“in order that they all may be one just as you, Father, are in me, and I also in you, in order that they might be in us—so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus’ statement is a devastating critique of the Christian church today when you really take it seriously. In a nutshell, what he is saying here is that his desire is that we (the Church) be one with one another just as he is one with the Father and (and here is where it hits close to home) that our unity is at least one of the ways that the world will know that Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, if we wonder why the church today has such a weak witness in the world around us, the implication is that at least part of our weakness is that we are so fragmented and have a tendency to fight amongst ourselves rather than working together.
One of the rules of thumb for good business practice is to staff to your weakness. In other words, find the things that you are poor in and hire or promote someone to do those things. Some managers find this to be an intimidating practice simply because if applied well, this will cause you to hire a number of people who are more competent than you are in some specific areas. Yet, if you don’t follow this principle, then you will tend to perpetuate the problems or weaknesses that you have at least within the organization and be more concerned with your own reputation than with the health of the company.
Churches can be like that as well, not only in terms of internal leadership, but also in terms of how they interact with other churches in the community. Rather than churches focusing on the kinds of things they are good at, so often what happens is that every church tries to do what the other churches are doing—it as if they are worried about losing their “marketshare”…as if we were in competition with one another. If we, as churches, were really concerned with the great commission, we would not worry that more people were going to the Christian fellowship down the street, so long as disciples are being made for the kingdom of God. If one congregation is particularly good at mercy ministries, let them pursue that and let the other churches in the area facilitate that work as the congregation in question needs—both with finances and with people. If another congregation is good with youth ministry, let the other churches facilitate. If a church has a particularly good teacher at the helm, again, let the churches be united and facilitate that ministry. We are not able to be everything to everyone if we stand alone, but we can be if we stand united together.
But what of ecumenicity? Isn’t this what the ecumenical movement tried to accomplish and isn’t it fraught with compromise and error? Yes. In its best senses, this kind of thing is what the ecumenical movement sought to accomplish, yet within that fellowship, it was felt that everyone must believe the same thing and ignore differences. What I am suggesting is the model Paul presents as the church as the body which has many parts. The liver does not do the same thing as the kidney does, yet they work together to keep the whole of the body healthy without losing their distinctive nature—in other words, the kidney does not represent itself as being the same as the liver—they remain distinct, yet cooperate toward the end of keeping the body healthy. Ecumenicity tends to lead toward churches ignoring their differences and granting people to believe pretty much whatever they want to believe.
Cooperation between churches does not mean compromising the truth nor does it mean compromising the theological distinctives that shape the difference between Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists (etc…). There must be certain non-negotiable principles drawn from scripture (the Godhead of Christ, the dual nature of Christ, the authority of scripture, etc…). At the same time, there are going to be some things that we find we can disagree upon passionately, but since they are non-essentials of the faith, we also find that we can have passionate disagreements yet remain in fellowship with one another.
How do we accomplish that in our churches and communities? It starts with humility and a willingness to cast off the self-seeking attitude that many congregations have. One must learn to gauge success not on the basis of numbers in church on Sunday or of a bank account balance that a church might have in savings, but in terms of whether or not they are doing what God has called them to do—and whether or not they are being, what Christ wishes them to be—united as one.
Beloved, let us look seriously at our lives and at our churches and ask the question—based on this statement that Jesus makes, is our witness in the community one that reflects that Jesus is the Son of God or is our witness one that suggests that the church is an organization in competition with other churches for tithing dollars.