September 19, 2017

Church Unity or Church Purity?

Bud Talbert

It was June of 1962. The place? The legendary Westminster Chapel in London, England. The keynote speaker was the host of the Westminster’s Ministers’ Fellowship, Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He began,

No question is receiving so much attention at the present time in all branches and divisions of the Christian church as the question of church unity. It is being written about, talked about, and preached about. Now we are all agreed, surely, that the Christian church should be one, that she was meant by God to be one. And therefore, we must agree, further, that it is a tragedy that division ever entered into the life of the church. In addition, we must all regard schism as a grievous sin. That is common ground, but having said that, one must also point out that there is obviously great confusion, and much disagreement, as to what constitutes unity, as to what the nature of unity is, and as to how unity is to be obtained and preserved.

Then Dr. Lloyd-Jones proceeded to expound John 17:20–23.[1]

For some, it can be rather shocking to have person introduced as a Fundamentalist. The term, to most people, indicates at the very least some sort of extremist. But the term Fundamentalist has been used for more than a century to refer to someone who believes in and stands uncompromisingly for the essential truths of Christianity. He believes that the basis of all truly Christian fellowship is an agreement on these essential doctrines.[2] Put simply, Fundamentalists are Christians who are endeavoring to do what the Bible says.

However, the Fundamentalist finds himself living in an age that is ecumenical. Here is a second term. The word ecumenical means “universal” or “worldwide,” and it refers to people who wish to lay aside their differences— even in important doctrinal matters—for the sake of a broader religious unity. The Fundamentalist says that doctrine is most important, while the ecumenist believes that unity is most important. And the ecumenist enjoys a strangely persuasive dominance in the world today, even among non-religious people.

John 17:21 (“that they all may be one”) has been used, especially in the past century, as the justification and defense of ecumenical unity. “We must set aside our differences for the sake of unity,” they say. Or, “We must set aside our differences for the sake of evangelism.” But using John 17:21 to defend this position is another lie of Satan to give credibility to his movement. The reader must examine the text in an effort to answer three questions.

For Whom Does Christ Pray?

Verse 20 begins this third section of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer. He says to His Father, “Neither pray I for these alone”—i.e., “I am not just asking for the eleven disciples here with Me”—“but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.” So Christ is praying for those who had already started believing in Christ, and all who would yet believe in Christ as a result of the apostles’ message.

Jesus had sent out the twelve to preach, and many had given themselves to Christ as a result of their message. Jesus was praying that they would be one. At Pentecost Peter preached (Acts 2), and 3000 believed through his ministry. Jesus was praying that they would be one. Paul sent his epistle to those in Rome during his third missionary journey. Likewise, those in Rome who were converted as a result of hearing Paul’s epistle were the ones Jesus was praying would be one. Young John Wesley heard a Moravian read Martin Luther’s introduction to the Epistle to the Galatians, and “felt his heart strangely warmed” as he affirmed that he did believe in Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Jesus was praying here in John 17 that Wesley would be one with other believers.

Is it legitimate, then, for the ecumenist to point to this passage in order to justify his unity? No. Why not? Because to the ecumenist, believing in the apostolic doctrine is secondary to unity. Jesus is not praying for all religions to be united. He is praying for all genuine believers to be united. This prayer excludes all non-Christian religions, and it even excludes professing Christians to whom real faith in Christ is not essential. Jesus never prayed for religious unity . . . only for Christian unity; not for unity among professing Christians, but only among possessing Christians.

For What Does Christ Pray?

John 17:21 says, “That they all may be one.” The word one refers to a single thing, in contrast to many things. One Greek-English lexicon defines it as the whole “in contrast to the parts, of which the whole is made up.”[3] Jesus Christ is praying that we would be one in the same sense that a husband and wife are one (Matt. 19:5), or that a physical body, consisting of many parts, functions as a single unit (Rom 12:5). The single term that best suits this expression is the word unity. Jesus prays “that they all may be unified,” of one heart and mind, functioning with a single purpose, united together in a common fellowship.

He goes on to explain that this unity is like that which He has with His Father (v. 21), that it can be maintained only as believers are in fellowship with God (vv. 21, 22), and that it is His desire for it to be perfected (v. 23), or developed to the point of maturity.

Probably the most common misuse of this Scripture is the teaching that it refers to organizational unity, as though Jesus asked, “I pray that they may all be members of churches that are members of denominations that are members of ecumenical organizations.” But that kind of unity is essentially physical. The unity Jesus prays for is essentially spiritual. Even if all true Christians could meet in one location, that gathering would not fulfill His prayer here. They would all need to be united in purpose, in love, in hope, and in function in order for this prayer to have been answered.

Genuine Christians may be tempted to join these ecumenical organizations for the sake of unity. But when a believer does that, he is lending the credibility and godliness of his own testimony to an organization that is otherwise ungodly and not credible. He is unwittingly helping to perpetuate a lie. Believers should not help the ungodly and love those who hate the Lord (2 Chron. 19:2), and participating in an ecumenical organization does exactly that. It is ironic that the New Evangelicals sought unity with ecumenism in order to gain credibility for themselves. Instead, it was ecumenism that gained credibility, not the New Evangelicals.

Consider the following illustration: Ontario is the geographical center of Canada. Suppose all Canadians were told to go to central Ontario. What would happen to them as they neared their destination? They would be drawing closer to each other. So Christ prays that the Father would draw all Christians to Himself, and as we get closer to Him, what happens? We become more and more unified with each other.

Has the Father answered this prayer of Christ’s? He certainly answered the first (John 17:1–5), and we agree that He did indeed keep the apostles (vv. 6–19). But has He unified the Church (vv. 20–26)? On the surface, appearances would cause us to conclude that this prayer has not been answered over the last two millennia of church history. But two things must be kept in mind. First, Jesus did not pray this prayer on behalf of professing Christians. Rather, He asked for unity among those who believed on Him through the apostolic word. Once all non-genuine Christians are removed from the picture, most of the disunity evaporates. Remember 1 Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” However, there has been disunity among genuine been complacent. In answer to the prayer of His Son, He is ever working to repair every breach.

Why Does Christ Pray for This?

Here the heart of Christ is laid completely bare. Verse 21 says, “that the world may believe that thou hast sent me,” and verse 23 adds, “that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” The unity is not an end in itself. It is the means to bringing lost people to saving faith. It is one of the church’s greatest tools in evangelism.

Here are some concluding lessons:

1. The reader cannot answer for nor repair the broad lack of unity among believers in our day. But he can take to heart the lessons in this passage, and he can adjust his personal behavior so that as much as possible he is keeping the spirit of Christ’s prayer. Remember, this is Jesus asking His Father to unify Christians. Can you say “amen” to this prayer? Any believer who does not desire unity with other believers has a serious problem.

2. This unity does not preclude individual and personal convictions and interpretations. Paul said that each Christian should be “convinced in his own mind.” However, believers who differ in their convictions can still experience prevailing unity. We can disagree (over non-fundamental issues) charitably. As we grow closer to God, we will not necessarily agree more; rather, we will disagree more charitably.

3. The Christian gains nothing—and loses much—by compromising doctrine for the sake of some kind of unity. The ecumenical movement has not impressed the world, nor has it brought unbelievers to the faith. It has simply united unbelievers. As a movement, it has failed to accomplish any Biblical good. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The world is persuaded that God had nothing to do with that great, crushing, tyrannous, superstitious, ignorant thing which called itself Christianity; and thinking men became infidels, and it was the hardest possible thing to find an intelligent believer north, south, east, or west.”[4]

4. The Christian can become so suspicious for error that he utterly fails to represent the true spirit of Christ’s prayer here. The single thing He prayed for us is that believers would be united. Do you want what He wanted? The phrase “That they all may be one” cannot be deleted because of its misuse. There is a proper sense for it, and the Christian must embrace that application.

5. Brethren, are you doing your part for the evangelization of the lost by being united together? Psalm 133:1 says, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Genuine, Biblical unity is both good for the lost and pleasant for the brethren.


At the time of original publication, Bud Talbert was pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Canada. He is now president of Foundation Baptist College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn, Knowing the Times, Banner of Truth, 1990, p. 118. []
  2. Sidwell, Mark, The Dividing Line, Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998, p. 177. []
  3. Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 230. []
  4. Spurgeon’s Sermons, II, p. 199. []


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