The meaning of Christian Unity

by David W. T. Brattston

What is Christian unity in the Biblical sense? Jesus called for unity among Christians, but did not say what Christian unity is or how we can know when it exists.

Is Christian unity merely two neighbouring congregations of the same denomination sponsoring a joint meal? Or two congregations of different denominations doing so? Or co-operation in the World Council of Churches, and similar national and local organizations? Or intercommunion agreements? Or did Jesus and his first followers intend nothing short of the thoroughgoing structural union of two previously independent denominations?

The earliest Christian writings help us to understand what “unity” means and how to work towards it. This article looks at Christian literature before AD 250, when Christians could recall from living memory what Jesus and the apostles did in practice, drawing on their unwritten teachings and Bible interpretations.

In John 17, Jesus prayed that Christians be united in the same way he and the Father are united. Not knowing the way heaven is organized, we are little assisted by this in determining what “united” means, except to observe that the Father and Son are two persons in constant contact with each other.

The essence of Christian unity later in the first century AD was the considerate treatment and mutual forbearance among Christ’s followers on a frequent basis. (Romans 12:4f, 1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:3 and Philippians 1:27 and 2:2)

Also in the first century, the congregation at Rome wrote to that at Corinth urging them to heal a rift in the congregation, and to re-establish peace, love and unity among Christians who were in at least weekly contact with each other.

“The earliest Christian writings help us to understand what unity means and how to work towards it.”

About AD 107, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch encouraged Christians in three congregations to be united to their local clergy. An early third century church manual stressed unity of clerics within a congregation. Both Ignatius and the manual pressed for greater consolidation within the church to improve relations between Christians who had daily or weekly interactions with each other.

In AD 197, the church father Tertullian saw Christian unity as being the gathering together of Christians in local public worship.

About AD 249, Origen identified unity in Christians agreeing to pray for the same request (Matthew 18:19), and in the apostles praying together (Acts 1:14). These are persons in each other’s presence co-operating towards a common spiritual goal. Origen was the foremost Bible scholar and teacher of his time, and was frequently called upon as a consultant by bishops throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

The above authors classed unity with such other interpersonal traits as peace, love, gentleness, courtesy, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance, hospitality and recognition of the spiritual gifts of others. The same authors believed that unity is incompatible with strife, jealousy, arrogance, repaying evil for evil and snobbishness. All these are attitudes or modes of relating to people with whom one is in personal contact.

In the Biblical sense, unity is a pattern of mind and behaviour, a mode of conducting one-to-one interpersonal relations among Christians in frequent contact and the fostering of peace, love, and harmony at the neighbourhood level.

Not mentioned in the Bible, although Christianity had divided into different sects during the first century, official interdenominational mergers contribute to Christian unity only to the extent that they promote these local objectives. The original meaning of “Christian unity” entailed constant—at least weekly—interaction, not just formal annual meetings nor dry scholarly discussions on doctrine.

The shared Communion between Canadian Anglicans and Lutherans is one such local objective, for it enables us to accept each other as equals in Christ and share together in a foretaste of heaven.

David W. T. Brattston is a member of the oldest Lutheran congregation in Canada, and sometimes attends the midweek Eucharist at the second oldest Anglican Church in Canada, both in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.