Christ’s Vision for Church Unity 

51389933392_cbc2a8f3a6_wNow I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.  (John 17:11)

In John’s Gospel, Christ delivers a long speech to His disciples as they gather together at the last supper (John 13-17). In that speech He mentions a couple of times the idea of the oneness of His disciples and all who believe in Him. He does not spell out in any detail what he envisioned or how this would happen or be maintained. He was aware that even with only the Twelve disciples there were tensions and dissensions about which one was the greatest or who would sit at His right hand in the Kingdom (Luke reports the disciples disputing about who is the greatest happened on two different occasions – 9:46-48 and 22:24-27).  The Scriptures also report Paul disputes with Peter (Galatians 2). Paul sharply disagrees with Barnabas and they part on bad terms (Acts 15). The Hellenists disputed with the Jews over distribution of goods to widows (Acts 6). The circumcision party disputed with Gentile Christians about whether it was necessary to become a Jew in order to be a Christian (Acts 15). Through the centuries, Councils were held to deal with the serious disagreements between Christians which divided the Church.  Many scholars looking at the history of liturgical rubrics think the Church did not move from being a monolith to greater diversity, but rather showed a great amount of diversity from the beginning and through history efforts were made to force conformity and uniformity on the parishes.  But the original unity was not based in absolute conformity in practice. And there is no reason that diversity in practice has to be threatening to anyone or polarizing, but there are believers who are strong and weak (in Paul’s terminology In Romans 14:1-15:4) who differ in their comfort levels with variation in liturgical or pious customs and sometimes come to demand that others must behave and believe exactly as they do. We don’t all have to the exact same piety or ascetical practices as most of those practices are a matter of indifference on the grand scale of things.

51390947103_fcda71d499_wChrist envisioned a unity for His followers and prayed for it, but from the beginning there were disputes. The history of Christianity is a never-ending series of disputes, heresies, factionalisms, schisms, etc. What exactly Christ hoped for is hard to know, for it probably has never existed on earth. Did He believe that His followers would always agree on everything? Did He believe in unity maintained by hierarchs? (This is an option favored by St Ignatius and others – unity is found in the bishops who must not be disagreed with). Did he think unity would be maintained by emperors or armies? (This may be Russian Patriarch Kirill’s vision). Jesus saw the Twelve unable to agree on everything, so what did He hope for and what did He think could happen as the Church grew and became more diverse? How was love, unity or brotherhood to be established or maintained? Perhaps if we truly loved one another as Christ commanded us, that would be enough to maintain unity. Unity is shattered when we begin to demand others think and behave exactly like we do.

Thomas Merton once reflected on how Christians might bring about unity in the face of division:

If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political, and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.   (LIVING ICONS, p 97)

Merton’s spiritual conclusion is that each of us somehow has to have a heart and mind capable of making room for all kinds of people that divisions are simply transcended in Christ—treated as if they don’t matter. But even how this would work is not clearly spelled out. If everyone were willing to deny themselves and take up the cross, maybe unity would happen but realistically it is pretty difficult to get even a small number of people to agree on everything, let alone all the members of the universal Church.


Orthodox theologian Stanley Harakas offers some thoughts about how unity could happen at the parish level:

If you re read the list of the Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4), you will notice that the disciples are paired together in six groups. Jesus did not send them out alone, but in twos to mutually support each other and to work together. Think about that. The apostles worked together with one another. There was no private work for the Church among them. What they did, they did cooperatively with one another.

The same is true for us. The Lord’s work is always fulfilled within and for the body of Christ, the Church. Do you see what that means? Working for the church and fulfilling the tasks of the Lord require a spirit of teamwork, a sense of mutuality, and a shared vision for the overall goals and purposes of the church. … None of us can complete our tasks properly without reference to the other members of the Church. We need one another to do what we must do for Christ. . . .


Further, we should never try to do our work for the Kingdom alone, isolated from others. The Kingdom is not a one-man or a one-woman show. Jesus sent out His disciples two-by-two. Let that be an example to us. We need to be coworkers with our priest and with one another in order to accomplish the task. It is more important that we work together in harmony than to merely complete some task.   (OF LIFE AND SALVATION, pp 64, 66)

Harakas sees unity as being part of the hard work of the membership. We have to be willing to lay aside our selfish interests and our self-centeredness and truly love all the others in the parish. But again, love is hard to define or maintain because there is no quantifiable way to measure if everyone is loving enough. Unity requires all members to be willing to follow Christ and empty themselves (kenosis) to make room for loving others.


In Orthodoxy’s history sometimes unity was maintained just because people lived together in a certain territory or shared a common language or ethnic identity. I think many Orthodox parishes in America were able to overlook political differences in the past because they saw themselves as “Orthodox” (or as Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Syrian, or whatever ethnic identity) and this held them together. However, today that unity is being threatened as politically polarized America spreads its ideologies and culture wars into the Church demanding monolithic thinking on all issues as the only way to maintain unity. Politics trumps love as monolithic thinking is expected on all issues. If Orthodox are going to view themselves as liberals or conservatives first, they will judge those who disagree with them and cause divisions in the Church. If they see themselves first as disciples of Christ who are expected to love one another, then they will have to view their political or social differences in a loving light and work hard on maintaining the unity of their communities despite those disagreements. It is easy to forgive people who have never offended us or who we never speak with. Much harder to love or forgive those with whom we totally disagree.


Christ’s unity is going to have to come from within the community and from within each member or the Church—for as Christ taught the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst or within us (Luke 17:21). If we don’t live that reality, the Church will become as divided and polarized as the society in which it exists is.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)