A great deal of attention has been given Jesus' prayer for unity and oneness among all Christians, and no doubt this is an extremely important reality for us to understand. However, it appears to me that too many people, with a sincere concern to make His prayer a reality, have either insisted or settled upon an artificial and even false brand unity. We need not feel the pressure to answer Jesus' prayer.It has already been answered. Our responsibility is to follow the instruction found in God's Word for Biblical Christian unity.
...I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one... — John 17:20-22
Sadly, much compromise has taken place in the Church in the name of unity. After all, inherent in the definition of the word unity is the dismissal of certain differences by way of emphasizing more important commonalities. And this is truly a good, God-honoring, and even necessary thing for Christians to do. Unity requires grace for our brother as well as the concession of one’s desires and opinions in order to prefer another. This is the high price of humble, unified, Biblical community that is motivated by God's love which He has given us for one another. Christians must understand this unity is not always convenient and it is not always comfortable, but it is to be richly enjoyed.
Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in. He attaches far more importance to godly intercourse than we do. Since union is strength, he does his best to promote separation. — Charles Spurgeon
But, it seems that many in the visible Church will do almost anything for "unity." They will even forfeit sound, tradition, historical, doctrine to acquire this illusive virtue and then rather forcibly, or at least carelessly, apply it. But can there be genuine unity where there is not doctrinal unity, which is to say a Biblical standard for both belief and practice? By the way, this ought not mean that our belief or our practice is always operating perfectly, just that we desire that it would and that we submit to instruction and accountability.
Unity without the gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell. — J.C. Ryle
Holding to a Biblical standard for fellowship is divisive, for the unity for which Christ prayed must always be based on truth, and while truth gives life, it is by nature divisive. Isn't it our true Biblical Christian unity, by the Spirit of Christ, that makes us unique from the world? So, it follows that according to this truth we must recognize that there must be division if we are to maintain a pure unity among one-another. The wall of division from the outside is critical for unity within.
This means, in order to preserve pure Biblical unity among believers, that we must be willing, when necessary, to...
- exercise Church discipline with an unrepentant brother
- confront what we observe as fruitless and false faith
- remove someone from sacred fellowship
- confront and correct false-doctrines
- expose a teacher as a false-teacher/heretic
Those who feel more of a responsibility to have unity at all costs than to be obedience will generally site John 13:35 and Matthew 7:1-6. Jesus did teach that our love for one another would prove to us and the watching world that we are truly His disciples, and while protecting true Christian unity may not appear "loving," we aren't responsible for how the world defines love. Our love for Him is toprecede our love for anyone or anything else. We are responsible to follow Biblical instructions regarding unity by the Spirit of Truth. And to be concerned at for our witness in the world is to be concerned about preserving our message of salvation that saves. Regarding Matthew 7, Christ is frequently reported to have commanded us to not ever judge anyone when, In fact, He described when and how to rightly judge (or correct) a brother.
Properly understanding these two passages is critical, because we must know how to judge/discern/decide whether a certain element of someone's belief and teaching is of God or of the Devil. At the end of the day we are not told to unify with those who simply profess to be believers or with those who only profess to agree with sound doctrine. We must be Bereans who test the life and message of even such a popular evangelist as the Apostle Paul. This is precisely why doctrine matters more than unity (for unity’s sake), because the twin streams of proper living and proper teaching can only come from one spring, proper doctrine.
We must love God humbly and approach His truth honestly if we are to have the unity with the saints for which Christ prayed, even if you have to cross some denominational lines to experience it. True unity is not merely organizational as we are tempted to believe, and does not mean we must worship in the same room or with all the same forms. However, it does mean that we be able and, if one wished, happy to worship together free from any substantial distraction. And while the Church has been guilty of allowing thesedifferences of opinion, practice, and degree to cause sinful division, we are without proper excuse and must repent, forgive, and love one another with the love of Christ.
But this is not the battle for unity in most of the visible Church today. Today the battle has less to do with the lack of grace for a brother and more to do with a lack of discernment to identify a false brother or false teaching. Frankly, we are even dealing largely with the inability to do so. The great chasm separating important doctrinal positions of many of today’s evangelical church leaders is quite vast, yet they are all too happy to partner together on TV, at one another's "churches," and in and in huge, national ecumenical gatherings. Who cares that we believe differently on the trinity! So what if we believe differently about how sufficient God’s Word is, whether or not women can be pastors in the church and have authority over men, or whether Christ’s death was enough to be justified?
The strong words of the Apostle Paul to pastor Timothy come to mind...
preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. — 2 Timothy 4:2
Believing doctrine matters will mean doing these things that Paul commanded pastors to do. They will appear divisive and in some cases will be, but it is necessary to protect a pure unity of the true Church with the Truth. We must recognize that with so much easy-believism and deceptive teaching - its irresponsible, naive, and dangerous to not be discerning and judging. To be sure, we do not do this simply to keep the membership role clean. We do this for the immature brother, the sincerely wrong professor, and ultimately for Christ and the purity of His Church. Unity at the expense of even doctrine somehow sounds noble to to so many in the professing Church, however, we are a system of beliefs with, if anything at all, a message. And the more (false) religions and (false) doctrines we endorse by our partnership, the more diluted out message becomes, and to dilute the Biblical Gospel at all is poison.
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. — Ephesians 5:11
Clearly, this does not mean we don't show love and even grace. Ironically, this kind of conviction has the tendency to come off as uncaring. We still love and serve, etc. while holding brothers accountable and preaching a true gospel to all who lack it. May we have more pastors who will both defend and feed sheep! May we believe that doctrine matters more than “unity,” and that it matters enough to demand nothing less than a unity worthy of Christ Himself!
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? — 2 Corinthians 6:14
I do verily believe that when God shall accomplish [unity], it will be the effect of love, and not the cause of love. It will proceed from love, before it brings forth love. — John Owen
Hold firmly that our faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church. — Thomas Aquinas
If the Church is a living body united to the same head, governed by the same laws, and pervaded by the same Spirit, it is impossible that one part should be independent of all the rest. — Charles Hodge