John’s Vision of Church Unity
The Gospel of John has been one of the most famous and widely-read books in the Christian Church from the time it was written and first circulated almost two thousand years ago, all the way up to our present day. John contains probably the most famous verse of the Bible,1 and some of the most fundamental claims about who Jesus is,2 among many other famous passages. With these things being said, the Church today largely ignores one of the Fourth Gospel’s main teachings in its practice, which is its call for unity among Christians. We will examine the practical implications of these calls for unity in the face of the many so-called “dividing lines” which currently cripple the Body of Christ and fracture the unity of God’s people.
In John’s final scene before the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, the Son of God pleads to his Father that his followers “…may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.”3 For readers today seeking to apply this vision of Jesus practically in the pursuit of Church unity, we must ask ourselves what Jesus means when he calls his people to be “one.”
In the writings of John (The Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John), true unity is driven by an underlying love among God’s people for one another. As Jesus tells his followers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”4 If unity is shown through love, then we must ask ourselves one of the biggest questions we can ask in life: What, really, is love? John answers: “By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”5 This is the kind of love that Jesus calls the greatest of loves.6 Again, along these lines, John writes: “…whoever loves God must also love his brother.”7 As these verses demonstrate, this love is to be a self-sacrificial sort of love. But how do we practically apply this to today’s fractured Church?
In a post-Reformation world where congregations and denominations split over any and every theological difference, I think our version of “laying down our lives” might be putting aside these theological differences for the sake of fellowship. Jesus did not say “they will believe the right things and that’s how the world will know they are my disciples,” he said: “…all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another,”8 and “…become perfectly one.”9 The Church can never be “one” (or truly be the Church for that matter) if its members do not interact with each other, nor can it be a “body” 10 if it is not interconnected. If the Church is to truly love one another, and “…not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,”11 then it must re-adopt an inclusive posture wherein “strangers” are treated as “brothers” 12 and theological opponents are treated as dear friends.
While the Bible is clear that we must draw dividing lines within the Church,13 which comes down to something like “living in unrepentant sin,” we must above all adopt a posture of love toward the wayward. John exhorts us to intercede on the behalf of a “brother committing a sin not leading to death,” by praying to God, “who will give him life.”14 It is imperative that the Church holds self-sacrificial love, and not tribal exclusivity, as the engine of its posture towards the outsider: Be it a social, political, or theological, or any other sort of outsider, for “…whoever abides in love abides in God.”15
Now, practicing this kind of self-giving love is easier said than done. It goes against our fallen human nature. That is why it is important for us to not only believe in Jesus but to abide in him. Only through a living relationship with Jesus can we accomplish these things. As Jesus says himself: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”16
So, as communities and individuals seeking unity in the Church and allegiance to Jesus, we must seek to live our lives not just for Jesus, but with him. I think there are three basic ways in which we can live this out:17
1. Be with Jesus: Every day. Spend time alone reading Scripture and praying.
2. Become like Jesus: Through spending time with Jesus, we will come to share his values, and come to care about the things and people he cares about, both as communities and as individual followers of Jesus.
3. Do what Jesus would do if he were you: In your specific life, context, and place. Both in your personal life and in your Jesus-following community.
May we learn in these especially divisive and confusing times to come and be present with those who are hurting in our world, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who came and made his home among us,18 and showed us the way out of the darkness and into the light.
Finally, I pray that we as a Church seek this vision of unity through not just our own human will, but through the power of the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus puts it best: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”19
This is the third part of our series on Christian Unity
Previous: When Brothers Dwell in Unity
1. John 3:16
2. cf. John 1:1-4, 14; 8:58; 14:6; 20:28
3. John 17.21 ESV; emphasis added
4. John 13:35 ESV
5. 1 John 3:16 ESV
6. John 15:13; emphasis added
7. 1 John 4:21 ESV
8. John 13:35
9. John 17:23 ESV
10. cf. Ephesians 1:22-23
11. 1 John 3:18 ESV
12. 3 John 5
13. cf. 1 Corinthians 5
14. 1 John 5:16 ESV
15. 1 John 4:16 ESV
16. John 15:4-5 ESV; emphasis added
17. Bridgetown Church (John Mark Comer) – Vision Series 2019 (September 15, 2019)
18. John 1:14
19. John 14:26 ESV; emphasis added