John 17 and Denominationalism (Part 3)

I’ll never forget being asked not to come for lunch. I was, briefly, part of a pastor’s luncheon which had enjoyed a recent resurgence in young guys getting together to pray and chat about ministry, theology, and life. My first time was interesting. A brief discussion about a particular theologian launched us into a lengthy debate about theology and heresy. Scriptures were quoted, voices were raised, etc. It was an uncomfortable experience for me, the new guy. I wasn’t sure if I, personally, would be going back. This all seemed like too much trouble. But then I was informed that, regardless of my own desires on the matter, I wasn’t welcome back to next week’s meeting. The reason? Not because of my participation in the “discussion,” not because my theology on some points was different from the other members of the group…no it wasn’t anything that important. Rather I was asked not to return because I would not wear a suit to the meetings. I was stunned and could not even fathom what either pastoring or eating lunch had to do with wearing a suit. This is just one example that I am sure many of us could give of how churches let not just secondary things, but stupid things divide us. If anything, however, John 17 is a clear call from our Lord to commit to cross-denominational affiliation and cooperation.

Throughout this series of posts so far we have been looking at what it means to be united within a single church of varying theological perspectives. But there is a second level of unity, one that comes after the divisions have already taken place. It is the kind of division that we can more easily, perhaps, seek in our culture, and yet it is the kind of division that seems, still, almost unheard of. In my own community we have countless churches but each exists in isolation from the rest of the Christian community. How did we, and the rest of the nation, get to this place? It’s not easy (possible?) to outline an exact process, but there are some key elements that I believe have played a part in breeding this separation.

First, the downplaying of unity over doctrinal fidelity. Now I am not against orthodoxy. I am 100% for it, and I believe that there are clear lines for how we determine orthodoxy and heresy on a whole host of issues. The problem is that each church has defined these lines a bit differently and we have emphasized all sorts of secondary matters to the point of making them primary doctrines for acceptance into the Christian community. So if you don’t believe in a premillennial rapture you’re not a Christian. If you don’t believe in a literal seven-day creation, you’re not a Christian. If you don’t believe in the Kings James Version only, then you’re not a Christian. We must come back to John 17, however, and see that our unity is built around the gospel and not primarily around all these secondary matters. The goal is that our unity would help people to believe the gospel (vv. 22-23), therefore this must be our primary uniting point.

Second, sadly I must confess that it appears in many places a desire for financial protection has guarded our cooperation. It’s not simply that we don’t want to share congregations because that means we might lose people, or we might let some newbies go to another church (thereby losing their financial giving), but there is also the reality that many conventions, denominations, and affiliations require conformity in order to gain benefits. Just last year some in the Southern Baptist Convention tried to pass, and are still trying to pass,  a motion that forbids their church planters from cooperating with an independent church planting network called Acts 29. In some cases, not all, churches and pastors have left worry and greed dictate their cooperation instead of Scripture.

Lastly, I think ignorance has left many a pastor strategically handicapped. Many pastors are so busy working in their own ministries, trying to keep things going and discover new ways to build up their church that they haven’t even given a thought to what it means to cooperate with others. If you asked most pastors I imagine that they would want to celebrate cross-denomination work, but the sad truth is most won’t participate because they don’t know how to. Too many pastors are building their own kingdoms and haven’t any clue what it means to look beyond their pastoral legacy and consider God’s Kingdom expansion.

Imagine how much our churches could accomplish for our cities if we would work together? Imagine the kind of witness it would have if we could truly be “one” as the Father and Son are one (v. 21). This means to be of the same mind, to be pursuing the same goal. Are you willing to work together, churches, pastors, Christians, in order that others might believe that Jesus has been sent by God? John 17 commands us to work cross-denominationally for the sake of the gospel, will you?


  1. Steve Vice says:

    Dear Dave,
    I was studying denominationalism when I came across this article, John 17 and Denominationalism. I was caught off guard by your comments that John 17 commanded cross-denominational cooperation. This reflects the cultural influence of our time, having grown up in a world of denominationalism, and has clouded our understanding of Jesus’ words on this subject. Which would be a more proper understanding of John 17:20-23? That Jesus was demanding cross-denominational cooperation, or that He was praying that all believers would be one, with no divisions, like He and His Father are one? Does not Paul reveal Jesus’ intention in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13? Wouldn’t it be a wiser course of action to reject the cultural influences of our day and return to the biblical view of one body with no schisms (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:1-7). Have you ever taught a lesson on the importance of the above mentioned verses in the world today as it pertains to the world believing that God sent Jesus into the world? Who is pleased by denominationalism, God or Satan? Why are men so reluctant to cast away the creeds and names that divide us and follow only the Bible which would unite us? Does God’s inspired word call us to be divided, or to be one (Colossians 3:15)?

    • Steve,

      Thanks for your comment, though I confess it comes off as quite antagonistic for someone who seems to be about unity. Actually that is exactly what I am for too (unity, not antagonism). This post is part of a three part series (hence the part 3). In the previous parts I stress the importance of one body. The reality, however, is that we most likely will not see an end to denominationalism…it has become the sad norm for our culture. So in order to move in the direction of Biblical unity, like that depicted in John 17, we ought to consider cross-denominational work. It’s not that this is the end goal, it’s simply the least we can do…a start in the right direciton if you will.

      Thanks again for the conversation.

      • Dave,

        Thank you for your reply. I agree that it may seem antagonistic viewing such a radical notion from the culture of our day. But Paul might have seemed antagonistic when he asked “Is Christ divided?” It may seem antagonistic to say that the Bible calls us into one body (Colossians 3:15). I can understand how may be hard on a person’s ears today to hear the words “…that there be no divisions among you…” I wonder if the Corinthian brethren thought those words were a bit harsh? I realize that these words are different. But my goal is to cause us to break out of the cultural box of thinking and realize that we can go back to being just Christian. We can lay aside the creeds and names that divide us. It does not take a slow migration to get there. It takes just one person who is willing to lay aside the cultural norms and determine within himself that he will let God’s word guide his steps even in this doctrine, and then do it. It is that simple. After all, isn’t that exactly what Paul wanted the Corinthian brethren to do?

        But back to your teaching about John 17. It is a perversion of verses 20-23 to say that it demands cross denominationalism cooporation. These verses call for unity, not agreement to disagree. Don’t twist the word to your own bias.

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