Mary and the Problem of Christian Unity

Mary appears in Scripture to be intimately and inseparably bound to her Son Jesus Christ. She was more than just the human flesh through which the Divine Word entered the world. She was united to Christ in body and soul. And Jesus was also bound to her as her child, her Lord and the source of her life. She was the source of his human life and he was the source of the divine life that filled her life. This intimate union between Jesus and Mary is the foundation and basis of our hope that Christians can be unified. Unity is not an unfulfilled wish or an amorphous hope. Unity has both material and form, both substance and shape. Unity looks like a man and indeed is a man. Jesus alone is our unity, but Jesus is never alone. He is always with his mother.

The same Jesus that came from Mary’s womb also founded a church and promised that the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the kingdom of God (Mt. 18:18). The same Jesus that nursed at Mary’s breast prayed for the unity of his followers in the garden on the night before his death (Jn. 17). In this article we want to explore why Christians are not unified and how Scripture points us to a solution. We will see that unity among Christians cannot be achieved with means of our own contriving. Only by drawing deeply from the wellspring of Christ’s own person can we hope to find the unity that Christ desires.

Christians are divided and Christ cannot be pleased. Our Lord prayed for the unity of his followers on the last night of his earthly life, a fact that shows how deeply he cares about the unity of his disciples (Jn. 17:20ff). Why does Christ care if his people are one? The Old Testament promised the unity of God’s people when the Messiah came.

That alone suggests that Jesus’ ministry on earth had to fulfill one of the most important promises of the ancient Scriptures. If the people of God were not one, then Christ would have failed in his mission of salvation. Since there is only one Savior, there should be only one people who are saved. But why are Christians not one? If that was Jesus’ intention, what went wrong?

In the college town where I live, Christian students recently had a “Jesus Night.” This event was billed as an attempt for all the Christian groups on campus to lay down their differences and come together to worship Jesus. “Leave our differences at the door” was the cry. Apparently, the event was a big success because it met a felt need among the participants, the need to express our love for one another in Christ. This Jesus Nightarose from a God-given sentiment, that of being one in Christ. But it also illustrates one of the thorniest problems facing Christians who seek to be unified in Christ. Doctrinal differences have divided Christians for centuries. The desire to be one and the need to believe the truth that Christ taught are both genuine inspirations from the Holy Spirit. But how does one balance these two important truths? My own personal struggles in this matter illustrate the problem that is deep and wide among Christians.

The Dilemma of Truth Versus Unity: A Personal Struggle

In May of 1977, I graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had spent three solid years in theological study that was intended to prepare me for the Presbyterian ministry. One of my professors was Rev. Edmund Clowney, the president of the seminary, who taught a class on the doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology). Professor Clowney spent a good amount of time addressing an urgent question he felt was being neglected by most evangelical Christians. From the Scriptures, Mr. Clowney urged on us the importance of the unity of the Church. He saw quite clearly how fragmented evangelical Christians were and how much this situation contradicted our Lord’s desire in John Chapter 17. His teaching sparked within me a desire for something I had seen in the Scriptures myself. During my college years, I had already been impressed with how Paul exhorted his readers in Corinth to be unified in doctrine and love (I Cor. 1:10ff). By the end of seminary, I had already concluded on the basis of the New Testament that many different denominations were not the intention of Jesus Christ nor of his apostles. But I was at a loss to know what to do about the problem of divisions among Christians.

In 1978, I preached a sermon from John Chapter 17 at an ordination service of a fellow Presbyterian minister. I urged the congregation that day to seek unity among themselves. As I refl