Three questions about unity

10 July 2017

David Guretzki, PhD, is the executive vice-president of the EFC and its resident theologian.

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Q1. Why does unity matter?

Although Evangelicals have often focused more on unity in doctrine and teaching in the past – which is very important – it’s interesting that Scripture more often speaks of the unity of the Church in terms of our common relationship to God in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

The Apostle Paul certainly warns of the corrosive and divisive effects of false teaching (e.g., 1 Timothy 4). But fundamentally in the New Testament, the unity of the Church (the body of Christ) is tied directly to Christ’s spiritual union with the Father, and thus, the Church’s spiritual union with God in and through Jesus Christ. That’s what Jesus means when He prays that His followers would be one, just as Christ and His Father are one.

When the Apostle Paul enjoins the church to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3), it’s because he wants us to look like what we already are: a spiritual body of believers joined to Christ our Head. The problem is that the church historically seems to do better at making every effort to live paradoxically against the unity we already enjoy in Christ!

Q2. What should unity look like for Canadian Evangelicals?

Evangelicals have well-developed senses of both the “local” and “universal” church. In the local sense of unity, Evangelicals understand that members of a local congregation must, as brothers and sisters in the family of God, labour together while seeking to resolve disputes, forgiving, and reconciling whenever possible. We know, in other words, that local unity is crucial to a congregation’s effectiveness at mission – even if we don’t always do this well in practice!

As well, Evangelicals generally have a good sense of how we stand in unity with our brothers and sisters around the world. Our prayers for the persecuted church and our help in short and long-term mission work demonstrate that we understand that the church is also a “universal” body.

However, I am convinced that a middle category of the “city” or “regional” church is where we sometimes founder. In the New Testament, “ecclesia” (the Greek word we usually translate as “church” in English) is often associated with a geographical name, for example, the Church in Rome.

In fact, this sense of the church – the Church in a particular geographical region – is where unity is probably most difficult to practice, if for no other reason than denominational tensions are most obviously felt here. It is why even the smallest hamlets and towns have different churches representing different denominational commitments. It is this sense of the “regional” church where I also believe mission effectiveness is so easily compromised and our divided spirit is made most evident to a watching world.

Without downplaying the spiritual giftedness of an evangelist like Billy Graham or necessarily advocating that city-wide evangelistic campaigns are what is most needed today, I would suggest that it was because the churches came together for these events in often unprecedented ways that people became followers of Christ, and local churches were renewed with evangelical fervor.

It was because local churches in a geographical region worked together toward a common mission that God often moved and even brought renewal and revival to the churches. In other words, as important as a Billy Graham may have been to the equation, more important was the practical and visible unity demonstrated by the city Churches.

I believe that city-wide or regional ministerial gatherings are the most overlooked potential space for church unity and mission effectiveness. And yet participation and strategizing at the city or regional ministerial level (with, thankfully, some exceptions) is often seen as least important in a long list of ministry priorities.

My question is: What would happen if the evangelical church in Canada took the city- and regional-unity of the church more seriously? I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to see greater church renewal and mission effectiveness, and ultimately, more people coming to faith in Christ if regions of churches sought to work together based on their shared unity in Christ rather than isolating due to denominational and doctrinal difference.

Q3. How do you see unity at work in Canadian evangelicalism?

Although it can be easy for us Evangelicals to be our own greatest critics, I believe evangelicalism has historically demonstrated great visible unity. Today I believe Evangelicals often demonstrate unity in ways they are unaware.

Three ways we show unity include:

  1. the way Evangelicals have formed and supported ministries such as Youth for Christ, Inter-Varsity and Promise Keepers;
  2. the way both denominational and non-denominational primary, secondary and post-secondary schools have been attended and supported across the evangelical spectrum;
  3. the way groups of local churches across denominational lines join together to support homeless shelters, pregnancy centres, youth centres, days of prayer, etc.

In all these ways, I see evangelical churches unified in action, even when doctrinally we may still find ourselves often at odds with one another.