The unity Jesus meant

Feb 15, 2016 by

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Few scriptures have been so frequently quoted in recent years by North American Anabaptists as the prayer of Jesus “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). Especially in times of severe disagreement, we encourage one another not to separate from each other.



For leaders of bodies threatening to divide, Jesus’ prayer often becomes a final biblical rallying cry. “Here’s the scripture! Let’s not split! Jesus himself calls us to unity and love.”

With pained faces or sometimes wry smiles, we recount our history of division, remembering the many distinct Mennonite groups in our regions or quoting distastefully old rationalizations like “only good wood splits.” Let’s not do it again, we say.

Yet when we go back to Jesus, we see how easy it is to wrest his words out of context. There’s no reference here to organizational union. Even the organic body of Christ seems not to be primary. Jesus is speaking of engagement in the Trinity’s unity, “that they may also be in us” (17:21). And, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22-23). The same theme is echoed in the apostolic writings, as in Paul’s use of “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17).

So here there is an intimate oneness with God that is all too foreign to the Western church. Though organizational union on a broad scale may indeed be a worthy end, we search in vain for New Testament instructions about how to achieve or maintain it. Rather, the focus is on our union with God, our oneness with Christ and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. In this context, we are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” until we “grow up into Christ” (Eph. 4:3, 15).

Sometimes the maintenance of this unity in the Trinity may have to do with our efforts to create or maintain organizational unions. But that’s clearly not primary. Rather, it’s a unity which is created and maintained by God, something to which we finally “come” (Eph. 4:13). It is a gift from beyond ourselves. We can even say that in Christ, we already have it. Jesus’ prayer is answered, now.

The global church has much to teach us about unity. Westerners are known for preoccupation with structures and systems. Latin American missiologist Samuel Escobar of Peru characterizes even such mission work as “managerial.” In contrast, churches of the global south are known for their dependence on the Holy Spirit, a practical embrace of unity with the Trinity. That’s more like John 17.

If our primary concern for unity is really organizational, we should all join the Roman Catholic Church. It has the best track record for keeping the most people together for the longest time while confessing Jesus as Lord. Indeed, it has become an attractive option for quite a few Anabaptist Christians.

But deep within our Anabaptist heritage lies a different conviction about unity that is founded on scriptures like John 17, Ephesians 4 and Matthew 5-7. It is a unity that proceeds from union with God rather than humanly crafted structures and assent to particular systems of theology. It is also related to convictions about discipleship and life in disciplined assemblies of believers.

As long as this union with God is primary, we can expect some splits along the way. All our unions will sometimes be troubled. For it was also Jesus who said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34-39).

Indeed, when there are breaks or realignments in organizational unions, our biggest challenge is most often not whether we split but whether and how we are walking with God as we do.

Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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  • John Gingrich

    Thank you Richard, you express the sentiments of those of us who find the obsession on maintaining organizational unity the highest calling of our national denomination a misguided emphasis. The quote by Tozer that “if the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference” begs the question if that is true in the Mennonite denomination. Thanks for reminding us that the unity that is real is the one that is found in the fellowship of the Spirit.

    • Harvey Yoder

      I’m not negating what you are saying here, John, except to ask whether, for example, couples should feel free to dissolve their “legal” ties with each other while professing to still maintain some kind of “spiritual” unity. It’s not that their license is primarily what makes them “married”, but we do encourage people to maintain that kind of organizational “knot” as well, not?

  • Harvey Yoder

    I am troubled by the assumption that our being one with the Father (as the Father and Son are one) should result in anything but God’s children being ever more devoted to maintaining one communion around one common table. Every day we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Doesn’t that mean that we are to pray toward more and more of the same kind of unity here on earth that is surely the norm in heaven?
    As an analogy, we earthly parents should be able to encourage our children to be in unity with us, just as we are with each other. Does this leave our children free to eat at whatever separate tables they choose, and to adopt surnames of their own creation whenever they differ?
    Quite the contrary. The greater their unity with us, the more of that good under-the-same-roof table fellowship they will experience with each other. That unity is far, far more bonding than any organizational ties, to be sure, but is certainly not to be accompanied by severing even those organizational ties here on earth–unless we are certain that God has clearly severed them in heaven.
    What we are demonstrating to an unbelieving world is that our heaven is a very small and very schismatic place.

    • Richard Showalter

      You make a good point, Harvey. I agree that disciples of Jesus will be ever more devoted to communion with each other. It’s just that this “communion with each other” is not primary. Primary is our communion with God. When communion with each other becomes primary, communion with God often gets lost in the detritus of human strife and unfaithfulness. Do you think that God ever severs organizational ties in heaven? I doubt it. But God might indeed lead believers on earth to the rearrangement or severance of organizational ties here, for all kinds of reasons. The more faithful we are to Jesus and the more fully we enter into and maintain divine communion, the more deeply we will be linked to every other brother or sister who lives in our generation, whether or not we have figured out appropriate organizational ties.

      • Harvey Yoder

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, Richard.

        I especially like your last sentence, but to me, “organizational ties” are the natural result of “on-earth-as-in-heaven” ties that “bind our hearts in Christian love”, perhaps in a similar way that a formal marriage license doesn’t create the wedding bond but formalizes it and thus is certainly not unimportant.

        As to your statement that “communion with each other” isn’t primary, we would agree that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, mind and strength. That make it primary, of course, but Jesus insists that to love our neighbor (and certainly our brothers and sisters in the faith) is “like unto” that primary command. Any distinction and/or comparison between the two is erased–by our Lord, not me.

        • Richard Showalter

          Again, good points. I sign on!

          It appears that our difference of perspective has something to do with our understanding of organizational ties in relation to these various scriptures, and especially to love of God and neighbor. For me, love of God and neighbor (or Jesus’ words about unity in John 17) do not push me to craft organizational ties with, say, the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Old Order Amish–all of which I esteem highly and in each of which I have dear brothers and sisters in Christ, even though there are significant points of corporate disagreement between the “organizations,” humanly speaking, of which we’re part. How would you respond to my challenge to join the Roman Catholic Church as the best way of getting on with the project of creating broad organizational ties among all believers?

          • Harvey Yoder

            We already have organizational ties with all of the above kinds of groups, thank God. Locally, our congregation is part of Faith in Action, which includes many denominations working together on local issues of concern. We have organizational ties with Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites in MDS and relief efforts. And could we not boldly imagine a time when, through the leadership of people like Pope Francis, the Catholic church might become more and more Anabaptist minded, permitting an increase in ways we can work collaboratively in ways that (gasp) might involve some organizational unity, along with increased reunions around the the Lord’s Table. This will certainly happen in the hereafter, so could it not at least begin to happen now? Or certainly we could end the trend of our doing more and more of just the opposite.

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