#7 Unity of the Church

This is Part 8 and final of the series "A MISSIONARY ECCLESIOLOGY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY". Originally presented in 2005, the relevance is current.


by R. Bruce Carlton

Major Emphasis 7 - Unity of the Church


In John 17, Jesus prayed for those who would believe because of the witness of His disciples. He prayed that they might be brought to complete unity in order that the world would know that Jesus came from God (v. 20-23). The polarization of different groups within Christianity has done great harm to the church’s witness. The church of the twenty-first century must continue to seek a solution that will allow for unity in diversity. If the church fails to do so, its witness to postmodernism, on the one hand, and the other world religions, on the other hand, will be diluted and ineffective


The twentieth century saw the rise of the ecumenical movement. This concept of ecumenicalism was first expressed at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. At the Edinburgh Conference, it became evident to many within the Christian world that the church would falter in fulfilling its missionary mandate if it faltered in nurturing the unity of the church. For nearly a century, the struggle for nurturing unity within the universal church has continued.

On the Protestant side, there has been a polarization between those who view themselves as ecumenical and those who view themselves as evangelical. Many evangelicals distrust the ecumenical movement because they sense the ecumenical movement is more about uniformity and organizational unity rather than the organic or spiritual unity that evangelicals believe was at the heart of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

Many within the ecumenical movement see evangelicals as divisive, pointing to the extreme diversity within the evangelical group that further splinters the church into more factions.


Nevertheless, as the church enters the twenty-first century it must not neglect this ongoing effort to find unity within the Body of Christ. We cannot expect all Christians within the universal church to agree fully on every matter. Yet, can the church find truth in Verkuyl’s words, “It is my conviction that every evangelical (in the New Testament sense of that word) should be ecumenical, and every ecumenical (in the biblical sense and also in the sense in which it was used by the pioneers of the ecumenical movement) should be evangelical.


Bosch calls on the churches around the world to not allow their disagreements and diversity to destroy community. Just as the local church in the twenty-first century discovers its organic nature as the community of God’s people, so must the universal church come to the same discovery. After all, it is a truism, as Bosch points out, “The universal church actually finds it true existence in the local churches.


One way in which the church can begin to build community within the worldwide church is to rediscover the New Testament truth that each local church stands on its own (I Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1-2; I Thess. 1:1). This sounds ironic; however, unity within the universal church cannot be accomplished by imposing the authority of one local church over another, which has been characteristic of much of the missionary work throughout the modern mission movement. Such efforts simply create an illusion of unity based on organizational structure rather than genuine unity based on shared community.


Western mission societies and missionaries have actually contributed to disunity within the church by all their talk about autonomous and dependent churches, older and younger churches, sending and receiving churches. This thinking may have preserved the monolithic, organizational structure of the various denominations, yet it served little toward achieving actual unity among churches worldwide.


The churches and mission societies of the West can play a major role in fostering unity by a willingness to enter into genuine partnership with churches in the Two-Thirds World, partnership based on humility and servanthood. The West must humbly set aside its paternalism, which, although benevolent, has existed throughout the modern mission movement, and truly see the churches of the Two-Thirds World as autonomous churches in their own right. Churches within the Two-Thirds World must also be willing to enter into genuine partnership as well, partnership with each other as well as with the churches of the West. Bosch succinctly states it this way, “The whole world is a mission field, and the distinction between sending and receiving churches is becoming pointless...churches everywhere need each other.”


#MissionaryEcclesiology