Jesus says farewell – Part Seventeen (John 17)

We’re continuing in our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. 

The final part of Jesus’ farewell speech records Jesus’ prayer. It’s often called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” as he prays on behalf of his people: the disciples gathered around him, and also – quite specifically – for all who would believe in the future through their witness. Which includes us.  Take a look at verses 20-21:

John 17:20-21 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.

Jesus prays for us. He prays for the future church that would be established. Specifically, he prays for its unity – that we would be one.

Which makes you ask – when you look at all of the different denominations and groupings of Christians in the world, not to mention the arguments and even wars that have been fought along those lines – it makes you ask: what went wrong?

In fact, to the outsider it can often seem like there are more Christian denominations in the world than there are Christians!

Thinking about my own country, here’s the list just of the denominations that are big enough to be included in the 2011 Census report: Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Reformed, and Uniting. That still leaves over 900,000 people who are Christians and belong to a different denomination – as well as those who claim to follow Jesus but don’t worship him as fully God, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christadelphians. No wonder those who aren’t Christians find this array of denominations confusing and, let’s face it, off-putting.

And against this background, then, we read Jesus’ prayer for unity – that we might be one. And again we’re forced to ask: what went wrong?

To understand the problem fully requires an in-depth understanding of Church History over the last 2000 years. But we haven’t got time to do that this week, and nor do I have an in-depth understanding that I prepared earlier. So we’ll have to make do with the half-baked version I’m about to give now: a very brief and overly-simplistic summary of the story so far, focusing on the story of my own denomination, and how we got where we are today. Because I think most of us don’t have a clear overview of how we got from the church as we read about it in the New Testament, to the church today manifested in all its various styles and denominations.

In the New Testament, it seems, the church was more-or-less one. Sure, we read of false teachers that needed booting out; ones who weren’t really Christians in the first place. We read of differences in teaching that had to be settled by calling a meeting in Jerusalem. But they did sort them out! And in the church at Corinth there were factions who aligned themselves with different leaders and preachers.

But the concept of different denominations hadn’t even been thought of. There were no churches who were ‘out of fellowship’ with the others. There was just a bunch of different believing communities, divided only by the fact that they lived in different cities and towns. And they were unified by the idea that they all belonged not just to their own little fellowship, but to the wider church, the body of Christ.

There was no ‘choice’ of church. It would be a while before concerned parents in the Colossian church could take their kids up the road to the Laodicean church on Friday nights because they had an excellent youth programme; and end up going there themselves on Sundays because the 11am service meant they’d have time to wash the camels before church. It was one city, one church.

As Christianity spread, there would be various house churches within a city, and a bishop, or ‘overseer’ was appointed to look after them. The Apostle Peter is often considered to be the first bishop of Rome. But as a hierarchical structure formed, power struggles intensified. Particularly when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity in 313. Quite quickly, being a church leader became a position of great power rather than of great danger!

One key power struggle occurred between the five most significant ‘archbishops’ or ‘patriarchs’: those in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Rome. In theory, they were all equal. But there was a struggle for which was ‘more equal’ than the others. The Roman church argued that it should be their pope, because Peter was the leader of the other apostles. The other four banded together and tended to support the patriarch of Constantinople – modern day Istanbul – because that had become the centre of the Empire. The two factions were also divided by culture and language, with the Western, Roman church speaking Latin, and the Eastern churches speaking Greek. (Just imagine a soccer match between Greece and Italy, if you want to visualise the dynamics involved.)

This division continued throughout the first millennium of Christianity, although strictly speaking there was still just one church. And despite the division originally being driven by politics and cultural diffs, and fuelled by personal rivalry, the division between East and West also took on theological differences. A key sticking point was the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: did the Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son? As you can gather, pretty crucial stuff…

But in 1054, with their differences brought to a head by the behaviour of the Western armies in the Crusades, the two factions formally split – a division which is still in effect today: the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe, and the Orthodox church in the East. (And it’s there we leave the story of the Orthodox church, which has developed its own distinctive branches and practices in each country.)

In the Roman Catholic church, over the next few hundred years there was a succession of people who began to disagree with the teaching and practice of the church. The issues included the fact that the pope had come to replace Scripture as the ultimate authority; the way the bible was only available in Latin, so that the average person had no hope of reading or understanding it; and most importantly, that ‘salvation’ was obtained through the religious rituals of the church like baptism and mass.

One such person was a German monk named Martin Luther. He wrote 95 theses on these issues, and on Oct 31, 1517, nailed them to the door of Wittenberg cathedral. The first- century equivalent of blogging. This marked the start of the ‘protestant reformation’, so-called because the breakaway group protested against the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. The protest-ant rallying cry was ‘grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.’ Luther was subsequently excommunicated from the Roman church, but ended up taking much of Germany with him. Similar reformations occurred in other countries – one of the most famous being that led by John Calvin in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Meanwhile in England, Henry VIII was getting sick of executing unwanted wives, so he said to the pope, ‘I want a divorce’. The pope said, ‘but we’re not even married.’ Henry said, ‘No, I mean from my wife.’ But the pope said, ‘no way’. So Henry decided to start his own church, where he could be the boss. Some of his bishops had been sympathetic to the theology of people like Luther and Calvin, and used this situation to create a ‘protest-ant’ church. Thus the Church of England was born.

However, these reformed churches were still state churches. That is, you belonged to that church simply because you were born there. If you lived in the north of Germany, you were Lutheran. If you lived in Holland, you were Dutch Reformed. If you lived in England, you were Church of England, and so on. Minority groups were usually poorly treated and quite often persecuted.

Having a state church also meant that people were members simply because they were citizens of that country. So people could easily think they were right with God simply because they’d been christened as a Lutheran or an Anglican or whatever. The churches were full of people who hadn’t really responded to the gospel, mixed in with those who were genuine believers.

A group called the Puritans recognised this problem and attempted to form their own ‘pure’ church in which membership was only for people who had truly accepted Christ. They, along with other such ‘non-conformist denominations’ were persecuted by the Church of England and the state. So when America needed colonizing, the Puritan pilgrims decided to take the opportunity to get away from the persecution; to set up church where they could wear strange hats, big belt buckles, and pull their socks up over their knees in peace. And that, by the way, is the main reason that separation of church and state is in the US constitution.

Another non-conformist group arose in Holland, and they became known as the ‘Anabaptists’, meaning ‘re-baptisers’. This is because they insisted on the baptism of believers only; like the Puritans, they were intent on keeping the church pure. So if you came to faith in this group, they would ‘re-baptise’ you – even if you had been baptised beforehand as an infant. To cut a long story ridiculously short, the Anabaptists were persecuted mercilessly throughout Europe, and ended up in England and then America. They dropped the ‘ana’ out of their name and became the Baptist denomination of which I am a part.

And that’s just the story of my denomination. Every one of those denominations I listed at the start has their own history of breaking away from others for whatever reason.

So. How am I to understand my own history – as a non-Orthodox, Protest-ant, non-Conformist, re-baptiser – and how are you to understand your own history, in light of Jesus’ prayer in John 17?

We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

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