Unbelief and a Divided Christendom
Pluralism (the idea that all belief systems and philosophies are of equal validity) has unquestionably encroached upon the national psyche. One manifestation of this infiltration is the fact that the average American has been bullied into unconditional acceptance of any and almost every belief, philosophy, and practice imaginable. Within Christendom itself, this blind, even irrational, celebration of toleration has translated itself into widespread relegation of “doctrine” to a secondary, if not completely irrelevant, status.
The thought is that if Christians would just accept each other, fellowship each other, spend more time getting to know each other, cease condemning one another over doctrinal disagreements or calling attention to the doctrinal diversity that exists, they would realize that what they have in common in their acceptance of Christ far outweighs and overshadows any doctrinal differences that might exist between them, and the world would be more receptive to the Christian religion. It is felt that disunity promotes unbelief, and that if Christendom were unified (defined as accepting one another despite doctrinal disagreement), then faith would result—i.e., the unbelieving world would be more likely to give Christianity a second look and believe in Jesus. This thinking is thought to be in harmony with the prayer for unity Jesus prayed near the end of His life on Earth (John 17). It is argued that unity was more important to Jesus than anything else. Thus, being united—achieving togetherness—takes precedence over doctrine. “Unity in diversity” refers to the view that diversity in doctrine must not be allowed to prevent unity and fellowship with all “believers.” The word “believers” is commonly defined as those who verbally profess acceptance of the lordship of Christ.
The interpretation being given to this passage in effect assigns to it a place of preeminence above all other passages, setting it in contradiction to the rest of the Bible. Jesus could not have been enjoining unity at all costs, since He elsewhere emphasized that such unity never would occur (Matthew 10:34-36; Luke 12:49-53; Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus Himself was unable to quell division and bring about the unity that some say is possible (John 7:12,43; 9:16; 10:19; 12:42; et al.). Any interpretation of a passage that contradicts many other plain passages is a false interpretation, and thus a distortion of the Scriptures (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; 2 Peter 3:16). The Bible teaches that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Unity is not the ultimate source or stimulus of faith. God’s Word is. Disunity and division will always exist—since most people simply refuse to bring their lives into conformity with God’s Word.
As a matter of fact, John 17 contains at least three contextual indicators that eliminate the slant now being placed upon it. In the first place, Jesus placed strong emphasis on the essentiality of obedience as a prerequisite to unity. Six times in His prayer, He stressed that He had imparted God’s words or truth to them. He noted that the disciples “have kept Your word” (vs. 6); “For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them” (vs. 8); “I have given them Your word” (vs. 14); “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (vs. 17); “that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (vs. 19). In these phrases, Jesus made clear that unity is nestled in the hollow of compliance. Before Jesus talked about unity, He talked about obedience. He repeatedly referred to the importance of God’s Word—God’s truth—that must be “received” (i.e., obeyed) if sanctification is to be achieved. Contextually, therefore, the unity and oneness that Jesus enjoined in verses 20-21 is unity that comes when people conform themselves to God’s doctrine.
Second, in the very verses where Jesus prayed for the oneness of believers, He identified how to achieve that oneness. Many within Christendom insist that oneness is secured by refraining from basing unity on doctrine. They say that our common affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus transcends our doctrinal diversity. Therefore, differing doctrinal viewpoints must not be permitted to disrupt fellowship or acceptance of anyone who affirms Jesus as Lord. In stark contrast, Jesus revealed that oneness is accomplished the same way belief is created: “through their word” (vs. 20).
When people hear the Word of God (which includes much more than just the lordship of Christ), they will either believe or disbelieve. If they truly believe, they will obey the Gospel plan of salvation and bring their lives into harmony with biblical teaching (Romans 10:14-17; Mark 16:16; Matthew 24:13; James 1:12; 2:18; Hebrews 11:6; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Galatians 5:6). Those who mutually embrace the doctrinal tenets of the Christian religion in faith will automatically be one, unified in Christ, and in full fellowship with each other and with God and Christ (1 John 1:3,6-7).
Third, Jesus’ prayer was spoken in behalf of the church—not the world or counterfeit Christianity (vss. 9,16). The unity of which Jesus spoke was unity among New Testament Christians—those who obey the Gospel through faith, repentance, confession of the deity of Christ, and water baptism (John 3:5; Mark 16:16; Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 10:9-10). But much of Christendom has strayed from New Testament moorings into denominationalism, and thus does not teach the New Testament plan of salvation. Those who enter into a denomination, and thereby have complied with that denomination’s peculiar plan of salvation, have not become Christians in the New Testament sense. They have assigned an unbiblical meaning to the term “believer” (e.g., James 2:19-26). They have not come to believe in Christ through the Word of His bona fide spokesmen (John 17:20). Rather, they have embraced the words of mere men. They have been misled into entering counterfeit churches and turning to “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9).
Indeed, disunity confuses and discourages honest searchers of truth. But disunity in itself is not the source of unbelief. If such were the case, God and Christ would be guilty of generating unbelief, since their actions often brought division (cf. John 7:12,43; 10:19). Scriptural unity may be achieved only by conformity to biblical doctrine. All other “unity” is merely union, togetherness, and agreeing to disagree—a far cry from the unity for which Jesus prayed. The disunity that exists within Christendom is the result of people “going ahead and not abiding in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9), and “going beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). When people introduce personal creeds, human interpretations, and religious additions to God’s doctrine, disunity inevitably results. Jesus did not come to place His stamp of approval on such doctrinal diversity. Those who think so are in hopeless conflict with Jesus Himself, Who certainly did not “go along, to get along.” In fact, He declared: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division” (Luke 12:51, emp. added).