It will come as no surprise to anyone to point out that there have been times in Adventist history that the church has not been unified. Even during the past decade, issues related to fiscal policy, ecclesiology, secular politics, and more have at the very least elicited varied responses, and at times have led to seemingly irreparable fissures in leadership and laity alike.
This leads to an important question: What does Jesus think of our lack of unity? I’m not speaking of the granular specifics of our disagreements, nor whether Christ would take our side or our opponent’s on this or that issue. I am referring to the simple fact that we, His people, in His church, are sometimes divided—and at times bitterly so. What does Jesus think about that?
Christ strikingly addressed church unity in John 17:22, 23 when, speaking of Christians down through the ages, He said, “I have given them the glory that you [the Father] 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” (NIV).
Any Christian mulling these verses over cannot help being astonished by what Jesus is saying: The level of unity Christ calls the church to is the same level experienced by Him and His Father! The oneness of purpose, the cohesiveness of action, the pure love for humanity that Christ and the Father shared—who cannot help being awestruck by such synergy? And in a world that specializes in division, Christ intends for His church to reflect this same unity, that all may see that the Father “has loved them even as” He loves Christ. Oh, the astounding power of a unified church!
So again I ask: What does Jesus think of our episodic lack of unity? Perhaps He thinks at least the following:
First, the pursuit of unity is never optional. Christ died to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10, NIV). We cannot simply write off those who disagree with us as irredeemable, and thereby excuse ourselves from attempting reconciliation. Those who do not pursue unity in the church—especially in times of disagreement—do not understand one of the fundamental purposes of the cross.
Second, even in times of deep division, resentment is never appropriate. The same Jesus who engaged in passionate debate with His enemies . . . also died for them. Are we addressing those “on the other side” of certain issues in the church with this same kind of love?
Third, lasting unity can ultimately be found only in Christ and His Word. It is a remarkable fact that high levels of unity can exist in the church even when there are substantive disagreements on important issues (see Acts 6:1-7, for instance). But this is possible only when church members are deeply connected to Christ and to Scripture.
Christ was clear that the unity He enjoyed with His Father was predicated on them being “in” one another (John 17:21). This is equally true for us: Church unity depends on us being in Christ and Christ being in us. Only then can sufficient love, discernment, and forbearance be found in sufficient levels to keep honest disagreements from becoming implacable divisions. Unity in the church is indeed possible. May God grant us the desire and courage to pursue it.