Updated January 10, 2009 (first published October 18, 1995)

The cry for Christian unity is heard on every hand today, from Catholics and Protestants, modernists and evangelicals, emergents and even some fundamentalists.

What we need to do is get beyond the emotionalism of this movement and consider what the Bible itself teaches about unity.

JOHN 17:21 -- “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

The modern ecumenical movement has taken John 17:21 as one of its theme verses, claiming that the unity for which Christ prayed is an ecumenical unity of professing Christians that disregards biblical doctrine. The context of John 17 destroys this myth. In John 17 the Lord plainly states that the unity for which He was praying is a unity based on salvation and truth and separation from the world.

“I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and THEY HAVE KEPT THY WORD. ... For I HAVE GIVEN UNTO THEM THE WORDS WHICH THOU GAVEST ME; AND THEY HAVE RECEIVED THEM, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. ... I HAVE GIVEN THEM THY WORD; AND THE WORLD HATH HATED THEM, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. ... Sanctify them through THY TRUTH: thy word is TRUTH. ... And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified THROUGH THE TRUTH” (John 17:6, 8, 14, 17, 19)

This is not a unity of true Christians with false, nominal with genuine, sound doctrine with heresy. It is not a unity that ignores doctrinal differences for the sake of an enlarged fellowship.

In fact, there is nothing in Christ’s prayer to indicate that man is to do anything whatsoever to create the unity described herein. John 17 is not a commandment addressed to men; it is a High Priestly prayer addressed to God the Father, and the prayer was answered. It describes a spiritual reality that was created by God among genuine born again saints who are committed to the Scriptures, not a possibility that must be organized by man.

1 CORINTHIANS 1:10 -- “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

We see in this verse that biblical unity is first of all a matter of having one mind. This is contrary to the ecumenical philosophy of “unity in diversity.” The type of “unity” that we find in the ecumenical movement is not true unity at all; it is confusion; it is “Babel.”

Observe, secondly, that the unity that God requires is in the assembly. This exhortation was addressed first of all to a church. It is possible to have the type of unity described here in the congregation, because doctrine can be agreed upon and enforced through a church covenant and statement of faith. In the church we can have the same doctrine of Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, spiritual gifts, sanctification, Christian living, prophecy, you name it, because we have a statement of faith and requirements for church membership and we have pastors and discipline; but this is impossible in a broad ecumenical context.

EPHESIANS 4:1-6 -- “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

In this passage we see true biblical unity and it is far removed from the ecumenical philosophy.

First, true Christian unity is a unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3). This means that it is a unity involving those who are regenerated by and led by the Spirit of God. Contrast this with the ecumenical concept of bringing together anyone that names the name of Christ regardless of his or her actual spiritual condition. At a large ecumenical conference in St. Louis in 2000 (the North American Congress on the Holy Spirit & World Evangelization), I asked many of the people who were manning ministry booths, “When were you born again?” Not one gave a scriptural answer. Some said they were born again when they were baptized. Some, when they had a charismatic style experience. Others weren’t even familiar with the term. Yet all of these people are intimately involved in leadership within the ecumenical movement.

Second, true Christian unity is a unity of the one faith (Eph. 4:5). Biblical unity is impossible apart from the once-delivered faith taught by the apostles. God’s people are called upon to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). There is no unity between those who believe and follow the Bible and those who do not. Note that “the faith” is not divided into cardinal and secondary issues. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus taught that while not everything in Scripture is of equal importance, everything has some importance. Nothing clearly taught in Scripture is to be despised and set aside for the purpose of unity. In 1 Timothy 6:14, Paul taught Timothy to keep the apostolic doctrine “without spot” until the return of Christ. Spots are small, seemingly insignificant things. Thus, Paul was teaching Timothy to value everything in Scripture. The theme of 1 Timothy is practical church truth (1 Tim. 3:15). In this epistle Paul dealt with things such as church government (1 Tim. 3) and the woman’s role in church work (1 Tim. 2). These are the very things that are typically downplayed in ecumenical ventures, because they are considered of “secondary” importance. Yet Paul taught Timothy to keep all of these things without spot until Jesus comes. Timothy was instructed to allow “no other doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). That is the strictest kind of standard for doctrine, and when one holds that standard of doctrine it is impossible to be ecumenical even in the mildest New Evangelical sense.

Third, true Christian unity is a unity that is found in the New Testament assembly. The command in Ephesians 4:3 is addressed to the church at Ephesus (Eph. 1:1). It was not addressed to “the worldwide body of Christians.” As we have seen, it is possible to practice biblical unity within the assembly because doctrine and righteousness can be enforced and preserved there. Outside of the assembly, though, there is no biblical discipline, leadership, or oversight. When Christians attempt to practice interdenominational and parachurch unity, there is always compromise because respect for every aspect of the New Testament faith results in division rather than unity. I am not responsible to maintain a unity with every professing Christian in the world but with the believers in my assembly, in my local body, and with others with whom I am truly likeminded. The Bible says we are to glorify God “with one mind and one mouth” (Romans 15:6). That is not a description of any type of ecumenism! This is only possible in the New Testament assembly, where believers can be united together in doctrine and spirit and purpose in a way that is impossible in a broader context.

PHILIPPIANS 1:27 -- “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”

The teaching of this passage is that, first, biblical unity is a function of the local church. This instruction was addressed to the church at Philippi. True Christian unity is not a parachurch or interdenominational issue.

Second, biblical unity means having one mind. It is not an ecumenical “unity in diversity.” Compare Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11.

Third, biblical unity requires total commitment to the one apostolic faith. The New Testament faith is not many separate doctrines but is one unified body of truth into which all doctrines fit. It is unscriptural to think that only a few “cardinal” Bible doctrines are necessary while other New Testament teachings and practices are tertiary and can be ignored for the sake of unity. As we have seen, the apostle Paul instructed Timothy to keep every aspect of biblical truth “without spot” until the return of Christ (1 Tim. 6:14). This refers to the details of the Word of God. And it is impossible to stand unequivocally for New Testament truth in all its aspects and to be ecumenical at the same time. As one wise pastor observed, we will either limit our message or we will limit our fellowship. If you determine to preach everything in Scripture, then you will automatically limit your sphere of fellowship. The choice is clear. If one is faithful to the New Testament faith, it is impossible to have a wide fellowship in this apostate hour, and if one is committed to a wide fellowship he must be willing to limit his message.