I am sure that many people will read the title of this article and proceed to read with apprehension, since to many the word “theological” might as well be a “four-letter” word, conjuring up the idea of flighty pontification about things we cannot know or understand as humans. The title of this article has nothing to do with that type of thinking– I am interested here in the basic meaning of the term “theology,” “the study of God.” We have been given the Scriptures, and while not every aspect of God is or even could be contained within its pages, they tell us many things about the nature of God.
I would like to examine the specific lessons we learn about God– and the way we understand the Scriptures concerning the nature of God– in John 17, the prayer or Jesus often called the “High Priestly prayer.” Portions of this text are often cited to attempt to justify the practice of ecumenism, a form of “unity-in-diversity,” among the various denominations and even within many so-called churches of Christ. These persons will say that since Jesus prayed for unity, we ought to hold to a form of unity, even if that unity is not in doctrine but only in name, to please Him. What does the text say?
The main verses used are John 17:11 and John 17:20-23:
“And I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as We are.”
“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us: that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and lovedst them, even as Thou lovedst Me.”
These are powerful words of Jesus, and they certainly do make a plea for unity, both amongst the twelve disciples and amongst all those who believe in Him. This unity, however, is likened to another form of unity that exists: the unity between the Father and the Son.
We are further told the following about the relationship of the Father and the Son in John 10:30 and John 14:9-12:
“I and the Father are one.”
Jesus saith unto him, “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, ‘Show us the Father?’ Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I say unto you I speak not from Myself: but the Father abiding in Me doeth His works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me: or else believe Me for the very works’ sake. Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father.”
We may see from these verses that the Father and the Son are one– if one has seen the Son, he has seen the Father, since the Son is the conduit of the message of the Father, and the two are in complete and harmonious agreement.
Therefore, if Jesus says in John 17 that all Christians– those who have believed on Jesus– are to be one as He and the Father are one, and the Father and the Son are one in message, one in doctrine, and in harmony and agreement, what must be the inevitable conclusion? If we follow the Scriptures– and the Scriptural message alone, whether it correlates with our desires or not– we must say that Jesus prays to the Father that all Christians are to be one in doctrine and in complete harmony and agreement.
Let us examine the theological ramifications of the ecumenical (unity-in-diversity) perspective of John 17. If Jesus is praying that all Christians should be one as He and the Father are one, and this “unity” can be expressed as agreement on the “basic tenets of faith” but allows for disagreement on “other” issues, this would mean that the Father and the Son are also “unified” in this way– while the Father and the Son may agree on some (or even most) issues, it’s okay for them to disagree on other issues as long as they maintain the “unity” of the faith. For example, the Father can believe that He not only has foreknowledge but also foreordains each individual to be saved or to be condemned; on the other hand, it is perfectly fine for the Son to believe in free will and that God certainly may know how a person shall turn out but does not actually ordain that it will be so. The Father might believe in baptizing infants while the Son believes in baptizing believing adults. Is this the picture of “unity” presented to us in the Scriptures?
Certainly not. One of the foundational principles of Christianity is the complete unity and harmony of the Godhead, well expressed in the Scriptures given above. The will of the Father is the will of the Son. If God is unified in this way, and Jesus prayed to the Father that His believers would be unified as He and the Father are unified, then the ideal for the Christian is to live in complete harmony and unity– in practice and doctrine– with his fellow Christians.
Will Christians ever be able to truly live up to the ideal of Jesus’ prayer? It is just as likely as being completely perfected in Christ (Matthew 5:48), and as likely as a husband loving his wife just as much as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). While we may never reach this level of unity and harmony, it is certainly our task to strive diligently toward this goal.
It is unfortunate that the weakness of the flesh and the pride of man does not allow for us to reach a perfect level of harmony, yet the Scriptures have provided some accommodation– the ability for Christians to disagree on matters of liberty– not any thing pertaining to “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 14:17)–and still maintain unity. If we follow the principles of Romans 14–and Philippians 2:1-4, quoted below– we will be well on our way to harmony and unity:
If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.
What, then, are the theological ramifications of John 17? They lay in the way one desires to perceive God– either as an internally fragmented yet externally unified Lord in order to justify one’s doctrines, or as God truly is, a wonderfully unified and harmonious Lord, and one who desires for His followers to be as unified and as harmonious. We must strive to maintain the unity of the faith– based not on appearances only, but on belief, doctrine, and practice. We must also be willing to follow the examples provided in Scripture by removing from our midst those who do not maintain the unity of the faith (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 9, Revelation 2:20-23, and many others), and constantly strive to create a humble heart and be guided by what the Word of God truly says, and not by what we desire for it to say.
If we all had such hearts and all faithfully obeyed the Scriptures, we would not be very far from the unity and harmony that Christ desires.