Unity: A Failed Prayer of Jesus?


Shortly before He was crucified for your sins and mine, Jesus prayed this prayer:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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. ”
—John 17:20-23 ESV

Unity gets a bad rap in some Christian circles. Being an “ecumenist” is tantamount to denying the Lord publicly, at least in the eyes of some.

But can anyone look at the Christian Church today and say, “Jesus’ prayer was answered! Just look at all the unity Christians enjoy”?

Silly question, especially given the thousands of denominations that exist.

On the list of grievous sins most Christians carry around in their heads—murder, sexual perversion, stealing, lying, envy, pride—I don’t think disunity makes it into the top 100.

Look at the importance Jesus gives unity, though! He considers it the sign by which the world knows that He was truly sent by God, proving that He wasn’t just another in the long line of self-appointed holy men spouting nice aphorisms suitable for a bumper sticker.  And that unity of those who claim to love God verifies how much God loves the people of the world too (our favorite verse, John 3:16, and all that, right?).

Doesn’t that sound like it’s of the utmost importance? Yet unity is given the shortest of all shrifts. Being seen as always being correct trumps all efforts at unity, as if it were impossible to find unity if people are in different places in their walk with God and see life from different perspectives as a result.

What if disunity among Christians was the worst sin of all, since it undermines the very proof that Jesus is who He said He is and discredits the claim of God to love? Given the importance of those two bedrock beliefs in the Christian faith, how could disunity NOT be one of the most grievous of all possible sins? The perception of the character of God Himself is at stake when we are not unified, isn’t it? Doesn’t disunity within the Church even tear at the reality of the Trinity of God?

Yet who out there is striving to make unity important? Which well-known church leaders are working toward unity more than anything else, rather than separating themselves and their fans into tinier and tinier fragments of the Church Universal? Which disgruntled churchgoers are making unity the most important consideration for STAYING in a less-than-ideal church, rather than bolting like so many others do?

Fact is, too many of us Christians could not care less about unity.

My question then: Is the lack of importance we ascribe to maintaining unity within the Body of Christ making Jesus’ prayer for unity fail?

27 thoughts on “Unity: A Failed Prayer of Jesus?

  1. The sad irony is that much of the disunity in the church is excused by a desire for doctrinal purity when the reality is that disunity is by definition bad doctrine. There is a huge gap between not being united with uinbelievers and heretics like mormonism and the actual church itself being divided up into competing fiefdoms.

  2. akaGaGa

    My husband and I moved recently and spent some time looking for a new church. We visited a very tiny one (20 on Sunday is a big day). We were welcomed nicely, but as the pastor started preaching, I found my “discernment antennae” stirred up. He made a few statements that I found unbiblical, but strangely I wasn’t upset by them. I found myself musing that these people are each at a different place in their walk with the Lord, each having learned different things from different experiences. As long as they are still walking and learning, why would I expect them to have exactly the same knowledge that I do? We are different body parts unified for the benefit of all, not a group of clones. [1 Cor 12:17]

    Afterwards, I realized why I was willing to give these folks a pass: The Holy Spirit was present among them. If these people were “good enough” for the Holy Spirit, who was I to disagree? [Acts 10:47]

    Unity of the Spirit is a very different thing than superficial unity for the sake of appearing unified.

    • akaGaGa,

      Good to hear from you again. It seems like a long time since you last posted.

      If the Spirit is working, I think it is wise to give people the benefit of the doubt. This is not an excuse to “give in,” but it does allow an opportunity to learn. Even less-than-ideal lessons are useful, should that be the case.

  3. SteveS

    While I don’t think they qualify as “well known”, I do know of a church that makes unity a priority.

    1) Their pastoral staff is diverse – to the point of including both charismatics and cessationists. Yet they work very well with each other and find ways to “agree to disagree” for the sake of unity.

    2) Every Sunday as part of the service they pray for specific needs of other churches in the area (which also implies that they stay informed of what is going on in the other churches well enough to know what those needs are).

    3) They frequently organize joint projects with other churches.

    4) They have helped troubled churches to give them a chance to get back on their feet.

    5) The consistent message from the pulpit is that there is one church in the area – it just meets in several locations.

    I learned A LOT in my time as part of that community.

  4. Josh B.

    How do we emphasize unity without sacrificing dedication to truth? Should we be unified with churches that neglect or even promote sinful behavior?

    Where’s the line?

    • Josh,

      Nothing bothers me more about the gridlock that is the modern reformation of the Church in America than some yahoo throwing out the worst case scenario and using that as the basis for excluding everything. With that mentality, nothing will get done. Ever.

      The worst case yahoo is likely to throw out that mainline Protestant congregation with the woman pastor who ordains homosexuals. I’m not talking that, though. At least not yet.

      Here’s a simple case of disunity I’ve repeatedly seen:

      Four churches are within a mile of each other in a small town. The youth pastor at the Pentecostal church approaches the youth pastors at the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Wesleyan churches and suggest an evangelism project that his church is too small to pull off, but with the resources of the other three churches added in, each church youth group could participate in the event and really get a boost. They could pool their groups and hold the four planning meetings each in one of the different churches. The whole town would be blessed.

      But immediately, problems arise. The Baptist youth pastor doesn’t want his kids to meet at the Presbyterian church because that church’s youth room is awesome. If his kids see it, they may be tempted to want to go to the Presbyterian church, especially those kids whose parents don’t attend church at all. The Wesleyan youth pastor, meanwhile, doesn’t like the contemporary worship music the Pentecostal youth group will probably want to play for the combined pre-planning worship service. And the Presbyterian youth pastor had a bad experience at a Wesleyan Holiness church as a kid and doesn’t want any of his group to experience the same “nightmare” he did.

      Outcome? Nothing ever happens. Every time the Pentecostal youth pastor suggests doing something as a combined group, no one can agree on anything.

      That, folks, is far more likely the sort of disunity experience you’ll see in real life than having to reach out to some doctrinally ultra-liberal church and be “friends.”

      • Josh B.

        Ah, yes. I understand what you’re saying now. I’ve experienced something like that at my current church. It’s been in the subtle way everyone discusses their experiences at the church:

        “Ever since I came to XYZ Church, my life has changed!”

        “XYZ Church has really turned my life around!”

        “The people at XYZ Church are just amazing.”

        What about CHRIST? The implications behind that sort of tribalism is certainly disunity as well.

        I suppose the charge of disunity I’ve seen has been on the internet mostly and it has been the outcry of liberal Christians asking that any and all manner of heresies be accepted by Christians in general. Admittedly, this has not been my real life experience.

  5. Paul Walton

    “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” – 1 Cor. 11:19

    I think it is important to distinguish between authentic gospel- centered preaching/teaching than to sit back and give grave errors in biblical fundamentals a pass.

    Such as the sorcery than Osteen pedals for one.
    An actual tweet from him-“Your life will always follow your thoughts. If you always think positive, you’re going to be positive.”

    Sorry but this not the gospel but a veiled humanistic comment championing the power of positive thinking, there’s nothing about trusting Christ in his spiels. The whole book of Galatians warns us, and compels to stand up against those who preach another gospel than the one true one.

    • Paul, do you really think that most division in the church is the result of Osteen-esque denials of the Gospel? Or is it more reasonable to say that most division within the church is based on secondary doctrines? It is not unusual in decent sized towns to have multiple flavors of major branches (Baptist, Presbyterians, etc.), all meeting and ministering on their own and tacitly competing with other churches.

      • Paul Walton

        Hey Arthur,

        Myself I think it is healthy to have some secondary variations amongst the body of Christ. In a cult everyone is forced to follow the company line, there is no leeway for individual favors. Heck even in the gospels, different writers say different things about their perception of the same event. I actually think it shows the world that we don’t have to agree on every jot and tittle, and we can still call each other brother.

        • Paul Walton

          This just pop into my mind, sorry I didn’t include it in the previous comment. Last week our home group was involved in the Nation wide Beautiful Day Program. In a group of fifty people cleaning up a park, six different churches worked together to paint, clean, and plant new bushes, it was unity in action.

    • Paul,

      A few thoughts:

      1. I don’t see anything anti-Gospel in Joel Osteen’s comment that we Christians should have a positive confession. The Bible has plenty of “Do this, don’t do that” sorts of commands. In fact, Osteen’s admonition is pretty much a legitimate modern summation of the idea in Deut. 30:19 to “choose life” and Paul’s admonition to be content in all things. The Christian should always be winsome, and you can’t be winsome if you have a negative perspective on everything. (That said, the Gospel is far more than this, but no one is asking Joel Osteen for a full explanation of the Gospel in a tweet, either.) I would even go so far to say that being positive is a great step toward being open for unity. Certainly the flipside is no help at all!

      2. So your 1 Cor. 11 passage is intended to negate Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer? I’m not sure that’s the intent under which Paul wrote it. Obviously, factions will arise. But let’s stop with always piling the hindrances up first. That goes back to what Osteen said. In what positive ways can we start reaching for unity? Are we thinking about unity positively? Or are we always trying to find the wrench to throw in the works? Have we become the people who yell at blind Bartemaeus to shut up and stop bothering Jesus?

      Frankly, I get tired of the Internet conversations of late that always seem to focus on the impediment, on what CAN’T be done, on the reasons why this or that MUST fail. None of that is faith, though. I think God hates that kind of nihilism. Heaven knows I do.

      • Paul Walton

        So I guess orphans born with AIDS just need to think positive thoughts and suck it up, then everything will start to get better for them. I have witnesses the destruction of marriages where folks believed that God will always bless us with material wealth if we just stay positive. Because they hung their lives on Osteen health and wealth poppy-cock, and they couldn’t conceive because of his teaching, that they may have to carry a cross.

        He preaches a false gospel. Period. I will not stand in unity with someone who preaches a false gospel. But I will stand and support with those who have been hurt by it.
        Do we think Jesus was crucified because his message was always positive?

        • Paul,

          There’s a difference between thinking positively and succumbing to a health and wealth “gospel.” The former is to be encouraged, but not the latter.

          • Dave S

            Not to disagree with your view of what we do and do not support, but if you don’t encourage a health and wealth “gospel” do you discourage it, or do you remain silent? Either way, don’t that go against the call for unity?

            • Paul Walton

              Ah-ah, I see what you did there my friend, either way your question is answered… it leads to disunity,

              you no play fair 😉

  6. I was studying Jesus’ last prayers a few weeks ago, and got really down about it all. When i’m in a bad mood, i often turn to either sarcasm or satire. This time it was satire. A snippet:

    “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may hold more firmly to their respective doctrines than to one another, and that they may be so dogmatic (and blind) in their approaches to Bible study that they use my words, intended for unity, to build fences between themselves and others who are called by my name.”


    In the end, though, I decided that unity isn’t the goal. Rather it’s merely a symptom. We don’t love one another in order to be disciples. Rather, our love for one another is a symptom of our condition — that we are disciples of Christ.

  7. connie

    I think folks that know Jesus recognize each other. We ARE in unity because Jesus said so. Sometimes we actually act like it.

    WE are the church. These denominational structures are just flavors.

  8. Dan, watch out, any person who tries talking about “unity” risks having every discernmentalist blog out there coming down on him like a ton of bricks. Talking “unity” really spooks them. They’ll think you’re out to “take everybody to Rome” and whatnot.

  9. Hans

    As a mentor of mine , who has since past on, used to say….” In Christ we have NOMINATION, in churches we have DENOMINATION ”

    The problem with all this unity issue is that to many Christians misunderstand the objective and try to establish unity laterally instead of vertically ,in other words one has to first have a functioning unity relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ then as a by product unity will flow with brothers and sisters who are likewise firstly united to Christ, and our differences should now serve to strengthen to whole body

  10. Oops – hit enter on accident. Continuing…

    Second, the importance of unity is of such great importance that it must happen regardless of my opinion about the end of this age or anyone’s opinion. I’ll write something about this at some point, but consider the power of unity at the Tower of Babel. God as “We” had to go down and scatter their efforts by confusing their language – because the power they had in that unity. On the day of Pentecost unity of the Church was started by all the languages of all the foreigners there in earshot – they could hear their own language spoken glorifying God. Really it was His unifying Holy Spirit.

    As times get tougher for the Church in the West, those with close relationships with God will stand united with Him and with each other.

  11. I’m sorry again! I thought I submitted but actually deleted the first have of my comment. Place this in front of my comment that begins with “Second…”

    Dan, I answered your final question of the post: no

    Unity is very important and as the contractions of the end of this age get closer together the Church will feel the squeeze. Unity will come to those who still confess to be Christians when persecution comes.

  12. S.A

    The writer of this article said, Quote: “how could disunity NOT be one of the most grievous of all possible sins? The perception of the character of God Himself is at stake when we are not unified, isn’t it? Doesn’t disunity within the Church even tear at the reality of the Trinity of God?” First the writer should take note that Jesus prayer was for his true disciples (followers)would be one and known by their love. Everyone that sits in a church building is not a true disciple of Christ, therefore this would explain all of the division.

  13. Brigitta

    Interesting discussion. Unity is usually much of an after thought when talking about correct doctrine, or in any teaching, really. I suppose it’s the nature of denominations, though. Those people formed and/or joined this church because they believe it is right, etc. (well the outspoken ones) Part of the fallen human condition that binds the Body of Christ in many facets. Accepting the legitimacy of other’s churches and doctrines is a learning process on many levels (especially with humility). It is hard sometimes to get over ‘the others’ ‘obviously wrong beliefs’ when our own seem so obviously correct. If the idea of unity became widely emphasized, there would be a new debate on the biblical basis and practices of it, etc. and the idea of unity would create even more disunity. Believing in Christ should be enough to bind us, but sadly, it can not be in this life. Which is an upsetting revelation in itself, given that many won’t ever pursue it.

    (I found this site when looking for a bible reading plan, and google came up with your page about it. Your other articles are great food for thought for a “theology junkie”. Keep it up!)

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