Jesus wants all his followers to be one – John 17:21
The first thing Jesus prayed for all believers in him, who were yet to hear the gospel, was that they should be unified or as in the NIV translation, ‘all of them may be one.’ This sets the marker for the importance of Christian unity, it is of first importance. It is the reason why the devil strives to divide believers on any basis e.g. through arguments over minor interpretations of theology – making them of first importance, through the introduction of sin in its many forms into fellowship life, through false teaching and personality cults. How close should the unity of believers be? It is to be as close as God the Father and God the Son are. They are one in the Trinity, each serving the other to the glory of the other. No partiality is shown. When a fellowship is at one, as God the Father and Jesus, there are no loners or in-groups. No one skill set is valued higher than another. The whole body is as dedicated to the Lord’s worship and mission as Jesus was on the way to the cross.
Oneness is not limited to the local fellowship it relates to the wider local area. Fellowships should pray for and practically support each other. My small rural church is deeply grateful for the loving support of other local Christians who regular prepare and lead worship with great humility and dedication. But the oneness of the body of Christ also strongly bears upon the universal church because God does not share the limited focus we so frequently have. God’s vision is not limited by geographical, political or denominational boundaries. For the Father we are all one family as Jesus is his son, so sibling unity is as binding globally as it is locally. The joy of sharing in worldwide fellowship is profound and is something distinctively antiracist that the church has to show the world.
The unity of the church in Christ has a purpose and it is a missional purpose. The purpose of the distinctive unity of the body of believers is so others will believe in Christ. The church’s character is intended to reflect the character of God and therefore reveal God to the world. Where a church is divided upon itself or does not show sacrificial commitment to the wider fellowship of believers it is failing in conveying Christ’s gospel message. Jesus’ words to his disciples were, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ John 13:34-35