The unity Jesus meant
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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