That They May Be OnernA Protestant View of Church Unityrnby Harold O. J. BrownrnOn the evening before His cmcifixion, Jesus prayed what isrnknown as the Great High Priestly Prayer. It is recordedrnfor us in John 17. In that short chapter, addressing the Fatherrnin the presence of His disciples, He prayed four times “that theyrnmay be one.” This petition extended not merely to those disciplesrnwho were present at the Last Supper, but to “them alsornwhich shall believe on me through their word” (v. 20), in otherrnwords, to all believing Christians.rnDoes this mean that there is or should be only one united,rnvisible church? Jesus’ desire for unity among His followers isrnclear from this prayer, but taken alone it does not answer thernquestion of the nature and structure of that unity. It is often interpretedrnas meaning that there should be a single church structure,rn”one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” as the NicenernCreed puts it, but Jesus does not actually use the wordrn”church,” and it is not evident from the text whether the onenessrnthat He has in mind is organizational, spiritual, or both.rnWhat Jesus wants the Church to be is not altogether clearrnfrom the Gospel record, because there are onlv fvvo occasionsrnon which He uses the word. Both examples are found inrnMatthew (chapters 16 and 18). The first seems to refer to whatrnwe often mean by “the Church” in common parlance, namely,rna single institution: Jesus did not say “my churches,” whichrnwould emphasize the significance of individual congregations.rnIn the second passage, however, He does use the word to referrnto a local congregation.rnA great deal of discussion has arisen about the meaning ofrnthe term ekklesia; this Greek word did not yet have the specializedrnmeaning “church,” but rather “assembly.” It is used in secularrnwriting in that sense, often referring to a formally constitutedrnbody —and a local one. In secular usage, the ekklesiarncomprises those who are called out, summoned to gather togetherrnfor official purposes. From the nature of things, an ekklesiarnin this sense is local. This emphasis on the local nature ofrnHarold O./. Brown is religion editor for Chronicles and a professorrnof theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminaryrnin Charlotte, North Carolina.rnthe ekklesia is followed by congregahonally inclined groupsrnsuch as the Plymouth Brethren, who think of the church primarilyrnin terms of local assemblies of believers, and in fact theyrnuse the word “assembly,” where others would say “church.”rnFrom the dual usage of the word ekklesia in those two passages,rnit seems that there are two aspects to the question of thernunit}’ of the church: Do the words of Jesus mean that there is tornbe only one unified organization or inshtution? When Jesus usesrnthe term in Matthew 16:18, He is not referring merely tornsome local gathering but to something larger, to what we haverncome to call the Church Universal, hi Matthew 16, Jesus respondsrnto Peter’s declarahon of faith, “Thou art the Christ, thernSon of the living God,” with the dramatic announcement,rn”Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”rnClearly this is the vision of the Roman Catholic Church, whichrntraditionallv looks upon itself as the church meant by thernNicene Creed. Leaving aside the question of whether thisrnmeans that the Church was to be built on Peter himself and onrnhis successors, as Roman Catholics interpret the text, or ratherrnupon the faith expressed in Peter’s confession, as others see it, itrnis evident that Jesus is referring to a single structure, i.e., a universalrnChurch.rnThe second reference, in chapter 18, offers a contrast. Itrnclearly uses “assembly” in a sense that would permit a pluralih’rnof assemblies. We hear Jesus telling His followers that when arndispute cannot be resolved after the efforts first of an individual,rnthen of two or three witnesses, “Tell it to the church” (v. 17),rnclearly referring to a local fellowship.rnIt is perfectly evident that Jesus desires, even mandates, unit)’rnamong His followers; what is not evident from the text itself isrnthe nature of this unity, whether it is organizational and visiblernor spiritual and invisible. In John 17, Jesus repeatedly describesrnthe oneness that He desires for His followers as like that betweenrnthe Father and Himself; “one as we are” (v. 11). This isrnunity of a very high degree, but it is obviously a spiritual unity,rnnot an organizational or institutional one. Elsewhere in thernNew Testament, St. Paul speaks of “the unit}- of the Spirit,” andrnfrequently refers to the Church as the body of Christ, saying.rnDECEMBER 1998/19rnrnrn