By Daryl Reed
I saw a cartoon that pictures a church membership class. The teacher is showing a diagram titled “Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History.” On the left side of the chart a dot is labeled “30 AD,” representing the first church. To the right of that is a large tree of many successive generations of Christian movements. The teacher is pointing to a place further out on the tree and says, “So this is where our movement came along and got the Bible right.” A student responds, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I can remember teaching like this in my early days of ministry.
The historical landscape of Christendom is messy. Clearly, God is grieved to see so many divisions, schisms, factions, sects, and denominations. The problem is not in pointing out the splintering divisions and showing how different denominational groups have emerged from the church founded on the Day of Pentecost shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The problem is casually pointing out disunity within the church without having a Christlike passion to pray for and work toward advancing oneness.
To say, “Jesus is so lucky to have us!” is indicative of the kind of pride we far too often have within our hearts. Arrogance prevents us from pursuing oneness with other Christians, and pride blinds us to our need to become more like Christ.
Praying for and pursuing unity should not be a peripheral matter. After all, it was, and is, a big deal to Christ.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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—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” (John 17:20-23).
Paul similarly emphasized,
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:3-6).
Flowing Together or Apart?
The natural flow of God’s Spirit will lead us to pursue oneness with God and one another. Conversely, when we flow away from God’s Spirit, the result is disunity and disorder.
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38).
Therefore, Paul wrote, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
When a Spirit-filled believer devotes themself to Christ, it’s like they are riding on rivers of living water that flow together and into God’s presence. Our human tendency is not like this, however. It’s more common that we flow apart into separate streams.
It’s like the geographical phenomenon known as river bifurcation or divergent waterway systems. This occurs when a single stream separates into two or more streams that continue downstream. These rivers and streams further divide and form more rivers and streams, which in turn can separate and form even more. Eventually, a complex network of distributaries called deltas is formed.
Interestingly, these complex distributaries and deltas look very much like the diagram in the cartoon I described at the beginning of this article.
The opposite phenomenon, known as convergence or confluence, occurs less frequently within waterway systems. A confluence occurs when two or more flowing bodies of water join to form a single channel. Confluences occur where a tributary joins a larger river, where two rivers join to create a third, or where two separated channels of a river, having formed an island, rejoin downstream.
Looking at the divergent reality of Christendom today, and particularly the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (to which I can trace my spiritual ancestry), it is clear to me our Lord would want us to pray for a confluence to occur within the church of Jesus Christ.
Past Efforts to Pursue Unity
Thomas Campbell—the first leading voice of the Stone-Campbell Movement—shared this conviction in his famous Declaration and Address:
1. The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures. . . .
2. Although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. . . . And for this purpose they ought all to walk by the same rule . . . and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind. . . .
In the early 1800s, a major confluence of streams came together to rekindle the fires of back-to-the-Bible, New Testament Christianity. Sadly, this rekindled unity movement succumbed to the pressures of history and later divided into separate branches. (On top of that, the gross error of dehumanizing, enslaving, and mistreating fellow image-bearers who were Black left a legacy of pain and injustice for generations.)
Some say it is best to refer to the different branches of Christian movements as streams rather than branches because branches are more rigid than streams. When branches are bent, they can break, whereas streams do not.
Using waterways as a metaphor to describe the complex divisions within the body of Christ can perhaps renew our faith that Jesus’ prayer for unity can indeed be realized in our day. Jesus still wants oneness. He still desires the many divergent streams of his people flow back together. Christian unity is a great witness to a seeking world.
Because Jesus prayed for unity, so should we.
When we give up praying for unity, we also give up making every effort to pursue unity. That’s why we need to imitate the heart of Christ and pray for Jesus’ church to be one.
Pursuing Unity Today
The good news: Christ followers all around the world have not stopped praying Jesus’ John 17 prayer. God’s Spirit is still moving. The mighty flow of the Spirit is still connecting and reconnecting different streams. The mighty flow of the Spirit is still moving amongst God’s people.
In the past couple decades, I have been an eyewitness to the confluence of separate streams and the convergence of different people groups within the body of Christ. I have too many stories to share for this short article, but I will share one that is dear to my heart.
One of the great honors of my life was to work alongside my friends Ken Meade, Joe Wilson, Jennifer Taylor Johnson, Dyke McCord, and others on the planning committees for the Eastern Christian Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 2017.
For five decades, the ECC had served as a great rallying point for churches in the Northeast—especially for congregations within the independent Christian churches/churches of Christ.
As in previous years, Christians had come together to share ideas and new strategies and to connect with others for great fellowship.
In 2017 our planning committee settled on the theme “More to Restore.” The big idea of the conference: God was not done renewing his people and restoring his church. God has always been and still is in the restoration business of calling his people to himself and calling his church to represent Jesus’ love to the world.
Our team shared the conviction that we as modern-day Christ followers should not be satisfied with our past pursuits of unity and restoration. Instead, we should urgently acknowledge that Christ’s church still has unfinished kingdom business. Clearly, we have more to restore!
That rare phenomenon of a confluence of different streams would come together at the conference. The conference’s keynote speakers were from several streams of the Restoration Movement: Drew Sherman, Bo Chancey, Brian Jones, and Ben Cachiaras (independent Christian churches), Jeff Walling (churches of Christ and Christian churches), and Kevin and Tracena Holland (International Churches of Christ).
As for me, I had connections with all the streams. I was raised within the a cappella churches of Christ. In college, I was actively involved in ministering to students as an outreach ministry of Macomb Church of Christ. In the 1990s I was ordained and appointed as an evangelist within the International Churches of Christ congregation in Chicago. And, since the mid-2000s, when I “discovered” the independent Christian church stream of the Restoration Movement, I have been closely connected with them.
I share the dream of past reformers and restorers for God’s church in our generation to converge into the united flow of his spirit—the Jesus stream.
I want to encourage you to pray Jesus’ John 17 prayer for oneness so that the world may know the love of God and the good news about Jesus.
Jesus is not so lucky to have us . . . We’re so blessed to have Jesus!
Daryl Reed serves as lead minister of DC Regional Christian Church in the Washington, D.C., area.
When we established Lifeline Christian Mission in 1980 (starting in Haiti) as we began churches there we quietly watched (in awe) of how the Haitian people inter-fellowship with other church “denominations”. There is no debate over “how to do it” in the church. They are simply all “Christians”. Although we did not make this a study, just an observation, and over 42 years seems to remain true.
I remember the ECC! I was a high school student when my family were members of Manchester Christian Church in the 1990’s. I got to play on the worship band at ECC in 1998 I believe. It’s great to hear that it still exists and that lots of great things are still happening in the Northeast. I’ve lived in Indiana now for more than 20 years and we also need to hear this message of unity. We have several mega churches right here in Indianapolis and we rarely coordinate efforts for the city. I don’t hear about about any major disunity though. Thanks for sharing!
Would you give up the instrument for the sake of unity?
In 1 Cor 12:3b Paul writes “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. John, in 1 John 4:2 says something similar.
It seems to me that if someone can only say, “Jesus is Lord,” by the Holy Spirit, then that person very likely has the Holy Spirit living within them. Whether I like it or not, that makes them my brother/sister in Christ, and I need to treat them as such even if we disagree more than we agree.
Like Melinda Johnson, I live in the Indianapolis area (now 50 of my 83 years) I remember many years ago the leaders of one of the larger independent Christian churches were upset because a large sister church was planting a new church about 3 miles away. According to a VERY conservative estimate there were over 20,000people in the area with no church connection. Another mid-size sister church lists every week in their email news letter a church to pray for. I don’t remember any of those being local and many are out of state.
I have some connections to some of the black, mostly Baptist, churches here. They are doing a little better at connecting, mostly around trying to stop the violence here which impacts the black community a lot more than the rest of the city.
I like what Christ Together (https://christtogether.org/) is trying to do. They ask, “How many churches are in your city?” Their answer is, “One,” which meets in many locations which are connected to many different denominations. Their goal is to get the various groups of this “one church” to work together to, “Give every man, woman, and child multiple opportunities to see, hear, and respond to the gospel.” They ask church leaders to devote a tithe of their time (4 hours in a 40 hour work week) to working with the churches in their city.
Confluence long experience in southeast Houston, TX. Pre-Covid a fellowship of individuals – mostly men, but occasionally some women, from “independent Christian churches,” and “churches of Christ” [“mainline (including from one congregation that merged with a “church of God” Anderson) & “no-Sunday-classes” met monthly for breakfast, fellowship, and prayer. Also congregations jointly supported a ministry to individuals who were incarcerated, releasees, and their families. Also classes for a Bible Institute started by a “no class” group of “churches of Christ” were hosted by “independent Christian churches” in the area.