Rev David Shosanya reminds us that fostering unity with fellow believers deserves more priority than allegiance to denominational structures, and provides practical steps on how to achieve greater Christian unity
This year, I had the privilege of speaking at two services celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The events are always pleasant, and everyone is on best behaviour. During that week of the year – for the duration of the service and immediately during tea and coffee at least – there is a public display of Christian unity that sadly normally reverts back to sporadic, incidental contact, which consciously or unconsciously reduces the Other to an unrecognisable caricature. Baptists, Charismatics, Catholics, Methodists and Pentecostals return back to their ‘ghettos’ after showing the world and each other how united we are, only to carry on with business as usual until next year! What we fail to realise is that the world, if it is watching us, looks on in bewilderment at our inability or unwillingness to unite, despite the purpose of God and the injunction of Christ for us to do so.
The reality is that Christian unity has largely been sacrificed at the altar of institutional or denominational allegiances. In other words, the denomination(s) we belong to have inadvertently become of greater importance than the one (Christ) to whom we belong (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Our differences of theology (how we speak about God), ecclesiology (our church structures), liturgy (the way we do church), doxology (our style of worship), missiology (our theology of mission), preaching/teaching, styles of prayer and diverse ways of being together have become obstacles to genuine Christian fellowship, rather than expressions of the many sided wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). Our attempts at Christian unity have become nods in the right direction, rather than heartfelt commitments to model something that is only achievable in and through Christ.
What also concerns me is the conspicuous absence of sisters and brothers from the majority world at gatherings that celebrate Christian unity. Either they are not being invited, or invitations are being ignored. Whatever the case, it is testament to the fact that much work continues to need to be done if we are to be truly united!
“The reality is that Christian unity has largely been sacrificed at the altar of institutional or denominational allegiances.”
I understand and appreciate why such gatherings take place, and strangely welcome them, if only because they remind us of what the natural rhythm of interaction should be between believers. However, there is a part of me that regards them as a scandal. They sadly testify to our inability or unwillingness as Christians to model the kind of fellowship (the Greek word for fellowship is koinonia, which was invented, as there was no word to express the quality and uniqueness of what Christians shared together in Christ) that the New Testament expects of us.
Perhaps the most well-known texts of Scripture that embody the reality of Christian unity as an ideal and expression of koinonia are found in John 17:1-16 (the High Priestly Prayer of Christ) and Acts 2:42-47 (the first Christian community). The contexts of both texts are important. The first is set in the last days of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the second, soon after His resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. John 17 and Acts 2:42-47 remind us that Christ regarded the unity of all believers as a testimony of His living presence in the lives of believers, and the foundation from which the mission and ministry of the Church, His body, would be launched.
Christian unity should therefore be a priority for each and every believer. While there may be a greater onus on leaders to model and promote unity, it is the responsibility and privilege of every member of the body of Christ to play their part in achieving it. We must be individually responsible to resist and reject any type of conditioning or personal disposition to harbour prejudicial perceptions about our sisters and brothers from other traditions.
There are practical things that we can do to encourage greater unity between churches. I suggest the following: Firstly, find out the names of all the churches and their leaders in your area, and include them in your personal and church prayer diary. Write each church a letter, and let them know you are praying for them; they will be encouraged. Secondly, you and a couple of friends from your church can plan to visit a neighbouring church in your locality, and join them for a family worship service, prayer meeting or Bible study, or offer to serve in some way. Thirdly, you can organise joint outreach activities that draw on each other’s strengths and expertise. Fourthly, you can dedicate a page of your church newsletter to carrying news of the activities of other churches in the areas, and promoting those activities. Lastly, you can work collaboratively to do something for your community that brings it and the church together.