“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. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
— John 17:22–23
One of Jesus’ most frequent teachings was His desire for the unity of His followers. In fact, Jesus and the apostles make it clear that the primary way that the world will know the truth of the gospel of Christ is through our unity and love for one another. We should therefore make praying for the union of the church a priority and one of our most frequent petitions.
Scripture frequently exemplifies unity in the face of diversity—and even disagreement. Old Testament Israel itself illustrated unity amid diversity, with 12 distinct families bound together in one nation. As Jesus gathered His 12 disciples, He called men to unite who would be hated enemies in any other context (Matt. 10:2–4). Even as the apostles disagreed during the establishment of the early church, they sought loving, gracious unity with one another rather than division.
Since then, however, the church of Christ has increasingly displayed discord and brokenness. After centuries of a united, single-world church, it divided into eastern and western churches, thereby increasing division in Europe. By the time of the settling of the Americas, the divided church was the norm. Today we casually accept that there are thousands of protestant denominations.
When we pray for unification, we must first look in the mirror and ask, “What must I pray for regarding my own failure to strive for unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ? How have I made it difficult for others to be united with me? How ought my union with Christ change my attitude, actions and heart toward others?”
Because of our pride and tendency to accuse, it is often dangerous to pray these same things specifically for others in our local congregations; too often we judge and chastise other believers in our hearts—regardless of whether or not our assumptions are well-founded. Therefore, we must be careful when we pray for the unity of others; perhaps we might usually pray more generally for them, that Christ would continue to bring growth, humility and a spirit of unity within them.
As we pray for the church to grow in oneness, we should consider our tendency to prioritize minor issues and our failure to allow major agreements to be places where we find singularity. We should pray that our hearts—and the hearts of believers everywhere—would be broken about our discord, that Christ would give us a capacity for love that would overcome minor distinctions and disagreements, and that He would reveal opportunities for unification and give us the necessary humility and bravery to pursue them. We should also pray that He would protect us from division and give us healthy grief for our (and our spiritual ancestors’) glib participation in it.
Finally, we must pray for the solidarity of our leaders because they will lead us into either greater harmony or dissonance. Pray that they too would overcome pettiness and seek to be bound together more fully rather than highlight their distinctions. Pray that even their disagreements would be handled with love and humility and that unity might be preserved. Pray that Christ will use them as ambassadors throughout the worldwide church to cultivate togetherness as His return approaches.
J. E. Eubanks, Jr. has written dozens of articles, including others for byFaith; find more of Ed’s writing at www.edeubanks.com. He’s also written a book, For All the Saints: Praying for the Church (www.prayforthechurch.net), which is published by Doulos Resources (www.doulosresources.org).