The Unity of the Church
John 17:20-21
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;…

I. WHAT IT IS NOT. Our Lord did not mean —

1. A system of perfect equality with no official distinctions — anything like universal identity of endowment and function. This cannot be drawn from "As Thou, Father," &c., inasmuch as God the Father and God the Son in the economy of redemption sustain distinct offices. Absolute equality is absurd and impossible and inconsistent with Romans 12.; 1 Corinthians 12., and Ephesians 4., which show that the unity of the Church may consist with the greatest diversity of gifts and offices.

2. The opposite of this — a vast and visible society, its base diffused throughout all nations, its officers innumerable, distinguished by all gradations of authority, and terminating in an infallible head. That our Lord did not mean a unity like this we gather from the fact that His apostles never attempted to realize it. Wherever they went they formed separate churches, not parts of one connected community. They did not join the Church of one country with that of another; they did not make their churches churches of nations and provinces, but of villages and towns. There might be more than one in each place. Each Church — however in faith and feeling connected with others — was a distinct society.

3. Uniformity in constitution and ceremonies. This is obvious from the facts —

(1) That so little is enjoined on these subjects. Here is the distinction between Moses and Christ. With the first, everything is minutely particularized and strictly commanded; with the second, everything is general, and to be learned from facts rather than precepts: for the one dispensation was intended to separate a nation from the rest of the world; the other was meant to unite all nations in a common faith and family, and therefore avoided multiplied ordinances.

(2) That although in every apostolic Church there was a recognition of great common principles, yet there were local peculiarities. There were diffused the two great bodies of the circumcision and the uncircumcision, and a Church consisting exclusively of converted Jews and another of Gentiles would be sure to differ in particulars. St. James advised Paul in Jerusalem to condescend to the ceremonial predilections of the brethren there; but he advised very differently in the case of the Gentile Church at Antioch.

4. Perfect coincidence of opinion. This is evident from what has been said, as a Church may differ from others without forfeiting its character, so a Christian. To aver the reverse would contradict the constitution of nature and the arrangements of providence. In Romans 14. Paul distinctly refers to two classes there who held opposite opinions, but instead of interposing his own opinion, he approves the conscientiousness with which the two parties were actuated, and only denounces their want of charity. Philippians 3., too, is demonstrative of the prevalence of diversity of sentiment.


1. Its foundation must be laid in an agreement in fundamental truth. We cannot do better than take our stand where Paul stood. For the sake of usefulness and peace he could become all things unto all men. He could shave his head, circumcise Timothy, &c., and yet write against "beggarly elements." Paul, who in fellowship and affection was the yielding universalist when prejudice was in question, was firm as a rock when principle was assailed. If ever he referred to what was fundamental he did so in Galatians 1:9. Whatever that gospel was, it is obvious that no man or Church that rejects it can properly be a Christian; and the whole tenor of the Epistle shows it to be the doctrine of justification on the exclusive ground of faith in the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God. If a society denies this doctrine, whatever it may have or have not, it has abandoned the faith for another gospel. This grand fundamental involves Christ's Divinity, and the necessity of renewal and sanctification by the Spirit; but it does not involve either Calvinism or Arminianism, or Church polity, and may be held in connection with great variety of opinion on subordinate points.

2. It ought to be manifested by the recognition of each other, by Christians and Churches thus harmonizing. Every individual who "holds the Head" ought to be cheerfully recognized as a Christian by every other who does the same, and ought to share in that family affection which is peculiar to the spirit of the gospel. This feeling will produce a readiness to co-operate in all benevolent confederacies. But the text is to be realized not merely by the recognition of Christian by Christian, but of Church by Church. Every Church ought to possess the power of accepting the services of the ministers of every other. Differences of disciples ought not to be a barrier. All who expect to unite in the services of heaven, ought to endeavour to unite in the services of earth. Nothing should be a term of union but a term of salvation.

3. If this union were practised little would be wanting to the fulfilment of the prayer or the accomplishment of the result connected. Separate denominations would soon lose their hold of whatever partakes of the nature of sectarian attachments, would imbibe an enlarged and accommodating, spirit; would mutually cease to contend for trifles, and would come perhaps in the end, fused and melted by the fire of love, to take some new form, as one great consolidated community. In relation to the world, the annihilation of party distinctions, the drying up of the wells of jealousy, &c., and the taking into the garden of the Lord of every enclosure would be such a palpable demonstration of the presence and power of truth and love that the world would gaze, admire, and believe.


1. This prayer is fulfilled to a greater extent than would at first sight be supposed. The existence of separate churches, and the want of uniformity between them, do not militate against actual agreement in fundamentals, or fraternal feeling. The great saving truths are urged with equal zeal by ministers of various denominations, and members of different churches work side by side in philanthropic enterprises.

2. The prayer will never be fully accomplished but by the removal of all that interferes with the communion of churches. If Christians wait until every Church is modelled according to any supposed apostolic pattern, till some community has drawn and absorbed all others into itself, they will have to wait far longer than any of them calculate. This consummation is much more likely to follow the practice of universal communion than to precede it; but whether it ever come or not, the obligation remains the some. The one is an unquestionable duty, the other a dream.

3. We learn how to possess our souls in peace amid the alarm and agitation of the present times, It becomes us to keep our eye and heart steadily on the prayer of Christ; to engage in every religious movement which the present position of the Church may demand to promote its accomplishment. This will at once sanctify uncongenial duties, and sustain under the injustice of calumny and insult.

(T. Binney.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;

WEB: Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word,

The High Priest's Prayer
Top of Page
Top of Page