As churches and denominations around the world become increasingly divided and fractured, Erik Strandness encourages Christians to unite for the sake of those outside the Church

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Out of sight, out of mind

Christian unity should be the witness of the Church to the world. Jesus said people would know us by the way we love one another, yet the world sees no evidence of denominational or non-denominational affection. We are children of God but instead of frequent family reunions the only evidence the world sees for our common lineage is historical paternity testing revealing varying percentages of common religious DNA. 

Church division isn’t a new problem because even the nascent Church struggled with unity. Paul tried to shepherd a flock but found it was more like herding cats and since that time schisms have continued to be the norm for the Church, whether the Roman Catholic - Eastern Orthodox split or the splintering occurring after the Reformation. We need to admit that we have failed to follow Jesus’ commandment to be one like he and the father are one, and it won’t do to create a faux unity by conjuring up an invisible Church of true believers because the ecclesial superpower of invisibility just becomes out of sight, out of mind to a world that desperately needs a glimpse of Jesus. 


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Honk if you love Jesus

Every church sees itself as a portal to Jesus but that creates problems because in addition to the requisite broken and contrite heart, one is required to wear the right clothing, sing the proper songs and perform the proper ritual. As I recall, Jesus tore the veil and is no longer confined to a holy box guarded by a pastoral elite but has become the greeter at the front of every church. Our church practices may differ on the inside, but we should all have the same Jesus on the outside welcoming people in. 

We can and should be able to express our worship in a variety of ways but the one we worship must always remain the same. If Christ is the greeter outside our churches, then maybe a better witness would be for all Christians to stand next to him in an ecumenical church car park encouraging passers-by to honk if they love Jesus. 

The men I worked with in the addiction treatment program at the Union Gospel Mission eagerly accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour, but once the work of that parachurch organisation was complete, they had the far more difficult task of sifting through a plethora of doctrinal and liturgical accoutrements in order to find a home church. Saved by the body and blood they now had to navigate the bells and whistles. For these brave men, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour was the easy part, but worshipping him was proving to be exceedingly difficult. 

Behold the mannequin

Sadly, the Church often treats Jesus like a mannequin modelling Christian couture rather than a suffering servant sharing scars with the wounded. We often erect denominational, doctrinal and apocalyptic barriers to a meeting with Jesus but must remember that he travelled the Middle East without any theological baggage and no place to lay his head. 

He came to get us excited about the rooms he was preparing for us in his mansion but instead we took pity on his homeless situation and offered him free room and board in a denominational housing project that came with a complementary wardrobe of doctrinal garments so he wouldn’t feel out of place at our weekly meetings. 

When St Paul described the Church as the body of Christ, he was giving us a basic anatomy lesson and not a tutorial on how to dress for success. He focused on the parts of the body and not the wardrobe because he knew that clothes don’t make the man. It is the image we bear and not the clothing we wear that is important to God.

Paul, knowing that he would have to leave the work of Church building to others, made it clear that it must be built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and all attempts at improperly accessorizing him would result in a religious fashion emergency. 

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)

Ghost town

Paul encountered divisions in the churches he established and spilt a significant amount of ink promoting unity. 

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’ or ‘I follow Apollos’ or ‘I follow Cephas’ or ‘I follow Christ’. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Paul feared that these churches, rather than raising the banner of Jesus, were wearing the jersey of their favourite evangelist and instead of pursuing victory in Christ were competing for a league championship. I suspect Paul would similarly condemn us for declaring, “I follow Calvin!” “I follow Luther!” “I follow Macarthur!” or “I follow Keller!” We need to remember that we are inviting people to live in a City of God that isn’t divided into an Anglican hood, Lutheran barrio, or Catholic hamlet, but is made up of just one big (Holy) Ghost town. 


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Para-churching to safety

I think it’s a fair question to ask if it has been the work of ecumenical parachurch organisations that has given Christianity a modicum of unity. While each church ponders its precepts, it is the faith-based ministries that pound the pavement. Each church admirably strives to love God with heart, soul and mind but finds its strength in the work of parachurch ministries.  

Is it true that if Jesus wants to get anything done in this world, he has to contract with groups outside of the established churches? 

God incarnated and yet we abstract him and stuff him back into the heavens, and a world needing to follow Jesus more than ever can’t find his footprints anywhere because all we have left of them is a theological vapour trail. It appears that the only hope for unity is to parachurch to safety.

Christ and Christ alone

The Church is so caught up with its particularities that it forgets its universal mission. God incarnates and yet we get bent out of shape about his mother. Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire and yet we argue about sprinkling and dunking. We all get invited to the Lord’s table but then question if what is on the menu is real meat or Tofurky. We are called to sing a new song to the Lord but then complain that there is too much cow bell and not enough pipe organ. 

We all want to claim the mantle of the original Christian Church but forget that initially it was just a small band of Jesus followers weeping at a cross, gasping at an empty tomb and then getting wind that it was the best three days of their lives. Church history from that point on has been the noble but overzealous attempt to explain what happened on that historical weekend. 

Attempts at tying up all the loose theological ends left us more frayed than ever. I think we Christians make this Jesus thing too complicated, spending inordinate amounts of time building our local brand in Jerusalem rather than marketing Jesus to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the Earth. Author Frederick Buechner describes the situation this way:

“Maybe the best thing that could happen to the Church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash all that away - the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which is all there was in the first place.” (Frederick Buechner)

The heart of worship

Sadly, the Church is divided by theological distinctives, which are interesting and merit discussion but pale in comparison to the fact that there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved.

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

What if the parachurch was the Church Jesus established and all other faith traditions were merely para-worship organisations? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but the bottom line is that if we want the world to know that we are Christ’s disciples we had best get back to the heart of worship – Jesus.  

“I’m coming back to the heart of worship And it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus. I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it, When it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus”  (Matt Redman – Heart of Worship)


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.