“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23
Jesus made his desire clear. He prayed the church would be unified. And yet, despite every Christian I know wanting church unity, the church is perhaps more divided than ever. And it’s been divided for awhile.
I think back to Martin Luther. In his time, people were unable read the Bible for themselves, but Luther had access as a Catholic monk. He noticed some inconsistencies between what he read in the Bible and what he saw in the Catholic Church. As was common in that time, he posted his thoughts on a door for discussion. He argued strongly against indulgences, (Catholics were giving money to the church so their loved ones could enter heaven). Luther wanted everyone to know salvation is by grace through faith. When the leaders of Catholicism, who were profiting from indulgences, saw his arguments, they wanted him to recant his statements. When Luther didn’t, he was excommunicated from the church.
While we know church division breaks God’s heart, do we blame Luther or the Catholics in this case? Was it wrong for Luther to challenge practices? Or was it wrong for the Catholic Church to silence his arguments and excommunicate him? Was it wrong to see an issue? Or was it wrong to ignore the issue? Which one caused the division?
This is still the debate today. Division usually occurs when one person or party believes the church is acting in an unbiblical way, and the church disagrees. One side sees the change as necessary and biblical, and one side sees the change as unbiblical.
While a few Christians may not care about the Bible, I have realized 99% of the Christians I know care deeply. These 99% of Christians believe they are living out the Bible most accurately... more accurately than other Christians. One church may explain that the division in the church is because others ‘just don’t follow the Bible,’ but others will think the same about them! We all think we are listening to the Bible.
The problem isn’t usually that other Christians aren’t listening to the Bible. The problem is that they are listening to it in a different way. We disagree on how the Bible is interpreted most accurately.
To give some examples:
To generalize, the Catholic Church states that the final say on Biblical interpretation is determined by the church and specifically by priests. They believe the priests best interpret scripture because of some verses saying the church would rest on Peter, and the current Catholic priests are traced back to Peter (and act as Peter today). This is why they didn’t consider what Luther brought up about his interpretation of verses. His interpretation meant nothing.
In the Protestant church, most believe accurate understanding comes from objectively studying the Bible. And many believe the Bible is most accurately interpreted by academic experts who look into the context and language. This is why Luther (in Protestant fashion) wouldn’t back down on his Biblical findings even when it went against the priests. But there are many different Bible experts respected and they don’t always agree. This has led to different Protestant denominations today, and people join denominations based on which experts they trust.
In many spirit-filled churches, the interpretation of scripture is, in part, determined by academics (like Protestantism) but then, in part, determined by what the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals. For some, they rely on how the Spirit speaks to them while reading. Others listen to men and women they view as very Spiritual (often people who see miracles). They believe the Spirit is the one who teaches, but divisions occur when one person believes the Spirit is saying one thing and another person believes the Spirit is saying something different.
This main disagreement on who has the final say on accurate Bible interpretation leads to almost all division. And yet, when we try and ‘solve’ division, we argue about the meanings of certain verses. We’re fighting an impossible fight. We are all trying to interpret the verse most accurately, but we don’t agree on what determines accuracy.
We are trying to agree in order to unify, but we all think we are right. So, to ‘agree,’ we think we need to convince everyone else to agree with us. But no one wants to be a part of a unified group when each denomination believes they are the teachers and everyone is behind them.
So, how can we live out Jesus’ unification prayer in the midst of this mess?
If we believe the answer is to convince all others to believe what we believe, we may be waiting a long time! Perhaps, instead of unifying over agreement, we can agree on the ‘big’ things and then unify over our mutual respect, honor, and love. A big step in this is to assume the best of others, and to acknowledge that many other Christians are trying just as hard as us to interpret and live out the Bible. We can respectfully share how we’ve seen God because we want to spread how we’ve experienced His joy and love…and we can hear how others have experienced this too. I believe every Christian sees parts of God, and because I love God, I want to hear! This isn’t to say we never should leave a church. Sometimes, it’s healthy. We can make hard decisions and decide environments aren’t best for us while still honoring the people and their journeys. We may never agree on who one is ‘right.’ But we can hold strong opinions and still honor others at the same time. We can unify even when we don’t agree, but it requires humility and honor. But I believe we have that… with God’s help! And because of that, I’m hopeful about unity in the church.