Many Christians have been motivated by Christ’s prayer in John 17:21 “that all [Christians] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Self included. I’ve wanted to see the thousands of denominations coalesce, put aside minor differences, and be about the Kingdom.
In a lot of wonderful ways, this is happening. There is a far more loving, gracious, and accepting attitude among most Christian groups than there ever has been. There are exceptions, but these are proving to not be the rule.
Be that as it may, there is still often a desire among many Christians for the unity to be more official, for every conceivable type of barrier to fall down, for denominations to completely cease and for there to be literally just “the Christian Church.”
At the end of all things, I agree this is exactly what we will have, and it is still worth striving for until Christ returns.
I also think we can get lost in this pursuit, chasing unity for unity’s sake instead of seeking God first and foremost and letting everything else fall where it may.
To better understand Christ’s desire as quoted above from John, a better understanding of the New Testament Church, the Early Church, and the composition of the books in the New Testament is needed.
There is a bias about the Church in the New Testament, and it’s the same kind of bias that tends to affect us when we reminisce about the beginnings of anything we care deeply about: we romanticize and idealize the past.
There is a strong temptation to view that Church as one in which everyone laughed, was giddy, got along, loved bunnies, and sat in circles holding hands while singing “Kumbaya.”
To be fair, scripture itself seems to advocate this in particular passages, most famously from Acts 2:42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
That surely is part of the truth about the Church, but this isn’t intended to be a definitive account of the entire Church for all of the 60 – 70 years in which it existed until the end of the First Century.
We know this to be true for several reasons.
First, though, it’s important to note that what we today would call an exaggeration or stretching of the truth was acceptable in literature in the ancient world. That’s not to imply that Luke (the author of Acts) is lying or being dishonest, but merely that the the norms for any kind of historical writing were different 2,000 years ago than they are now.
Luke was within his rights to elaborate a bit on the facts themselves and would be recognized as having done so by his readers.
As one example, we know by Luke’s own later testimony that the line stating that the Church was “enjoying the favor of all the people,” (emphasis mine) must be an exaggeration as the Roman government; the Jewish authorities; and many devout, Torah-observant common Jews despised Christians.
Second, Luke and Paul also attest to a later, different reality for the Church.
We don’t know exactly when Luke wrote his version of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, but most would agree that it was done at least 25+ years after the Crucifixion and after Paul wrote some of his epistles, particularly for our purposes the Epistle to the Galatians.
Luke’s depiction in Acts 2 is of the Church as it was soon after the Resurrection and immediately at Pentecost, which means as it was when it was still very small.
It’s important to remember that being Christian still meant very much being Jewish. It’s true that Gentiles (non-Jews) were included early in the Church, but other than gathering at fellowship meals, there was initially no official worship apart from the Temple and synagogues, and the question of how to incorporate Gentiles into the Church became a huge crisis.
Pentecost marks not only the coming of the Holy Spirit to believers but the birth of the Church. Luke’s description in Acts 2 and 4 is consequently best understood not as a Church utopia over several years but as the immediate reality of the Church for a matter of weeks.
Luke admits as much in Acts 4 when the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) denounces Peter and John for preaching, then in Acts 5 when the apostles are arrested. In Acts 6 the dynamic changes as the disciples realize they have to better organize this following they’ve created because people’s needs are being neglected.
Later in the same chapter, Stephen is seized, taken to the Sanhedrin, and summarily executed for perceived blasphemy, and Acts 8 states that “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”
What peaceful camaraderie and beginnings of order there had been in the first moments of the Church’s life is immediately broken as “all except the apostles…scattered” out of Jerusalem.
We are not told who went where, or how the various Christians began to reorganize themselves wherever they settled.
The evidence from Acts and Galatians indicates that churches were quite different depending on the location and the people at each location. There was no organized Church or church practice, though all looked to the apostles for leadership and saw themselves as part of Judaism.
As Paul in Galatians and the rest of Church history attest, from this moment on even the apostles themselves didn’t have the easiest time agreeing on what the Church ought to believe, practice, and be.
As one example, parties among the apostles and believers felt differently about how to incorporate Judaism with Christianity.
This needs to be held in conjunction with the fact that there seems to have been a large expectation among Christians that Jesus’ return was imminent, so during the first decades the need for organization and “officialness” to the Church was likely perceived to be moot.
But as the years passed, Christian numbers rose and dispersed, and Christ had yet to return, a tension began to rise in the disparate parts of the Church about its structure that is demonstrated throughout the later books of the New Testament and is easily seen in Paul.
The tension was between the guidance of the Holy Spirit and hierarchy in the Church. Today, it is assumed by many that the first Church was led purely by the Spirit, and it is only after the apostles die that their successors radically changed the Church.
While the guidance of the Spirit was indeed incredibly important, the very existence of the New Testament epistles is testimony that structure and order was desired by the apostles, and that a delicate dance between the Holy Spirit’s leadership as supported and guided through human intermediaries was the original intention.
What were Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and the authors of the Gospels trying to do by writing? Exert authority. Guide the Church in the proper way of remembering and understanding who Jesus is. Quite explicitly with Paul, telling churches how they ought to worship, manage internal problems, organize and govern themselves.
Paul’s motivation for doing so is evident from the text: not only that the churches – guided by the Holy Spirit though they may be – were getting important things wrong, but that other teachers were trying to guide the churches in different directions.
Not coincidentally, what came to be called Catholic Christianity emerged for precisely the same reason: stronger local leadership than that of a distant apostle loosely overseeing churches separated by hundreds of miles became more necessary as theological and political crises increased in frequency and severity.
While it’s true that the Church offices of bishop and priest aren’t the same in the New Testament as they are 50 years later, the trajectory established in the NT by several apostles is clearly headed in that direction. These aren’t drastically different innovations without legitimate Christian precedent.
There were a plurality of Christian communities over the first 100 years, some that were more hierarchical than others, but within this diversity the apostles sought unity and oversight even while disagreeing among themselves.
The form of hierarchical Catholicism that emerged as the majority did so not only because it was seen as the overriding Church of the Apostles but also because it was the form that proved able to withstand the trials of the age.
As anyone with any experience with charismatic movements can testify, it’s pretty easy to feel caught up in the Spirit and yet be led astray. It’s entirely possible for the Holy Spirit to be present and manifest in incredibly strong and powerful ways while the doctrinal and/or ethical wheels fall off the bus.
This has happened numerous times in a variety of revivals, and it clearly demonstrates the need to balance the Christian experience of the Spirit with the leadership of the Spirit as embodied through scripture and, as Paul would tell us, order through select members of a church.
It’s a balance to hold, and it’s a difficult one because either extreme has been historically abused. But it is to this form of unity – with room for diversity – that we are called to be one, which is how to understand the words of Christ regarding unity in John.
Just as Luke’s account in Acts is best viewed in light of the kinds of literature that were written at the time, so, too, are the Gospels best understood by the same rubric.
They are biographies or accounts of Jesus written as others were at that time, which focused not on recording strict chronological sequences of events and verbatim quotes straight from the mouths of its sources, but on telling the story truthfully in essence with agendas in mind that mold the way in which it is told.
That does not mean that the accounts aren’t trustworthy or that they aren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit. It means the presentation each makes of Jesus is done so with particular audiences in mind and is thus written selectively as opposed to comprehensively.
Within this context we hear the words on Jesus’ lips about His desire that Christians may be one, even as He and the Father are one, written in what is likely the most recent gospel of the four.
This echos the words of Clement of Rome in his Epistle to the Corinthians, possibly written at almost the same time as John. The Corinthian Church, just as in Paul’s day some 40 to 50 years before, is experiencing schism, and Clement calls for unity by appealing to Paul: “Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas [Peter], and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.”
Clement’s plea for unity is tellingly grounded in a call to respect those in leadership positions in the church and, clearly and more forcefully, in a plea to love one another.
Ten years later the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch are written hastily to six churches as he was transported to Rome to be executed. Like Clement and the quote from Jesus in John, one of Ignatius’ key concerns is the unity of the Church. He is far more explicit than his near-contemporaries in how that unity should be maintained: through bishops and established Church leadership in order to stand against threatening schisms.
This is the larger context in which to understand Christ’s desire for unity in His followers as proclaimed in John.
It is a call to unity motivated by the same desire the apostles had while writing their epistles, the same desire Clement and Ignatius had in theirs: a lovingly but firm call to establish order for the Church where none had truly existed since the Christians scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom.
This call does not negate the place and importance of the Holy Spirit, but it acknowledges our weaknesses that can manifest even with the Spirit’s presence. We also need the Spirit to empower us to obey the Spirit, and one way in which this is done is through the mutual leadership of those who have been molded and called to be servant-leaders for the Church.
Have some of these leaders abused their power over the past 2,000 years? Of course they have. Regrettably, lamentably, and dishearteningly.
Have some of those who have been caught up in the movement of the Holy Spirit without oversight gone horribly and dangerously astray? Of course they have. Regrettably, lamentably, and dishearteningly.
There is no getting around our proclivity to mess up.
The New Testament and the Early Church try to teach us that the answer desired by the apostles to help limit our mistakes is a full infusion of the Holy Spirit in the Church balanced by ordered leadership guided by the Holy Spirit.
It is within this kind of model, following the fundamental beliefs hinted at by Paul but more clearly delineated in the proto-creed of the Regula Fidei described by Irenaeus and Tertullian, that Christianity as the apostles and Early Church envisioned it is intended to live and breathe.