There are sound theological motivations for pursuing an attitude of shared identification and mission collaboration as regional churches. As stated in the introduction to this study, the regional church concept in the New Testament has been discussed far less than the universal and local expressions of the church. One possible result of this is that local churches and local church leaders experience isolationism and sectarianism. They become content with the unity they have within the local congregation and see little use for identifying or working with other local churches. In the worst versions of this, some local churches and leaders are even adversarial toward other faithful, Jesus-following congregations of believers in their area. Though counter-intuitive, this can be especially true when such churches are part of denominations or networks outside their local community. They value the unity they have in the local church and the unity they share with their denomination or network of churches outside their local community, and with this they are content.
What does all of this have to do with theology and implications for regional churches? The problem with the scenario described above is that it often produces the appearance and/or experience of unbiblical division and tribalism amongst God’s people. This kind of sectarianism impacts evangelistic efforts negatively. Jesus ties a Christ-centered, spiritual, unifying, publicly demonstrated love between His people to the church’s effectiveness in evangelism. During the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus first expressed these truths in precept, and then in prayer:
Jesus’ Precept on Christian Unity
“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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13:34-35)
Jesus’ Prayer for Christian Unity
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through
their word,that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn. 17:20-21)
In addition to Jesus’ precepts and prayers on the connection between Christian unity and effective evangelism, Luke records an interaction between Jesus and John in which Jesus rebuked sectarianism amongst His disciples: “49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” (Lk. 9:49-50)
The precepts, prayers, and example of Jesus regarding the connection between Christian unity and effective evangelism provide theological motivation for embracing and practicing New Testament expressions of the regional church. In whatever context possible, Christians must find meaningful ways to genuinely identify with each other. They must care for each other. They must work together. As Jesus said, they must “love” each other. When Christians refuse to demonstrate unity in visible, practical ways, they contradict the unity they actually share spiritually. Jesus prayed that believers would be one. (Jn. 17:20) The truth is that Christians are one spiritually because they all share the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 1:23) The fostering of relationship and mission collaboration, which can occur in the context of regional church partnerships, promotes fruitful evangelism, demonstrates spiritual reality, and communicates theological truth through actions. Sectarianism and isolation, whether fueled by malice or indifference, do the opposite of each of these.