I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:20-23)
The Lord Jesus in His final talk with His disciples before His arrest prayed to His Father for the unity of all Christians. While it is an inspiring vision of all of His followers in each generation being one with all others, exactly in what way the Christians would be “one” and how that unity would be maintained among repentant sinners living in a fallen world was not spelled out. Love was to be the glue to hold us all together along with the Holy Spirit indwelling in us. However, we already see in the New Testament Christians disagreeing with one another (Paul and Peter are a major example). Is it possible for millions of individuals to be of one heart and mind without each disappearing into the collective? Would absolute agreement on every issue be required? How much latitude for variation could be tolerated before unity was broken? Were Christians to be like Star Trek’s The Borg in which all individualism is given up in favor of the collective? Was unity to be maintained by leaders who had despotic powers? Christians showed their humanity through history in the endless series of disputes, debates, disagreement, divisions, heresies, apostasies, schisms which have racked the Church. St Paul recognizes that on just about any issue there will be ‘sides’ which he deals with in the framework of the strong and weak who have to learn to disagree and yet love one another (Romans 15:1-3). Despite these problems, Christians were still guided by Christ’s vision even if they couldn’t live up to its ideals. And in the Nicene Creed, we continue to profess a belief in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Oneness or unity is one of the four key elements by which the Church is recognized.
“The church is the body of Christ. The church is wholly centered on Christ and the Gospel, nurturing its communal faith and life by the power of the Spirit through sacrament, proclamation, teaching, practice and witness. It’s unity is confirmed by a common faith and life, not by one world organization controlled by a single center. It is a church which rejects both clericalism and congregationalism. It is shepherded by a hierarchy defined by conciliarity and the synodical system. The church lives by a synergy of gifts and talents of clergy and laity, together making up God’s people, all mutually supportive and accountable, all serving as the conscience of the church, all being the guardians of the faith.” (Theodore Stylianopoulos, THE WAY OF CHRIST, p 5)
It turns out that unity requires not only synergy with God’s Holy Spirit, but hard work by the membership to be loving, forgiving, humble, self-sacrificial, and harmonious to maintain our oneness with one another. We Christians must each become like our Savior in our activity towards and reaction to other members.
“The basis for ethical action is not one’s own convictions and judgments in regard to a substantive issue but rather one’s responsibilities towards others – not knowledge, but love, to reiterate the summary of this approach to ethics given in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3. The Pauline Christian cannot do ethics monologically, reflecting in isolation on what is right and wrong, but can only make that discernment as a situated participant, in the context of human relationships: what is right or wrong in terms of one’s conduct cannot be specified in the abstract, but only in terms of a particular community setting, in relation to the others with whom one is placed.
Overall, then, what Paul seeks to do in Romans 14:1-15:13 to foster the corporate solidarity of the Christian congregation in Rome while legitimating differences of ethical practice. He seeks to undercut the basis on which some judge or despise others, and urges the priority of mutual up-building and the pursuit of peace, in order that those with differences might nonetheless welcome and accept one another. . . . This vision of a united community in which people with different convictions mutually welcome and accept one another, and together offer praise and glory to God through Christ, finally culminates in a series of scriptural quotations which describe the Gentiles (ta ethne) and God’s people Israel (o laos autou) together praising God (15:9-12) the quotations are chosen so as to reinforce the message, central to Romans as a whole, that God’s purpose was always to bring Jew and Gentile together in one worshiping community (cf Rom 1:16; 2:9-11; 3:9, 29-30; 9:22-25; 10:12; 11:25-32).” (David Horrell, SOLIDARITY AND DIFFERENCE, pp 188-189)
The early Christians did say that “one Christian is no Christian” meaning that one cannot be a Christian alone for being a Christian by definition means loving others. One can only fulfill the commands of Christ to love if one has a community to love. I think it was St Basil who said that if you attempted to live alone as a Christian, whose feet would you wash? The question refers to Christ’s own example and teaching that His followers were to imitate Him in washing the feet of others. We can fulfill this Gospel command and be Christ like only if we submit ourselves to serve others. We cannot fulfill Christ’s vision that we all be one if we try to live alone or demand that we live the Gospel on our personal terms. Though it is counterintuitive, Christ’s envisioned oneness for each of us can only be attained in the community of all believers. We cannot be “one” if we are not united to all.