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Stay or Leave? Is John 17 Grounds for Staying in Mainline Denominations in Our Day?

In Jesus’ High Priestly prayer to His Father in John 17, he prays for several things, including unity.  While anecdotal, it certainly seems that most Christians think of this chapter in John’s Gospel as primarily about unity.  This is, however, one of several themes in the prayer.  Moreover, the passage is regularly cited in the West as a reason for staying in mainline denominations in our day.  Mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church in the USA or Church of England in the UK, for example, have redefined themselves to such an extent that they promote the culture’s agenda and convictions instead of the historic faith they once affirmed.  Thus, it is with some urgency that we ask, ‘Does John 17 offer grounds for those who advocate staying in these mainline denominations in our day?’  
In John 17, Jesus says,
John 17.11b (ESV) keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
What is Jesus actually praying in this verse and in the prayer as a whole?
The argument offered here is that this passage has nothing to do with the unity of denominations in our day.  It is not a text from which one might argue for staying in denominations that have rejected the truth on which they were originally founded and that is, more importantly, found in Scripture.  If anything, as we shall see, Jesus’ prayer supports those calling for separation.  The argument for denominational unity based on John 17 runs into at least seven, serious problems.  It is:
1.     Anachronistic: Of course, there were no denominations in Jesus’ day, and so those relating this to denominational unity will need to supply several missing premises to move from what Jesus says and what they understand as a fitting application of the text.  Indeed, the prayer primarily has to do with the eleven disciples (with Judas already separated from them!).  Thus, we may well ask, is it more about apostolic unity rather than ecclesial unity?
2.     Inconsistent: Oddly, persons in different denominations use their understanding of John 17 to argue for unity instead of calling for unity among the various denominations.  Even if some have a more ecumenical reading of the passage and look for unity across denominations and theological traditions, they still distinguish cults from the Christian Church.  If someone presses the argument of inclusiveness to its final stage, we need to reply that this is simply outside anything that can be found in John’s Gospel.  Indeed, Jesus says,
John 17.14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
3.     Historically Confused: A person in the Eastern Orthodox Church or in the Roman Catholic Church will be confused, perhaps even humoured, by Protestants calling for unity in their little denominations instead of returning to the Churches from which they remain split. As long as the interpretation is on institutional unity, or even communal unity, such a problem does not go away.  Once it is realized that Jesus is calling for communal unity based on doctrinal unity, one can understand how denominations, even very old ones, can wander from the truth and require believers to separate from them in order to remain united in the truth.
4.     Conceptually Erroneous: If we grant that Jesus is praying for Church unity, is the unity first and foremost communal or is it convictional (theological)?  If it is communal, is it institutional or relational?  If it is relational, is it inclusive or exclusive?  To be sure, Jesus’ prayer has to do with ‘the truth’: the truth defines unity, and community is formed by commitment to the truth.  When emphasis is put on communal unity above convictional unity, the truth becomes an obstacle to unity.  Jesus’ prayer for communal unity is based on convictional unity.  Also, the communal understanding here is relational, and the relationship is exclusive.  ‘Right’ relationship is relationship with Jesus as the one in relation with the Father and sent by Him.  It is distinguished from a relationship with ‘the world’ and with the disciple that will betray Jesus.
5.     Canonically Selectively: One does not build arguments on a single text of Scripture.  Those who would like to think that John 17 says something helpful about remaining in a denomination that has rejected Biblical truth need to address some other texts in Scripture.  The New Testament has many passages addressing false teaching and its affect on Christian community.  Five texts are selected here to illustrate the problem of selectively choosing one text (let alone misinterpreting it!).
            First, Jesus says, 
Matthew 7.21-23 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'  
Second, Paul says, 
1 Corinthians 5.11-13 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler--not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." 

Third, John says, 

1 John 2.18-19 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 
Fourth, 2 Peter addresses the problem of false teaching at length in the second chapter, beginning with these words: 
2 Peter 2.1 False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. 
Fifth, John addresses the issue of false Christians in the churches in the book of Revelation.  His words call for separation, not unity.  The assumption is that the churches can exclude those in error.  It is logical, however, that when those in error are in the majority, the separation will have to happen by leaving.
God says to the church at Ephesus:
Revelation 2.2 "'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.

            To the church at Pergamum, God says,

Revelation 2.14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
To the church at Thyatira, God says,
Revelation 2.20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servantsto practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
To the church at Laodicea, God says,
Revelation 3.15 "'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
         6.   Exegetically Erroneous: So, what does John 17.11 really say?  The unity among the eleven disciples for which Jesus prays is based on their being kept ‘in your name’ (cf. v. 12).  Note that, earlier in the prayer, Jesus says, ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world’ (v. 6).  The prayer concludes with, ‘I made known to them your name….’ (v. 26).  Unity among the disciples is the result of receiving the revelation from Jesus of the Father.  Jesus notes in his prayer that he has ‘given them the words that you gave me’ (v. 8).  This revelation of God’s words includes believing in Jesus through God’s word (v. 20)—it is God’s testimony about Jesus.  Jesus also captures this thought by speaking of ‘truth’: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’ (v. 17).  As George Beasley-Murray says of vv. 17-19, ‘only as the disciples persist in the truth revealed can they participate in the sanctification of Jesus and so in his redemptive ministry.’[1]. 

      7. Ironic: If Jesus was calling in John 17 for people to remain united with those who hold to erroneous  theology and ethics, this would be rather ironic, given the rest of the Gospel.  In fact, Jesus would be hypocritical.  Reading the Gospel of John, Jesus’ revelation brings a major rift between his disciples and ‘the Jews’—those Jews who do not come to believe in him.  In fact, in John 9, a disciple of Jesus is thrown out of the synagogue for his belief in Jesus (vv. 22, 34-35).  This separation between disbelief and belief is expected, not problematic.

In conclusion, Jesus’ prayer for unity is a prayer for continuing in the truth of the revelation that Jesus has brought about himself from the Father.  This is a rich theological claim with many things to say about Johannine theology in general.  In John, this is first and foremost a Christocentric claim: acknowledgement that Jesus is the one sent by the Father, is the place where God’s revelation occurs.  From this belief stems all that Jesus is, has taught, and has done.  That is, this unity is not on a single doctrine but on everything God has revealed.[2]

One thing we can say with certainty about this passage is that Jesus’ prayer for unity is a prayer for the disciples to continue in the truth.  Those who wish to find in John 17 a call to unity with those who have rejected the truth turn this passage on its head.  If anything is to be said about communal unity instead of theological unity, it is that there is a divide between those who abide in the truth revealed by Jesus and ‘the world’.  Applying this to the mainline denominations in the West that have rejected unity in the truth, Jesus’ prayer is a prayer for sanctification in the truth and a separation from those who have rejected God’s word.

[1] George Beasley-Murray, John (Word Biblical Commentary 36; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 299.
[2] That is, John’s theology is not reductive, being only about Jesus.  It is not merely Christological.  Rather, it is Christocentric: all truth is Christ centred.  The revelation of the Old Testament points to Christ rather than is replaced by Christ.