Jesus says farewell – part eighteen (John 17)

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

Yesterday, we looked at Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21 that we – his church – might be united, might be one. Let’s read part of that prayer again:

John 17:20-23 “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. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 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.”

And, in the light of church history and the proliferation of different denominations today, asked: what went wrong?

Unity at all costs?

Now I don’t know if the thought has crossed your mind, but it has for many people who have read this prayer – why do we continue maintaining a denomination today? If we’re serious about doing what Jesus wants, shouldn’t we be working to get rid of denominations altogether? Shouldn’t we do everything possible to get back into fellowship with everyone else in Christendom? Shouldn’t we be pursuing unity at all costs?

That’s the position of what’s called the ‘ecumenical movement’. (The word ‘ecumenical’ comes from the Greek word for ‘household’ & simply refers to us all living together in the one ‘household’ of God.) This movement was born out of necessity at the turn of the twentieth century, as missionaries from different denominations, thousands of miles away from their support base, banded together to help each other. But it quickly became a desire not just to work together in mission, but to actually recombine into the one organisation. To have one church; one united witness to the world. Surely that’s what Jesus would have us do, in light of this prayer in John 17!

At the moment there are people in many denominations interested, but for the last fifty-odd years the World Council of Churches has been bogged down with seemingly unsolvable doctrinal differences. But the intention is still there. So given Jesus’ prayer for unity, should we be active part of this process?

Before we answer this challenge, however, there are some questions to consider. We’ll look at two today, and a third tomorrow.

1. Did Jesus have organisational unity in mind?

Firstly, did Jesus have organisational unity in mind. That is, does it matter that we’re not part of the same formal organisation? This push for organisational unity is led mostly by churches with a hierarchical structure – like the five patriarchs of the ancient church (see yesterday), unity for them means having one leadership, one organisation. But does this necessarily follow from Jesus’ prayer that we might be one? Could we not have different leadership styles, different structures, different opinions on non-core issues, yet still be united?

2. Don’t we already have a functional unity with other denominations?

Secondly, don’t we already have a functional unity with other, like-minded denominations. That is, as Protestants we often work in co-operation with other Protestant denominations. In my church we co-operate with other denominations in mission: we support not only workers through the Baptist missions agency, but workers in numerous other non-denominational groups. We co-operate also here in Australia, particularly through supporting para-church groups. We band together with many of the churches in our area to support religious education at local schools. Occasionally groups in our church go collecting on behalf of the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal. So in a limited way, we already have a functional unity with other, like-minded denominations.

One of the ways in which we can respond is simply to educate the rest of the world about this fact. Or at least your little corner of it. About the extent to which we are one, since those on the outside see us hopelessly divided.

(When someone I know found out I was a Baptist pastor she asked me how Baptists were different from Anglicans, as that was the denomination she’d been christened in. She was quite surprised when I said ‘not a lot, really’, and I explained that we believe in the same God and have the same understanding of how someone is made right with God. She told me that she thought Baptists were a different religion!)

It’s our job to educate those who aren’t believers – so that they can at least see where Christian are united, despite the multitude of denominations. In many ways we already have a functional unity with other, like minded denominations.

I’ve used the word “like-minded” for a reason. Because lying behind all of this is the importance of truth. Must the call to unity take priority over truth? That’s the third question, which we’ll leave for tomorrow.

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