Jesus says farewell – part twenty (John 17)

Today we conclude our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. 

This week we’ve been contemplating this part of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, in John 17:

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.”

What have we learned out so far?

Firstly, we looked at the proliferation of denominations – not to mention church splits, doctrinal arguments, and even wars that have been fought – and asked what went wrong?

But more than that, in light of Jesus’ prayer we asked: should we pursue unity at all costs? While it (should be) obvious that we need to pursue unity with greater vigour than we often do, we also noted that:

  • there’s more to unity than organisational unity;
  • there’s quite a bit of functional unity going on between like-minded Christian groups;
  • unity cannot be at the expense of truth: we need to be one with Father, Son, and Spirit before we can be one with each other.

So how do we go about this? It’s difficult, because there are dangers on both sides. If we pursue doctrinal purity on everything, every other group of Christians becomes “the enemy” and we become increasingly isolated. If we pursue unity without insisting on some shared core beliefs of what is true about God, we cease to be the people of God.

David deSilva contrasts the situation in John’s second letter with that in his third as an example of each danger. Read these excerpts:

2 John 1:7,10-11 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist…10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

Contrast that stern warning about false teaching with the situation here:

3 John 1:7-10 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. 9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

DeSilva comments:

2 John reminds us that there are boundaries beyond which the faith expressed and the ethic taught are no longer Christian… Third John stands next in the canon to warn us against the dangers of drawing those lines so narrowly or in such a way that we find the representatives of the apostolic witness on the other side from us. (David deSilva, Introduction to the New Testament, p.463.)

So again, how do we go about that?

Firstly, pursue unity with other Christians – not necessarily organisational unity, but certainly functional unity – with those who preach the same gospel of grace, who don’t add anything to the gospel of grace. We may disagree on other issues, and that’s fine. As long as we are united in declaring how a person is united with Christ. Christians get bad enough press for fighting over the big and important issues. Let’s not give the world a free kick at us for fighting over the little stuff.

But how can we do that practically? You need to work that out for yourself, but here are some ideas:

Keep in-house Christian debates in-house, as much as you can. Don’t spend your time on Facebook tearing down Christians who disagree with you on secondary issues. There is a place to debate those, but not in front of the world to whom we want to commend Jesus (which likely doesn’t understand what’s in dispute), and certainly not with the kind of ungraciousness that’s so often evident. (What may seem like robust, iron-sharpening-iron to us can seem like bitter division to those on the outside.)

If you’re at University, one way is to get involved with the Christian groups on campus, most of which are non-denominational. There we see people from all different churches working together. Get involved, if only to show to the rest of the people on campus that Christians from different denominations can get along!

If you’re working, join the Christian group at your work. Or start one if there isn’t one. One year I spoke at a lunchtime Christmas service put on by one such group. A whole range of denominations was represented there! Again, a great united witness to that whole organisation.

You can attend inter-denominational conferences, support mission groups. Sign up for the Voice of the Martyrs newsletter and get involved praying for other Christians from all sorts of backgrounds who are suffering for the gospel around the world; write letters to the governments who are persecuting them or allowing it to continue. There are numerous, practical ways we can become part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer that we may be one. You just need to be intentional.

And don’t forget, seek to educate anyone who asks. Be ready to explain to others why there are so many denominations – and why that’s not always a bad thing. It’s not that hard to take a question from an outsider about how divided the church is, and use it to explain how important it is that we don’t distort the message of God’s amazing grace.

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