3 Christian Leaders Share Their Perspectives on a Crucial Topic for Today’s Church
By Justin Horey
Why is unity so important in the Restoration Movement and in the global church? To answer this question, Christian Standard spoke with three Christian leaders who are actively working to promote unity among Independent Christian Churches, noninstrumental Churches of Christ, and the broader evangelical world.
Victor Knowles is the founder and president of Peace on Earth Ministries (POEM), an organization he created with his wife, Evelyn, in 1992. He is the editor of One Body magazine and the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books, including Together in Christ.
John Teal is president of Common Grounds Unity, a group committed to “creating spaces for Christians to gather, so that God may be revealed in us and among us.”
Jeff Walling is director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University. He preached at Churches of Christ in California and North Carolina and has spoken to groups representing all branches of the Restoration Movement for more than 20 years.
These three leaders provided their insights and personal convictions on Christian unity, while regularly pointing back to Jesus.
“As we consider that the Stone-Campbell Movement began as a ‘unity effort,’” Teal said, “it is crucial for us to regain and reenvision the dream of Jesus and our founders.”
ANSWERING JESUS’ PRAYER
All three leaders agree that unity should be a priority in the church because it was a priority for Christ.
“The founder of the church purchased it with his own blood,” Knowles said. “How can anyone read his prayer for unity in John 17 and just walk away from it? The goal of unity is to be one so that we can present a visible and credible example to the world around us.”
Teal agreed. “Jesus said that unity is part of the mission—so the world may know!”
Walling also cited John 17 as the primary reason for unity in the church, and then he added a unique perspective.
“I’ve asked Jesus for plenty of stuff through the years. The one thing he asked the Father in prayer was that all those who believe in him through the message may be one, ‘just as you are in me and I am in you.’ It’s rare that we get to work on answering a prayer of Jesus, but this is one tiny way to do so.”
Though they have spent much of their lives in ministry pursuing and promoting unity, these three men found their callings in very different ways.
Knowles, who grew up in Christian Churches, married a woman from the noninstrumental Churches of Christ. When Victor and Evelyn were married in 1967, Eddie DeVries, the founder of Nationwide Youth Roundup, told them they had “come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” DeVries’s words were prophetic, as Victor Knowles has spent more than 50 years working for Christian unity.
Walling served as a youth minister in a cappella Churches of Christ and gained popularity as a speaker for rallies and events. Years ago, he unknowingly agreed to speak at a conference hosted by instrumental Churches of Christ and was amazed at the passion he saw in the students as they worshipped.
Teal recalls becoming a Christian in a congregation that “held rather exclusive views of who was in and out.” He adopted those views and continued to do so “even after attending Great Lakes Christian College—which was not exclusive or legalist.” He gained a new perspective when he learned that founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement did not hold those “exclusive” views.
“I began to see the dysfunction that resulted from sectarian views and attitudes,” Teal said. “I saw the damage it did to my soul and the hearts of others. Legalism is and has always been unsustainable and will always collapse. I now believe life and freedom can be found at the center where Jesus is and not at the arbitrary walls we have created to determine who is in and out. That job belongs to God and not to me.”
THE GOAL OF UNITY
What, then, is the objective of Christian unity? “The goal,” Walling said, “is that we are able to treat each other like family.” All three men spoke of unity by referencing love, grace, and the heart of Jesus.
“I am less concerned about what it looks like than I am about the thoughts and attitudes of my heart,” Teal said. “I am concerned with the heart of Jesus: ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know,’” he said, quoting John 17:23. “Defining the boundaries of the church universal belongs to God and not me.”
Knowles expressed a challenge to follow the example set by Christ.
“Jesus said, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’ Jesus loved his disciples even when they disappointed him. Unity looks like the Father and the Son. Music, of all things, should never divide us.”
It’s very important to avoid legalism and judgment, all three agreed.
“God sits in the judgment seat,” Walling said. “If anything, I’m going to err on the side of grace. I’m going to assume you’re my brother in Christ, my sister in Christ loved by God until somehow you prove I’m wrong.”
Teal shared a similar viewpoint (while also being careful to stress he is not a universalist).
“I have deep convictions about biblical teaching about life and doctrine. There are things I wrestle with deeply, but I have determined to leave my judgmental attitude behind,” Teal said “Twenty-five years ago, I firmly held to legalistic sectarian views. It has taken many of those years to untangle these deeply embedded attitudes. I once heard a sermon in which the preacher said, ‘We have to know who is in and out.’ I’m afraid I have to disagree! Moreover, I am confident that this knowledge belongs to God, not me.
“As to the goal of unity,” Teal continued, “I choose unity because it is central to the heart of Jesus. It is central to the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. We broke unity with God and each other in the Garden, and God’s story captured in inspired Scripture is about his love and patience in calling us back—to be reconciled to him and each other. Therefore, I embrace a concept that Dallas Willard championed, that we ‘abandon the outcomes to God.’”
WORKING FOR UNITY
The three men interviewed for this article have together spent nearly a century working for unity in the church.
Troubled by the divisions he was seeing in the second half of the 20th century, Knowles wrote an article called “Division—The ‘Acceptable’ Sin” in 1976. It caught the eye of Don DeWelt at College Press, who asked Knowles to edit a new journal called One Body, which features writers “from both sides of the keyboard.” Knowles has been the publication’s only editor since its inception in 1983.
Knowles and DeWelt also worked together on the Restoration Forum, which began in 1984 and continued until 2007. Thousands of leaders from all over the country—instrumental and noninstrumental—attended those three-day forums. Knowles’s book on unity, Together in Christ: More Than a Dream, was published in 2006, the 100th year of the division of the noninstrumental and instrumental churches.
Through Common Grounds Unity, Teal helps arrange local and digital gatherings “to bring Christians from the various streams together in closer proximity.” Under his leadership, the organization that started in 2018 has grown rapidly and now supports groups meeting on four continents.
After his first experience speaking to an audience of students who worshipped with instruments, Walling continued to preach to both Christian Church and Church of Christ groups. He eventually worked with Christ In Youth and served on the organization’s board of directors. Notably, Walling spoke at the North American Christian Convention in 2006. On a personal level, Walling encouraged his home Church of Christ in Southern California—a congregation his father started—to relaunch with instrumental worship. Many of his siblings, some of them in their 80s, attend the new church.
THE NEXT STEPS
Walling noted that it’s difficult to prescribe specific steps toward unity in the Restoration Movement “because our movement prizes autonomy.” In his view, “some of our institutions need to be taking the lead in helping us—specifically Christian schools and universities.”
Christian ministries, and not just churches, he said, have a responsibility to provide “some influence and opportunities and points of contact just like Common Ground Unity is doing.”
Walling also encourages churches to participate in “pulpit swaps.” He has had positive experiences preaching for churches in other branches of the Restoration Movement. Annual pulpit swaps demonstrate genuine commitment to unity, he said. “It’s one thing to let ‘them’ come to our church. It’s another thing to say, we’re going to give them the pulpit and let them open God’s Word and teach us.”
“Unity begins with relationships that can grow and nurture over time,” Teal added. “I believe the local congregation is indispensable for maturity in Christ. But we need spaces where we can experience Christian unity outside the boundaries of our particular tribes. Something remarkable happens when we break bread or share a cup of coffee!”
Like his co-laborers Teal and Walling, Knowles offers practical suggestions for people or churches committed to pursuing unity, while acknowledging there isn’t just one solution. In Together in Christ, Knowles suggested 10 steps for fostering unity between Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (see sidebar).
REACHING THE WORLD
Ultimately, unity in the church is much larger than just the Restoration Movement. In faith and humility, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ can work to truly unite the body of Christ. Walling said, “I believe the Restoration Movement continues to have something wonderful and something especially timely to offer our world today. We’re in a wonderful position to bring a simple Christianity to a generation that is known to be sick of organized religion or ‘big church’ or whatever you want to call it.”
This work of unity, of course, is significant not just in this life but in the life to come. As Knowles put it, “We are all going to stand before God someday. I want to be able to say, ‘Father, I did my best to answer your Son’s dying prayer: That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe.’”
More effective evangelism, deeper discipleship, and greater love continue to drive the men who were interviewed for this article and many others like them who are seeking unity in the church. “Nothing that divides us can be more important than the blood that was shed to make us one,” Knowles said (quoting Dr. Thomas A. Langford).
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.
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10 Steps for Fostering Unity
(adapted from Together in Christ by Victor Knowles).
1. Get informed. Read each other’s books, blogs, and newsletters.
2. Get acquainted. Start on a friendship level. Invite a friend for lunch. Few people will bite the hand that feeds them!
3. Find common ground. That which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.
4. Work together. Get your people together and paint a widow’s house or clean up a vacant lot. Neighbors will notice and God will be glorified.
5. Sing together. We sing many of the same songs.
6. Stand together on moral and social issues that affect your community.
7. Respect each other, even if you may not understand or agree on some issues.
8. Pray together. On our knees together we will find one essential ingredient to unity—humility.
9. Find creative ways to worship together. Try meeting together just to read Scripture.
10. Try a joint picnic at a city park. Churches that picnic together will not nitpick with each other!
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Question: Why is unity particularly important in the Restoration Movement?
Victor Knowles: We went from one rolling river to three separated streams. And each of those streams have since branched off and flow apart as who-knows-how-many distributaries. Carl Ketcherside said the main reason we divided is because we stopped loving one another. Love has kept Evelyn and me together for 55 years. Love never fails. Love should never flail, either.
John Teal: The Stone-Campbell Movement had an incredible influence on the church in America. If I am not mistaken, it is the first nondenominational movement in America. Sectarianism only diminishes our impact and influence. Our founding principles give us a unique position to have a significant impact if and when we discard the negative narratives holding back our witness to the broader church and the world. Unity is crucial because it is central to the gospel itself.
Jeff Walling: In the Restoration Movement, we agree on 99.95 percent of the theology, and we’ve spent all of our time talking about the [other] 0.05 percent. The same could be said, quite frankly, about a number of movements and the Restoration Movement. We don’t argue over activism, we don’t argue over the validity of Scripture or the divinity of Jesus or so many other things. When I speak in an Independent Christian Church or an International Church of Christ or a Church of Christ, I can preach the same lesson at any of those three churches without a moment’s concern. If we can’t seek unity within the Restoration Movement, how will we seek Christian unity in the evangelical Christian realm?
Q: What do you see as the greatest roadblock(s) to unity?
Knowles: Ignorance, isolation, and insulation. I’m still amazed that after all these years, we still don’t know each other. We have so many “myth-conceptions” about each other. We have practiced isolation, which only breeds more ignorance. Pride and fear also enter in. And protectionism.
Teal: One of the most significant roadblocks to unity is institutional Christianity in place of a transformative relationship with God. Our Western context can distort what Jesus intended and replace it with systems and institutions whose primary purpose is to protect and maintain the organization. To borrow from Dallas Willard, we need “Renovation of the Heart.” We need transforming societies of Jesus! Therefore, I believe Christian spirituality, spiritual discernment, and spiritual formations are crucial to the church’s future. As Robert Carrillo said on our podcast, “The Holy Spirit wants his church back.”
Walling: Fear. Legalism creates a deep fear that if I make one mistake, my salvation could be gone. People feel that way in a legalistic system about their faith and their relationship [with Jesus]—at least I did, growing up, to be very honest. And right behind fear is pride . . . pride in our heritage, pride in our own family name, pride in our church tribe.