Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. John 17:11
Years ago I had the privilege of asking Dr John MacArthur (pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and one of the world’s most eminent Bible teachers) about the verse above. If Jesus Christ prayed for unity, I inquired, why is the church divided into so many factions? His response was simple and to the point: Jesus’ prayer was answered. Christians are united in Christ, regardless of the absence of any visible evidence to the fact.
I have always held a deep respect for John MacArthur, but his answer really did not satisfy me. Like many others, I simply could not believe that the unity that Christ had in mind was merely the mystical union of Christ’s body in “heavenly places”. Surely this unity was an obvious conclusion after Pentecost and did not need to be prayed into existence by Jesus? No, I was convinced that Jesus prayed for a practical, visible expression of the spiritual unity between Christians.
The main problem with my understanding of this issue has to with the seeming practical impossibility of it ever happening, which explains why many scholars are reluctant to accept it. Reformed Christians frown at Charismatics and call them happy-clappies, only to be called the frozen chosen in return. Catholic nuns have no desire to become fundamentalists, and so on. Denominations, it seems, are here to stay.
Yet it cannot be denied that millions of Christians worldwide are finding one another outside denominational boundaries on an unprecedented scale. Some prefer to remain in their churches, others are leaving in droves. Whilst European cathedrals are becoming museums, non-denominational house churches are mushrooming worldwide. This revolutionary new Christianity, it seems, is also here to stay.
So, instead of being critical, why don’t we rather ask: Is Jesus’ prayer being answered?
(Bloemnuus 9 January 2010)