That They May Be One? The Misuse of John 17

John 17 records a prayer of Jesus in which he prays that his disciples, present and future, “may be one” (v. 11 & 20-21). Those who are determined to liberalize the church’s official stance on sexual morality and marriage through incremental steps if necessary repeatedly quote this short phrase removed from the context to convince those with traditional leanings that unity through compromise is the supreme Christian virtue. The idea is that Jesus is praying for his disciples to be united around some vague agree-to-disagree principle of absolute tolerance when it comes certain moral issues. They want the church to believe that the most virtuous thing we can do is to allow contradictory and competing visions of sexual holiness to be officially sanctioned in the church in order to be a witness to the world. But the phrase that immediately follows Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:11 reveals the folly of that misinterpretation, as does the context of the rest of the prayer.

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, EVEN AS WE ARE ONE. ~ John 17:11 ESV (emphasis mine of course)

Note the qualifying phrase for the unity for which Jesus prays for his disciples, “even as we are one.” The oneness for which Jesus prays is the kind of oneness that he has with the Father. Of course this is not in terms of their essential being. But it is the oneness they share in terms of will, purpose, and mission. In that regard Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). Moreover he said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). You get the picture? This is a picture of perfect submission to the will of God, not an agree-to-disagree moment on contradictory and competing visions of what is morally right while clumsily still trying to work together rather than against each other. Trinity-Symbols

Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in perfect obedience. In his human nature he resisted the excruciating temptation to exalt his will above the Father’s even in the face of crucifixion. Remember how intensely Jesus prayed in the garden? ““Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). What kind of unity does this sound like to you that Jesus is praying for? It’s certainly not a unity at the expense of truth and holiness that would result in trying to work together in mission with contradictory messages about what God expects of disciples!

In John 17, Jesus also prayed that the Father would keep his disciples in his name (v. 11). That could mean guard them by the power of your name; it could also mean keep them under the authority of your name. The latter would still have the effect of the former meaning. Hence Jesus’ prayer that they also be sanctified in the truth, which he says is God’s word.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.And for their sake I consecrate myself,that they also may be sanctified in truth. ~ John 17:17-19

In light of what Jesus says about Scripture in John 5:30-47, it is clear that Jesus viewed Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) as the word and revealed will of God, which was in complete harmony with his own message and mission. He says to the religious leaders who doubted him, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words” (John 5:46-47). It is believing God’s word, written and incarnate, that sanctifies us. To sanctify means to set apart by making holy. Holiness sets us apart from the ways of a corrupt and fallen world that cares more about the fulfilling the lust of the flesh than the will of God (1 John 2:15-17). We cannot have the unity for which Jesus prayed apart from the holiness that comes from believing the truth that is God’s word!

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

This perfect oneness that Jesus prayed for? Does that really sound like the kind of “unity” that the progressive Uniting Methodists want to impose on the whole denomination? In the name of postmodern relativism they have made “unity” apart from a common and complementary vision of holiness, truth, and Scripture the supreme virtue. And to justify it they proof-text out of context one phrase from John 17. That is not what Jesus prayed for; and it is certainly not what he died for.

Many commentators have been struck by the parallels between John 1 & 13 and Philippians 2:5-11. There are also some parallels with John 17 and the unity there that Jesus prayed for. Paul puts it this way:

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:1-11

When we admit that we are of two minds—and we are—we might also want to consider that we might not have the same love or the unity of the Spirit for which Jesus prayed. And how then can we “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”? (Romans 15:6). I DO want to be in the same Church with my progressive colleagues. I just don’t want to be in the same church on their relativistic, latitudinarian terms—”speculative” or “practical,” both of which John Wesley called a curse, not a blessing (Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” . – III: 2 & 3). I want to be a part of a Church that seeks and prays for the kind of unity for which Jesus actually prayed. All are truly welcome on those terms.

At the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15, the Church did not come up with some agree-to-disagree compromise on whether circumcision was necessary for salvation in addition to faith in Christ. Through the guidance of the Spirit and searching the Scriptures they came to an agreement that it was not necessary. They did not decide to preach salvation by grace through faith alone AND salvation through faith plus circumcision. The Church came to an agreement and preached the same message. Galatians makes it clear that a compromised and confused message was no longer tolerable in the Church. How much more important is it for us to hold a common faith and share a common witness regarding sexual morality when that same council commended the same? Yet progressives have also twisted this passage to support their campaign.

I’ll close with another oft misused passage on unity with more context than progressives will give. See how it complements what Jesus actually prayed for in John 17. Jesus invites us into the unity of the Trinity, not a nominal unity forged in the name of relativism through the ways of a wayward world.

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.  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, 

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16

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