The Church Is One (John 17:20–23)

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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.”

—John 17:20–23

What does it mean to be one? Rome answers that this oneness is organizational. The Catholic Catechism says, 

“The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. …This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”

To not be part of of Rome then is to be guilty of then schism, heresy, and/or apostasy. Ecumenical movements of the past have largely sought some kind of organizational and formal unity.

Today I believe the predominate ecumenical spirit is one that is largely anti-organizational an informal. It esteems tolerance as highly as it disdains doctrine. It seeks unity for the sake of unity, championing love as the highest value and motivation. It doesn’t want to see our distinctions unified under one umbrella, so much as it wants everyone to confess that all their distinctions are ultimately insignificant and meaningless. Except of course for the supreme values of tolerance, unity, and love. Those remain paramount.

The strength of the former effort is the appeal to a visible unity and oneness. The strength of the latter is realizing how this oneness is truly rooted in Jesus’ calls in the upper room for the disciples to love one another as He has loved them. The problem with both approaches is that neither gives full and due respect to the context of Jesus’ petition. Lloyd-Jones’ words remain relevant seventy years after they were spoken. 

“I suppose that if there is thing that characterizes the life of the church and of Christian people more than anything else in this generation, it is the interest in what is called ‘ecumenicity’. …What we are generally told can be summarized like this: the greatest scandal in the world is a disunited church, and this scandal must also be removed because it is the greatest hinderance to evangelism. …The people concerned are very fond of quoting John 17, it seems to be the chapter on which they base everything, but what interests me is that they invariably seem to speak of this chapter as if there were nothing in it at all except this plea for unity. …How little we hear about the work which the Father had given the Son to do, about the people whom he had given to him, and so on. Instead, the impression is given that John 17 has only one message in it, and that is this great question of unity. In other words, we see the terrible danger of isolating a text, extracting it from its context.”

What does it mean for the church to be one? I submit we may find the answer by beginning with the humble assertion that our Lord’s prayer was answered! Our problem with defining “one” begins because we assume something is not, when it is. Jesus began this prayer with this overarching petition, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Everything else is subservient to this petition. Jesus prays for His own under this prayer. In v. 10 He says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” The Father, Son, and Spirit aim to glorify their name in the church. For the glory of Christ, the church is one.

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

“He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51–52).

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14–16).

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1–6).

Instead of trying to manufacture a unity that is not, the church should strive to maintain a unity that is. She may begin to do so by confessing with the saints of old that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

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