When we hear the word, “catholic,” we usually think of the Roman Catholic Church. Because some of us believe the Church of Rome has terribly strayed from the gospel of Christ, we tend to view the term “catholic” in a negative light. In reality, though, the term “catholic” can be a good word. It simply means, “universal.” When it’s applied to the church, the term highlights the relationship that all true local churches bear to one another. Although the Bible distinguishes individual local churches, it also speaks of these churches collectively as “the church of Jesus Christ.”
This is why we should have no problem reciting the third paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed, which reads, “I believe in … the holy catholic church.” All true churches of Christ bear a common relationship to one another and can be properly designated as the one catholic church. This is why we should maintain a brotherly attitude and demeanor towards true Christians and churches that may not be part of my particular denomination or stripe. We should have a “catholic spirit” toward “all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord” (2LBC 27.2).1
John Calvin possessed such a disposition. One historian described Calvin in these terms: “Having left the papacy, [Calvin] still remained a Catholic in the best sense of that word, and [he] prayed and labored for the unity of all believers. Like his friend Melanchthon, he deeply deplored the divisions of Protestantism. To heal them he was willing to cross ten oceans.”2
My desire is that we would be Calvinists not only in our commitment to the doctrines of grace but also in manifesting a catholic spirit and demeanor towards brothers and churches of other denominations. For that reason, I’d like to address the subject of Christian unity under title “Toward a Catholic Christianity.” The text on which I’ll develop this theme is John 17, where the Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly prays that his disciples might remain united together:
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:11, 20-23).
What did Christ have in mind when He prayed that His followers might “be one”?
The Essence of Christian Unity
There are at least three elements involved in Christian unity. To begin with, Christian unity means united in creed. Just as the Father and the Son authored and revealed one and the same gospel, so too Christ prays that His disciples would continue to adhere to that very message (17:6, 8, 14). If Christ’s disciples are to be one, therefore, they must all believe the same gospel message. Paul refers to this in Ephesians 4:13 as “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
Second, Christian unity means united in cause. Billboards or bumper stickers with the message “United We Stand” have become popular since 9/11. Americans share a common desire to put an end to terrorism. We share a common interest to do what it takes to protect our life and liberties. Jesus prays that His followers might unite for a greater cause. Just as the Father and the Son are united in the work of the kingdom—in bringing the gospel to lost, so too Christ prays that His disciples may be united in the same cause (17:4, 18, 20).
Third, Christian unity means united in charity. Just as the Father and the Son share an affectionate, mutual love for one another, so Christ prays that His own disciples may be united in the same kind of love (17:25-26). “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says in John 13:35, “if you have love one for another.”
In sum, Christian unity means that Christ’s followers share a mutual creed, a mutual cause, and a mutual charity or love for one another.
The Importance of Christian Unity
Why is Christian unity important? At least two good reasons may be drawn from Christ’s prayer. First, Christian unity adorns Christ’s gospel. Christian unity has the potential to bring the world to faith in Christ (17:21, 23). Some commentators limit the expression “so that the world may believe that you sent Me” to a mere acknowledgment that Jesus was sent by God. But in light of the parallel expression in verse 8, which refers to Jesus disciples, the expression more likely refers to people of the world who are brought to saving faith. Thus, I agree with Charles Spurgeon when he writes, “Where brotherly love continues, and saints walk together in holy unity, the witness they bear is powerful, and the increase they gather is palpable [i.e., easily discernible].” If seeing the world brought to faith in Christ is important to us, then Christian unity must be important also.
Second, Christian unity fulfills Christ’s prayer. As the entire context indicates, Christ is praying that Christian unity might be consistently and fully attained among His true disciples: “I do not ask for these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one … that they may be one … that they may be perfected in unity [lit.: perfected unto one]” (17:20-23). Apparently, Christian unity was important to the Lord Jesus. He made it a matter of fervent prayer. If our Lord and Savior longed and prayed for such unity, then it ought to be very important to us.
In the next installment, we’ll wrestle with the fact that unity among Christians has proven to be a somewhat elusive goal for the Christian church, and we’ll suggest some reasons why that is the case.
- From the second paragraph of chapter 27 of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, which in full reads: “Saints, by their profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God and in performing such other spiritual services as advance their mutual edification. They are also to give relief to each other in outward things according to their different needs and abilities to meet them. This communion or fellowship, though chiefly exercised by saints in their immediate circle of fellow believers such as families, and churches, is also to be extended (according to the rule of the Gospel) to all the household of faith, as God gives the opportunity. This means all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, However, their communion with one another as saints does not take away or infringe the personal ownership which each man has of his goods and possessions.”
- From volume 8, chapter 17, and section 159 of Philip Schaff‘s The History of the Christian Church (1910), accessed here (as of April 27, 2012.).