It was his final Sunday as pastor when John Armstrong’s expositional journey through the gospel of John brought him to the prayer of Jesus for his followers.
“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 NIV)
As he prepared to preach on this text he had read countless times, he “could not escape the truth of what Jesus was asking the Father. He prayed for the oneness of all his followers.” And while he had some sense of what it did mean, he was certain that it had “absolutely nothing to do with what is commonly called ecumenism” – the effort by Christian leaders and churches to create a movement of greater visible unity or cooperation. However, the Spirit of God was working in his own heart and life. Understanding and applying this call has occupied much of Armstrong’s life ever since.
John Armstrong, the president and founder of ACT 3 Network (Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium), has wide experience in many contexts. Having served in pastoral ministry for 20 years, and now, along with his ACT 3 Network responsibilities, he serves as adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School. He travels extensively, speaking and consulting with leaders and organizations around the world in a quest to promote “missional-ecumenism” – to ignite a movement of “world-changing leaders who will intentionally invest their lives in the kingdom of God.”
He seeks a “gospel-focused and Scripture-based” approach to Christian unity. Without question early Christians had disagreements as any New Testament reader readily recognizes, and yet, the defining identity for the disciples of Jesus is their genuine love for one another. Armstrong has embraced the spirit of Christ’s prayer for unity and is on a quest to convince all believers of its vital importance. In the words of Jesus:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)
Of this Christ-spoken appeal, Armstrong writes:
“What distinctly marks those who belong to Christ? What truly distinguishes them from those who are (italics) not (end italics) the church in this present age? It is not a cluster of doctrinal beliefs, as important as beliefs and doctrines are for healthy religious life. It is not a label or a particular social marker. Rather, is not the true mark of the church love? Furthermore, is not this love both Christ’s love for his flock and their love for their shepherd and one another?
Love for Christ is, in a profound way, (italics) the defining mark of true Christians (1 John 3:11, 14, 16-18, 23). We can ask a myriad of questions about our own profession of faith in Christ. However, at the end of the day, it comes down to the same question Jesus asked Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ (John 21:15-17). And as John’s epistle clearly notes, genuine love for Jesus will be seen in our love for one another.”
Armstrong believes the only way Christians will adequately respond to the call for unity is to recognize three foundational truths – “three ones” as he calls them – one Lord, one Church, and on Mission. The first three chapters of the book explore the meaning and implications of these “three ones.”
Following his study of the “three ones”, Armstrong answers the question, “What does the unity factor look like?” This chapter will provide insight into Armstrong’s personal journey toward his understanding of “missional-ecumenism.”
The final chapter provides practical counsel for those who wish to pursue the unity factor as outlined in this book. “The vision we need to grasp,” writes Armstrong, “is one of visible unity in reconciled diversity.” For churches and mission organizations wishing to take seriously the biblical mandate to unity, Armstrong provides six practical steps toward missional-ecumenism.
This is not a call to dismiss doctrinal convictions, nor is it an attempt to pretend that we do not have real differences. But it is a challenge to recognize that every person truly believing in the Lord Jesus Christ belongs to Christ and so to one another. And as such, we are one Church universal, and we have one mission to proclaim the gospel of this one Lord.
Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama), in his Foreword to the book, reminds readers of English Baptist pastor William Carey’s (1761-1834) call for a coordinated approach to world evangelization in 1810. And though nothing much came of Carey’s call, Timothy George notes that 100 years later the International Missionary Conference convened in Edinburgh, and 200 years later the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Cape Town, South Africa. Timothy George then observes:
“The modern quest for Christian unity was born on the mission field. Its aim was not the building of a supra-ecclesiastical bureaucracy but rather the unhindered declaration of Jesus Christ, the sole and sufficient Savior of the World.”
If you, like John Armstrong, find the current state of the Christian church – “deeply divided by social, cultural, racial, and doctrinal fault lines” – a serious obstacle to the unity Jesus prayed for, you must secure a copy of The Unity Factor. Written in language accessible to all, this book requires relatively little time to read, but its message – whether or not you accept everything Armstrong says – will provide a life-time of serious reflection.