The Lord Jesus prayed for unity of the believers in John 17 and yet there is no unity at this point. There is a cacophony of voices and thousands upon thousands of churches all with varied claims to authenticity. Why has His prayer not been answered?
Is there one true church since Jesus prayed for unity? Is there one authentic church on earth with physical buildings, maybe a denomination or an independent church? The answer begins with John 17:11 where Jesus prayed for unity. Some people have concluded that Jesus prayed for unity among churches, but a careful examination of the passage reveals that Jesus prayed for unity among the disciples. Christian churches were not in existence at this time.
I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. John 17:11 (NASB)
Jesus Prayed For Unity Among The Disciples
John 17:1 is the beginning of Christ’s high priestly prayer. In verses 1-6 Jesus prayed about Himself and the Father. In verse 6, He started praying for the disciples.
I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. John 17:6 (NASB)
In verse 6 Jesus said that the Father had given “the men whom You gave Me.” This is a reference to the disciples. Earlier in John 15:16, 19 when Jesus was speaking to the disciples in the Upper Room, He said that He had chosen the disciples. In this passage, Jesus alludes to the Trinity when He says the Father had chosen them. That was an incredible statement. Not only had the Father granted them salvation (John 6:65) and had drawn them to Christ (John 6:44), but the Father had chosen them to be Jesus’ disciples.
From verse 7 through 19, Jesus refers to the disciples repeatedly when He says, “they” (v. 7, 11, 13, 15-16, 19) and “them” (v. 8, 10-15, 17-18) and “those” (v. 9). He continues praying for them after verse 19. It is clear in this section that Jesus is talking about the disciples when He refers to the disciples and Judas with these words,
While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. John 17:12 (NASB)
The son of perdition was Judas and the “them” referred to the disciples. Therefore, when Jesus prayed ” that they may be one” in John 17:11 He was praying for unity among the disciples.
Therefore, Jesus was not praying for unity among the churches. He was not praying that the churches would be faithful to the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). He was praying for unity among the eleven remaining disciples.
God Expected Some Churches To Abandon The Faith
Is there one true church? The answer is that God never expected the church to be united. Throughout the New Testament the apostles warned fellow Christians about false teachers who would distort the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Acts 20:30; Jude 3).
. . . and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:30 (NASB)
In Acts 15 the early church corrected the false teaching of some Jewish Christians who believed a person had to be circumcised (Acts 15:1) and obey the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:5) in order to become a Christian. In Galatians 1:6, Paul warned the church in Galatia that they were turning to a different gospel. In Colossians Paul warned them against heresy. In 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John and 2 John, the apostles Peter and John warn against false teachers in the early churches.
The message of the New Testament is that the church was not united during the time of the apostles. Therefore, we should not expect the church to be united after the apostles.
Example of The Seven Churches of Revelation
The seven churches of Revelation 2-3 reveal that the early church was struggling with remaining true to the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Only two of the seven churches were without fault. Four of the seven churches had doctrinal errors and had turned soft on sin. That was the sad condition of these seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century (about A.D. 90). The church has only suffered in the same way since then.
God never expected the church to remain pure and Jesus did not pray that there would be the true organized church on the earth with a denominational name. The apostle Paul made that clear in Acts 20:30. Then is there a true church on earth? Maybe a denomination or an independent church? Yes! The true church is any church that is true to the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”
Therefore, the problem occurs how do we decide which is a true church? The answer is that one must study the Bible and be eager to reject any error that one was previously taught and accept what is truly taught in scripture. We must become students of the original languages in which the Bible was written in order to understand that some Bible translation is flawed. We must faithfully study in order to learn. Yet, too many Christians are not interested in digging into the Bible. They want quick and easy answers. Those churches which are faithful will be led by pastors who have diligently and painstakingly studied the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15) and faithfully teach the Word (1 Timothy 4:11-13; 2 Timothy 2:2). They work hard to avoid error (James 3:1) rather than twisting the Bible to make it agree with what they want it to say! This is a difficult task but that is how we determine the truth.
Worse yet, many Christians select a church because of its size or music or the charisma of the pastor. Some remain in a church because of relationships. It is sad, but the apostles never encouraged us to select a church for any of those reasons. The overwhelming concern of the apostles was truth, but today that is often of lower importance. Many Christian churches today appear to be more concerned about how many attend. The apostles encouraged us to remain faithful to the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” This will only occur if we faithfully seek out churches that are faithful.
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