certain doctrinal positions, there is no way for these institutions to merge.
The last 200 years demonstrate that this effort has largely failed. The problem seems to be the insistence by denominational leaders on their denominational identity markers. Calvinists wish to continue to be Calvinists and Arminians will remain Arminians despite a thousand conferences.
2. Another approach is to build the best denomination you can and then plead for all others to join your best-built denomination. This has been the nature of much of the work of the 20th Century Churches of Christ. They claimed to not even be a denomination, and urged all others to join them in their doctrinal purity.
The effort failed — largely because we defined as “saved” only those who adhered to every single dearly held doctrinal position. Around 1900, the list of “salvation issues” or “marks of the church” included an objection to located preachers (“hireling ministers”), bake sales to raise money for church work, instrumental music, and nonprofit organizations to support mission work.
Today, the list includes, depending on location and the preacher’s preacher school, fellowship halls, kitchens in the building, one cup, rejection of the Sunday school, women wearing hats in the assembly, elder re-affirmation, and you know the rest of the very long list.
Obviously, a denomination that disagrees over so many “marks of the church” can’t call the surrounding denominational world into unity. You have be united to do that — and you have to have an understanding of the Bible that permits real unity, and ours does not.
3. You can sink into the Body of Christ at large, as Barton W. Stone and others urged when they signed the Last Will & Testament of the Springfield Presbytery — the founding document of the RM. But even they had trouble pulling this off because they were surrounded by sectarian denominations that refused to have anything to do with them. But that was 200 years ago. Things have changed.
While over the last two centuries the Churches of Christ have become more and more sectarian (until about 1980), most of the denominations that surround us have become much less so. No longer would the Baptists break fellowship over Alexander Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law.” No longer would the Presbyterians defrock Thomas Campbell for serving communion to the wrong subset of Presbyterians.
In fact, most church members have rejected the notion that we should be divided over disagreements about apostolic succession, the frequency of communion, or the best way to conduct a baptism. As a result, members join churches based more on the quality of the preaching and the teen program than denominational identity markers. Indeed, recent surveys show dramatic increases in those Christians who self-identify as “non-denominational.”
It’s just that this kind of thinking is so very foreign to traditional Church of Christ thinking that we have trouble even imagining how we might actually accomplish what we first set out to do: “Sink into the Body of Christ at large.”
Here are some of the key barriers:
A. We can’t imagine salvation being bigger than our denomination. We really think we’re the only ones going to heaven. Why? Well for three reasons —
1. We see baptism as essential to salvation, and “baptism” to us means a correctly performed baptism in a Church of Christ baptistry by a Church of Christ preacher. If there’s any error at all in the baptismal process, then Jesus’ death is insufficient to save, faith is unavailing, and God’s promises to save everyone with faith in Jesus as Messiah will not be honored.
Baptism of believers by immersion eis the remission of sins is a NT teaching and should be taught and practiced. But converts who are taught incorrectly and so haven’t been properly baptized are nonetheless saved by grace. The sin committed is committed by their teachers, not those lacking a properly baptism. They are mere babes in Christ and not accountable for the declension of Greek verbs and the proper definition of Greek prepositions.
God has promised over and over and over to save ALL with faith (properly defined) in Jesus. God keeps his promises. All of them. And if someone teaches a novice error regarding baptism but truth regarding Jesus, God will honor his promise to save everyone with faith (properly defined) in Jesus.
Accordingly, while we must teach and practice what we believe to be true, we cannot treat as damned those who have imperfect baptismal theology — as though our understanding is so incredibly perfect that we’ve earned our way into heaven while no one else has.
2. We define the “faith” that saves as including any doctrine taught in the Bible that we happen to feel strongly about. Thus, we damn over kitchens in the building or a cappella music even though the Bible says nothing about these things. That is, we elevate secondary and tertiary inferences drawn from silence into salvation issues — and not surprisingly, we can’t even agree among ourselves over how to bind the silences.
In fact, the NT plainly defines the faith that saves is faith in Jesus as Messiah. It’s obvious to anyone who reads in context — and the statement is made over and over.
(Matt 16:16–18 ESV) 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
(Rom 3:21–26 ESV) 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Rom 10:8–13 ESV) 8 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
And there are dozens upon dozens of verses that plainly declaring saving faith as “faith in Jesus.” And these same verses declare faith to be sufficient.
On the other hand, the NT teaches no “easy believism.” “Faith” in the Greek includes the ideas of faithfulness and trust. We must so trust Jesus’ promises that we live faithfully.
3. We define “obedience” as perfect obedience — as least as to those doctrines we hold dear. Hence, we dare call those who worship with an instrument as “disobedient” and “unfaithful” even while we fail to evangelize as we should, give as we should, seek peace as we should, refuse to slander as we should, etc.
But, of course, the biblical notion of obedience and faithfulness is not that we earn our way into heaven by getting all the right answers on the Great Theological True-False Test in the Sky. It’s about the heart. A child can have faith that saves.
(Rom 7:21–8:2 ESV) 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Paul’s point, quite plainly made, is that even though the flesh is weak and so we sin despite our best efforts, nonetheless, thanks to the grace of God, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is even though Paul fails to obey as he wishes. He is saved because he delights in God’s law and attempts to obey it.
God designed the gospel for real people — who are fully capable of loving and delighting in the law of God but who cannot actually achieve what is now called “precision obedience.” You can achieve “precision obedience” if you limit obedience to the easy — weekly communion and a cappella singing. When you add to obedience those things much more plainly commanded — love for our enemies, prayer for our persecutors, no lust, sexual fidelity that extends even to the heart, care for the sojourner, evangelism, care for the poor — well, precision is much harder to come by.
And if we’re going to extend grace to our own failings, surely we must do so for Christians who are part of other denominations.
Unity in Mission
Once we understand grace, and that grace isn’t given only to the heirs of the American Restoration Movement, then baptism, instrumental music, and weekly communion cease to be barriers to unity — provided we define “unity” scripturally.
Our tendency is to think in institutional terms: our non-denomination vs. your denomination; my list of fellowship issues vs. your list of fellowship issues. This is not biblical thinking.
Rather, unity is found our being “one” as Jesus and God are one — which in the context of John’s Gospel is largely in terms of mission.
(John 5:17 ESV) But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
(John 5:19 ESV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”
(John 17:22–26 ESV) 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
We desperately want to define “unity” as worshiping together in the same room, but the unity for which Jesus prayed — while hardly denying that desire — is much more about showing the world that God sent Jesus through our love for each other and our unity in mission. “Unity” is more about unity of heart and purpose than the unity of a shared auditorium. Jesus and God did not sit in a pew together but they did work together to save the world.
There is nothing in unity that requires compromise of biblical belief. We cannot use the necessity of unity to compel others to violate their consciences. Just so, we may not allow our own consciences to be violated when we treat others with faith in Jesus as also saved, eat with them, and worship with them. This is not allowed. In fact, when we add to faith in Jesus such things as circumcision or a cappella music or weekly communion as necessary to fellowship, we commit the Galatian heresy, which jeopardizes our own souls. We make the same mistake Peter did in Gal 2.
Unity has a boundary
And we cannot let unity become an excuse to include the damned among the saved. Faith in Jesus as the Messiah is both sufficient and essential. Those who lack faith in Jesus as Messiah are not saved and must not be treated as such. The church is a bounded set. The fact that we have historically unduly narrowed this definition does not warrant expanding our view of who is saved to include unbelievers, that is, those who don’t submit to Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
So what do we do — in fact? How do we navigate the mess that is the modern church? How do we find unity among the divided? Common ground among competitors?
Well, it’s not hard.
A. We start by repenting and confessing. We’ve been dead wrong on many of these points, and it’s only right that we say so. Not as a device to induce others to do the same. Not as a publicity ploy. But because it’s right.
B. We invite other congregations of other denominations to join us in activities where no one’s conscience is violated. And this begins with communion because communion is a celebration and display of our unity.
(1 Cor 10:17 ESV) Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Now, communion is complicated because denominations divide over whether to use Welch’s or wine and whether an ordained minister must bless the elements. Some churches like to have the worshipers come forward to be served. Some pass the plate. Some deny women the service of helping pass plates while standing. But surely motivated followers of Jesus can find a way to pull this off.
I figure this something any church ought to do about quarterly. It’ll take considerable planning and work, but with practice, it’ll become part of the natural rhythm of church life. And if a Church of Christ takes the lead in doing this in a community, I’m sure others will follow.
C. Joint communion services would be big — and a great blessing to the churches in the community, but joint communion means nothing unless we let unity of the table extend to unity of mission. We need to serve the work of Jesus in the community side by side. And it needs to be done in the name of Jesus. We cannot appear to be merely secular people doing community service. There is no unity in Christ unless we serve beside each other in the name of Jesus — plainly declaring that we are working together because of Jesus.
Now, mission is both about traditional benevolence activities — feeding the poor, housing the homeless — but also evangelism. And evangelism gets a little complicated because the Baptists are just going to insist that converts “invite Jesus into their hearts,” whereas we in the Churches of Christ are going to want to immerse our converts. And other denominations will have their own distinct practices.
Several years ago, Franklin Graham came to Tuscaloosa for a “crusade,” and churches in town were invited to participate. They finessed the baptism issue by saying that whoever studied with someone should baptize that convert as the teacher considers right. No uniformity. No fighting. Each teacher does what he believes to be true — and thousands found Jesus that weekend.
Once we get shed of the attitude that we must have our way no matter what, working together becomes pretty simple. A little humility and little confidence in God’s grace goes a long way.
D. So the next step is a consolidation of church missional work — coordinating planning to serve the poor and to seek and save the lost in the city. Suddenly, rather than thousands of 100-member churches struggling to make budget and keep up enough programs to retain self-serving members, we have 100,000 members working in concert to bring an entire city to Jesus. People will have a reason to join and belong beyond denominational loyalty.
Our vision of the Kingdom will change dramatically. We get beyond cutting the grass and depositing the contributions to become a vast army in the service of Jesus preparing to extend the Kingdom from horizon to horizon.
We’ll see far more of our neighbors in town as fellow believers and followers of Jesus — and the city itself will become, in our eyes, the Kingdom-present surrounded by the Kingdom-future.
No longer will the church down the road be a competitor, but a separate location of the same Kingdom, the same franchise, the same community, the same body of Jesus.
As we work together more and more closely, our priorities will shift. Mission will matter much more than consubstantiation or transubstantiation. Like God, we’ll be more likely to judge our neighbor’s hearts than their position on kitchens in the building.
We’ll learn how to submit to those with scruples so we can eat the Love Feast and take Eucharist together.
And some of our members will leave for churches that they find truer to the ideals we preach. And some members of other churches will leave and join our churches because they appreciate the heart of Restoration. They’ll love our insistence on a unity that we want all denominations to share.
And some churches will close their doors and others will grow dramatically as the Spirit teaches us what is really important and members seek congregations where they are free — even encouraged — to serve in God’s mission, including especially his mission that his children be united.
And the Kingdom itself will grow by the hand of God and the power of the Spirit out of the love of Jesus as we’ve never seen or dared to imagine.