In John 17:20-23, Jesus prayed for the unity of all those who would believe in the preaching of the Apostles. That’s us. Christians today can know that Jesus prayed for them, and specifically, Jesus prayed for unity.
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. (ESV)
Jesus prayed that the Christians who would come after the original apostles would be one. That they would not be fragmented. That they would not be divided. And he gives us the reasons why he prays this– “that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Our unity as believers is a testimony to a watching world that Jesus is authentically who he said he was.
He goes on. Jesus says, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, they may be one even as we are one.” Jesus here says that he has already done something to achieve the unity that he is praying for. He has given them glory. Now, this seems a bit ambiguous. What does it mean that Jesus has given “glory” to believers? While I can’t say with certainty, it seems likely that he is talking about the Holy Spirit. Believers are filled with the Holy Spirit that was given at Pentecost. They are indwell by him. So this is what Jesus says that he has already given them in order to accomplish the unity that he prays for.
Now, I don’t want to be too critical, but I have heard someone preach on this text before and the way they applied it, they said that this is the one case where believers get to answer Jesus’ prayer. I think that is dead wrong. According to the second thing Jesus says in the prayer, Jesus answered his own prayer by giving believers his glory, i.e. the Holy Spirit.
Now, if that is the case, then why do we have so many denominations and theological camps within Christianity. Did Jesus’ prayer fail? Absolutely not! I think one thing that can shed light on how this can be is the Nicene Creed. Concerning the Church, this ancient creed states,
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
Now, this creed needs explanation:
- First of all, it could be confusing that the creed uses the word “catholic.” However, Protestants have always affirmed this creed. The reason is that the word “catholic” means universal. By affirming this confession, Protestants do not admit any hierarchical authority as the Roman Catholic Church claims. When we say we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, we understand this with the original meaning of “universal.” So when I, or Redeemer Baptist Church, confesses that we believe in a “catholic” church, we mean that there is one universal and invisible body of Christ that is made up of all believers–everyone who Christ saved from creation until Jesus comes again are included in the “catholic” or universal church.
- Next, we believe in “one” church. While it may seem the contrary, because we have so many denominations, in this universal sense we believe there is only one Church. All who Christ died for are united in one body–the Church. The one Church is the body of Christ who Jesus laid his life down for.
- Third, we believe in a “holy” church. This also may seem to be at odds with our experience. How can we say we believe in one “holy” church when there are so many hypocrites? Isn’t that one of the most frequent charges leveled against Christians? Unbelievers don’t want anything to do with the “Church” because it’s filled with hypocrites. However, Christianity, from the beginning has been about grace. Jesus has washed his bride. To become a Christian we confess our sins, and throughout our entire lives as Christians we live out a life of repenting. But we ARE objectively holy. If we have believed on Christ, experienced the new birth, and cling to him as our only hope, Jesus has washed our sins away. He has set us apart for himself to that we belong to him alone. We may still be sinners, but he calls us saints because he has made us holy by his own work–and not our own.
- Finally, we believe in an “apostolic” church. This does not mean we believe in some kind of apostolic succession, that there is a hierarchy that has been passed down to us by the apostles with the Pope as its head. No, Protestants believe that we are “apostolic” because we believe in the TEACHING of the apostles. The Gospel that was preached by the apostles, that is preserved in the New Testament, is what establishes us as a church. Apart from the teaching of the apostles we would be no church of Christ.
So, on the basis of the Nicene Creed and the Protestant understanding of it, I believe that the Church is one. We may have different confessions of faith that express our denominational distinctives. We may have convictions that separate us from other Christians, but in spite of how it looks on the outside, we are united on the basis of the new birth, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the work of Christ on the Cross.
So, why is Redeemer Baptist Church a Baptist Church? If we believe we are unified with all true believers, why aren’t we non-denominational? Why do we put Baptist in our name? Shouldn’t we just be about Jesus?
Here is my answer:
I don’t have any hostility toward non-denominational churches. They are filled with true believers and they are my brother’s and sisters in Christ, but the truth is, there is no truly non-denominational church. They may not have any other group of Christians that they associate with in a denominational sense, but they believe something. If they don’t they aren’t Christian. They have to confess what they believe about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. They have to make a choice, are they going to baptize babies or not? What they decide about that as a church will automatically put them into one camp or another. All pastors should aim to teach in a coherent manner, and churches need to be clear about what it is that they profess. So, to claim to be non-denominational is either to hide who you really are by refusing a label, or it is to be so watered down that you don’t have any clear convictions.
Stating clearly what we believe is essential for unity. If a church doesn’t clearly state what they believe, they will have people who believe all kinds of things want to join. They end up with a wide diversity of belief all under one roof trying to worship together. This is a recipe for disunity. What happens when the pastor preaches something that not everyone agrees with? You may have some that agree, some that disagree and hold one position, and others that disagree and hold another. It is a powder keg ready to split the church.
On the other hand, when a church is clear about what they believe, then they are poised for real unity. When someone is visiting the church and they like the worship and the preaching and they decide they may like to join, they are given a copy of the church’s statement of faith. They are told, “This is what we believe as a church.” The person can read through it and say, “I agree with this. I want to join,” or they may say, “I don’t agree with this. I’m glad you told me before I joined.” Or still yet they may say, “Well, I don’t agree with this, but I can live with it,” and at least that way they know what they are getting into before hand and they don’t try to change what the church clearly professes together.
So for this reason, I believe a robust confession and clearly teaching what you believe is essential to preserving true unity within a local congregation.
The confession of faith for Redeemer Baptist Church is the Baptist Faith and Message, 2000. This is what we profess to believe, and it is a profound basis for peace and unity.