The fact that John 13 – 17 points toward unity with God, Jesus, and each other is further supported by several observations.
First, there’s the fact that Jesus concludes his discourse with a prayer for unity.
(John 17:20-23 ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Second, there’s the fact that Jesus chooses to teach this lesson, not as a lecture, but as a prayer to God. Why? Surely because he knows this is far beyond our ability to do by ourselves. God has to be involved. God has to empower the unity.
Third, we should notice that Jesus ties his prayer for unity with his mission: “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” He could hardly choose words that would more strongly emphasize the importance of his prayer!
Jesus’ prayer for unity is not one of many commands, one that we might subordinate to other “more important” commands. Jesus insists on its importance as the last command he gives before his arrest and trial. It’s the last lesson he taught before his crucifixion. It’s that important.
The question, therefore, is how do go about obeying it?
Obviously, the first step is to determine from the Scriptures just who it is who are supposed to be united with. For those with a Church of Christ heritage, there are essentially two questions:
1. Do we treat as saved those who’ve not been baptized exactly right? We tend to define an acceptable baptism very narrowly, so that only a tiny handful of denominations practice an acceptable form of baptism.
2. Do we treat as saved those who disagree with us on a point of doctrine, such as instrumental music? We tend to arbitrarily choose certain doctrines as “fellowship” or “salvation” issues. We have no explanation for how this becomes a barrier to fellowship and that does not, but we are absolutely certain of our conclusions!
The conservative Churches of Christ have no theology defining what doctrinal error damns and what doctrinal error does not. The choice is very subjective, often depending more on the emotional heat generated by the editors and lectureships than any serious investigation of the scriptures.
And in light of John 17, this is obviously a particularly damaging sin. Our refusal to be united with brothers in Christ brings criticism of the church, embarrassing Jesus and God, and so separating us from our Savior and our Father. It makes our evangelistic efforts much more difficult. And it’s leading to a decline in the membership of the Churches of Christ.
We’ve covered here many times a better approach to grace and a better approach to baptism. It’s not complicated. We just need to get over the notion that our supposedly superior hermeneutics make us pleasing to God while everyone else is going to hell.
Think about it. According to the scriptures, those who’ve not been saved are enemies of God (Rom 5:10), ungodly (Rom 5:6), sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2), and children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Take these words very seriously, and then ask yourself, why on earth we use commentaries, Sunday school lessons, and even sermon outlines written by God’s enemies?
I mean, if those believers who are not baptized as we teach are damned, then C. S. Lewis is not only damned, he was a son of disobedience.
Go through your church’s library. Most of the very best, most well-used books are written by children of wrath. Right? Indeed, every single translator of the King James Version is burning in hell because they were all God’s enemies.
Right? That’s what conservative Church of Christ theology teaches. And yet even our own commentaries routinely cite the work of God’s enemies who are burning in hell.
It’s just absurd. We claim to be superior and to know God’s word better, and when we need an answer, we pull the commentaries of sons of disobedience to answer our questions about the Bible.
Just as absurdly, while we’ll damn a Baptist to hell on Sunday, we’ll queue up in the voter booth to vote for a Baptist because he’s one of “us.” He share our values. He’s on God’s side. Except our theology teaches that he’s God’s enemy.
We are horribly inconsistent because our hearts tell us that these are good people, effectively serving God and his Kingdom, while our theology tells us that they’re going straight to hell.
Well, our hearts are right. Our hearts have been changed by the Spirit to recognize truth even when our minds are too clouded to understand.
(Eze 36:26 ESV) And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
It’s not complicated, if we’ll let Jesus explain it —
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
We try to debate with God, attempting to disprove his very words by citing to James or reasoning that this cannot be true. And yet, despite our protestations, the words are still in the Bible, on the lips of Jesus. They are true. (Why am I castigated as a “liberal” for insisting that the words of Jesus are true?)
Where we err is in failing to understand the nature of faith. To believe in Jesus is not a mere intellectual acceptance of his Messiahship. It’s also submission to Jesus as Lord — because “faith” includes “faithfulness” or “loyalty” as a meaning. We cannot have faith in Jesus unless we are also faithful to Jesus. That’s just what the Greek means — and it’s certainly how John uses “faith” and “believe” in his Gospel.
As shown by Hebrews 11, “faith” also includes the idea of trust, that is, that we believe God’s promises and so are willing to rely on them in living our lives.
And Jesus says that those who believe in him (are faithful to him, who trust him) are saved. And if they don’t, they aren’t.
Jesus said it. He said it dozens of times in John. It must be true.
And if it’s true, obedience to Jesus’ entreaty to be united becomes vastly simpler. It’s no longer necessary to ask 200 questions on the “issues” to discern who your brothers are. Just ask about their faith.
Does this mean that the Baptists are right about baptism? I don’t think so. So the Churches of Christ are right? Well, yes and no. The Churches of Christ are right about how baptism should be done. I think our exegesis is exactly right on this point. Baptism is for believers by immersion and for the remission of sins. We nailed it.
But we err in damning those who misunderstand baptism. We aren’t saved by faith in baptism. We aren’t saved by the perfection of our baptismal doctrine. We are saved by faith in Jesus.
Thus, God’s grace will cover baptismal error. Obviously, grace does not cover sins committed in knowing disregard for God’s will. It doesn’t cover conscious rebellion. But it does cover mistakes — or else it’s not grace at all.
Therefore, we are compelled, by Jesus’ final prayer, to seek visible unity with other believers. All of them.
What would this unity look like? Well, it wouldn’t look anything like the 20th Century ecumenical movement. Rather, it would look much more like all the churches — of all Jesus-believing denominations in a given city — taking communion together once a year. Or like those same churches planning a joint campaign to spread the gospel throughout their city. Or like those same churches laboring side by side to relieve poverty in that city in the name of Jesus.
Something like that.
And if that were to happen, how would the world react?