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Holiness and Unity: the Communion of Saints

And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth (John 17:19).

Jesus prayer for the church in John 17, is that it will be protected, holy, and unified. Jesus is, in his own words, the “holy sacrifice” for the church so the church could be made holy by God’s word. The relationship of the church to holiness is in its unity and that unity is found in the eucharist. When the church comes to the table to remember the “holy sacrifice,” they are, at that moment, the body of Christ who is the head of the church. It is at this moment, the church is made holy by God’s truth.

However, the eucharistic call is a call to unity only if the truth is not compromised. The delegates to the World Council of Churches’ first assembly declared, “There is no gain in unity unless it is unity in truth and holiness.”

Given the diversity of thought surrounding essential Christian theology in the 21st Century, it may not be possible to write as George Whitefield wrote to Phillip Doddridge in the 18th Century, “Though you are not of the Church of England, yet if you are persuaded in your own mind of the truth of the way wherein you walk, I leave it.”

Pastors and church leaders in this century (indeed decade) will need to decide if they will “leave it” or if in leaving it, they are compromising the truth of God’s word for the sake of peace.

Other scholars point out that, “Christian separations and divisions have often been due to conscientiously held convictions, and Christian unity must not be sought at the expense of Christian truth.” The epitome of Jesus’ joy is that his “children walk in truth.” Bonhoeffer recognized the need to elevate truth over relationship as an act of godly love, writing,

 Where Christ bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love’s sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together agree, “The only unity that is pleasing to God and therefore the only unity we can seek, is unity in truth.”

In the Wesleyan tradition, the communion table - the Eucharist - is open to all those who, after duly examining themselves before God, confess Jesus as Lord. In this respect those who come to the table at a church rooted in Wesleyan theology, who may hold to opposing doctrine may receive eucharistic elements if they can do so in good conscience. A person’s spiritual condition at the moment of the sacrament is critical but is also an individual matter.

In regard to being united in truth everyone is invited to the table, however, only those who are in right relation with God and with their neighbors should come to the Lord’s table, and others should come only if in so doing they are expressing repentance and seeking forgiveness.

Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth . . . (John 17:17).


Selections and quotes from: “Christian Unity and the Practice of Ecumenism” by Betty Anne Johnson (2017). Footnotes available.

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