Unity and Purity in Johannine Ecclesiology: Searching for Johannine Insights for Churches in Crisis

I. Introduction
Many mainline churches are currently on the brink of a fracture over the issue of the place of homosexuals in the life of the church, among other issues. My own denomination, the PC(USA), commissioned a “Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church” whose very name highlights the nature of its inquiry: “How do we mediate between the mandates of scripture that the Church model both unified peace and behavioral and doctrinal purity?”
This is not a new question, but one as old as the Christian church itself. This document is an attempt to seek the wisdom of the experiences and texts of the Johannine community in answer to this question.

II. Why Ask John?
As we seek Johannine wisdom on this subject, one might wonder, “Why ask John?” In answer to this, let us consider the story of John and his community.
John of Zebedee, the traditional, though oft contested, author of Johannine literature speaks only once in the Synoptic gospels. This interaction is documented in Mark 9:38-40
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Matthew recalls this encounter differently, reversing Jesus’ teaching: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”[1] Here John is not specified as the provocateur of this teaching, but for our purposes it will be helpful to imagine John as someone struggling to reconcile these apparently contradictory teachings. John seems to be one caught in between striving for unity with all who are not enemies, and striving for purity, to the exclusion of any who are not ‘for us’.
This dilemma shines through in the Gospel of John, which is well known for its repeated ‘new commandment’ to “love one another.” Similarly, the theme of unity is stressed in Jesus’ prayers for his future and present disciples. In the midst of such peace-loving teaching, the Johannine literature, especially in the Epistles, indicates an apparent willingness to lose fellowship over issues of doctrinal and behavioral purity.
The Johannine community walked these paths which face the contemporary church before, negotiating the balance of unity and purity.[2] It is for this reason that we will explore Johannine ecclesiology for relevant wisdom for those who are trying to lead the church.

III. Johannine Ecclesiology
Some general remarks regarding the ecclesiological landscape of Johannine theology will set the context for our deeper interest in the themes of unity and purity.
The first characteristic of Johannine ecclesiology that must be mentioned is that it comes to us only implicitly; Johannine literature never deals with ecclesiology explicitly. Thus, for D. Moody Smith “one can at most infer a doctrine of church” (italics his).[3] This absence of explicit dealing with ecclesiology, though, is itself significant ecclesiological material. In fact, it is the absence of talk about church structure and sacraments that leads Smith to conclude that “Quite possibly John’s concept of the church is that of a community with no hierarchy, formal organization, or sacraments and inspired by the Spirit.”[4]
This quotation leads us nicely into the second characteristic of Johannine ecclesiology: equality. This is noted by many as the absence of hierarchical language. Equality of standing is founded on the understanding of the Paraclete as the leader of the church, and also as the inheritance of every believer. Raymond Brown captures this: “in the Johannine tradition the position of the Paraclete as the authoritative teacher and the gift of the Paraclete to every believer would have relativized the teaching office of any church official.”[5] Johannine ecclesiology is characterized by the assertion that the Spirit is the leader of the church and that all members have access to this one who, according to Jesus will serve two functions: reminding of Jesus’ teaching and guiding into all truth, which Jesus says they could not then bear to hear.[6] Such a dependence on the inspiration of the Spirit, without hierarchical safeguards no doubt contributed to the eventual schism.
The third characteristic of Johannine ecclesiology of note is that the Johannine community defined itself over against other groups. Brown develops this theme extensively, identifying six non-Johannine groups from the Gospel, three of which are identified as Christian Groups.[7] This characteristic is what leads many, Robert Gundry included, to label John a sectarian. It is clear through the self-definition of the Johannine community over against other groups that orthodoxy is of critical importance to them. The real threat of persecution, as mentioned in John 16:2, no doubt fueled such a trait.[8]
One expression of this sectarian characteristic is found in the understanding of those who come to Jesus. John’s Gospel departs radically from the Synoptics in the assertion that those who come to Jesus are not the sinful, but the righteous whose righteousness is exposed by the light of Christ’s presence.[9] Jesus’ evaluation of Nathanael is “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit![10] This theme is most powerfully stated in John 3:21: “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” This teaching that those of whom Jesus approves are already, in a deep way, righteous, is in step with an ecclesiology that views orthodoxy, and perhaps more importantly, orthopraxis as crucial to membership.
A secondary and linked expression of this sectarian characteristic is the notion of election. Those who come to Jesus have been given from the Father to the Son as a gift.[11] Jesus himself declares “You did not choose me but I chose you.”[12] The people of God, true disciples, the church are the already-righteous chosen. These beliefs are characteristic of Johannine ecclesiology.
A fourth characteristic of Johannine ecclesiology is that the church is embodied in the narrative of John’s Gospel in several characters. Above all, the Beloved Disciple stands in for the church, or any Johannine believer. Smith concluded his short section on ecclesiology with these words: “[The Beloved Disciple] is the paradigmatic disciple, a model not so much for the disciples contemporary with Jesus as for future disciples...Perhaps for this reason he remains unnamed, for any and all disciples of Jesus may become beloved disciples. Such disciples, whom Jesus loves, are the church.”[13] Aside from the embodiment of the church in the person of the Beloved Disciple, the man born blind is also serves as a model for all who would not shrink back from testifying of Jesus for fear of being excommunicated from the synagogue.[14]
In sum, ecclesiology is addressed in Johannine literature only implicitly, at times through embodiment in the figure of the Beloved Disciple and others. It is somewhat sectarian, with a high view of the righteousness of believers and election. Finally, it is characterized by a high emphasis on equality in which the shared inheritance of the Spirit contradicts any need for formal church hierarchy.

IV. Unity and Purity in the Johannine Texts
To posit a unified Johannine perspective on the question of ecclesiology, no less unity and purity, is not a given. The Gospel and Epistles, some would say, have significant differences on the matter. And yet, it would be grossly oversimplifying, if not misconstruing, the truth to say that the Gospel stresses unity and the Epistles, purity. These themes run through each, though not without each having distinctive emphasis. In the following sections we will examine the presence of each theme in each genre.

A. Unity in the Johannine Gospel
Two phrases capture the heart of the unity theme in John’s Gospel, “love one another” and “that they may all be one.” The first phrase is Jesus’ new commandment of love for one another first appears in John 13:34 and is repeated later in the Farewell Discourse twice.[15] This love is to mirror Christ’s love for the disciples. The implication is that it is to be sacrificial love; love which goes to great lengths. This is the love which Jesus commands. Certainly, this love for one another has the implication of ongoing efforts toward peace and unity. The new commandment as a command to unity is further developed in the Epistles, as we will see.
In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, he petitions the Father for protection, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”[16] Shortly thereafter, the theme is repeated as Jesus prays for those who would believe in him through the word of the disciples, beginning in 17:20, “that they may be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...” In verse 22 Jesus says that he has given them the glory he received, so that they may be one, “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one.” The refrain can not be missed; Jesus looks to the future of his present and future disciples and sees the need to petition for their unity.
In searching the Scriptures for a compelling text to use in urging the PC(USA) not to split over recent debates, the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church looked to John’s Gospel, namely to Christ’s High Priestly Prayer. A compilation of quotations will serve to demonstrate the way in which “that they may all be one” is used as a motto for efforts to avoid a denominational split:
On the night before he died, in the longest prayer recorded in the Gospels, Jesus prayed for us, the church of the future, lifting our names and our troubled church before God in prayer. And chief among his petitions in our behalf was has prayer that we “may all be one....so that the world may believe that you have sent me...By this everyone will know that you are my disciples [he said], if you have love for one another”
Jesus does not, it should be noted, pray that we may all be the same, or that we all agree.
Nevertheless, even as we differ and even as we contend with one another, Jesus prays that we may all be one, that we might love one another despite many differences that threaten to divide us.[17]
This use of the unity theme of John 17 is common, but raises an important question: When Jesus prays for those who will believe through the word of the disciples, to whom is he referring? To all Christians? To the Johannine Community? Brown’s view is that “when Jesus prays for those who believe in him through the word of his disciples, “That they may all be one” (17:20-21), he is praying for the oneness of the Apostolic and the Johannine Christians. Here the Johannine attitude is just the opposite of the outlook of a sect.”[18] It is well known that there seems in John to be some rivalry or comparison between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Each is understood to represent a group of Christians, the Apostolic and Johannine, respectively. Smith notes: “Probably the intention is to honor Peter and the Christian tradition he represents, while simultaneously underscoring the value and truth of the Johannine witness and its Gospel.”[19] So it would seem that the Gospel places a high value on unification of two churches, therefore anathematizing animosity between them.
We will return to each of these phrases from a different angle as we consider the theme of the importance of purity, but first we will consider the place of unity in the Johannine Epistles.

B. Unity in the Johannine Epistles
If Jesus’ refrain “love one another” was repetitive in the Gospel, it becomes even more so in 1 John, which in its short five chapters contains the phrase six times, to the Gospel’s three. Whereas the Gospel had strayed away from ethical instructions, this Epistle is bold in its commands, most notably the command to love the brothers and sisters. In 3:12 this love teaching is expounded upon by comparison to hatred:
...we should love one another. We should not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother...we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
It could hardly be clearer: love for fellow Christians is the measure of salvation.
In 3 John, the elder charges Diotrephes with refusing to welcome “the friends” and even preventing those who try to host them. In this brief letter, the elder urges Gaius not to imitate this evil but to do what is good, to host fellow Christians. [20]
Thus far we have only read the Johannine texts from the perspective of those who would employ them to maintain the unity of the church in our time. But such considerations have resulted in the conclusion that “John’s ecclesiology is based squarely on the concept of unity among believers and with Christ.”[21] As we proceed we will review these from the perspective of those who would find in Johannine literature, justification for a church split over the issue of doctrinal and behavioral purity.

C. Purity in the Johannine Gospel
The most striking argument for purity in John’s Gospel is its semi-sectarian ecclesiology. We can detect this strain in both of the phrases that we previously suggested as proof-texts for the unity theme, “love one another” and “that they may be one.” We must revisit both from a more sectarian perspective. The first we will save for the section on the Epistles, the latter we will address immediately.
Let us revisit Brown’s position on Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17. Brown understands Jesus’ prayer for unity to be directed specifically to unity between the Petrine and Johannine communities. What is important here, as we consider the stress of purity, is that if Brown is right, Jesus is not praying for the unity to extent to the “Crypto-Christians” or the “Jewish Christian Churches of Inadequate Faith.” That is, Jesus is not praying for the unity of the Johannine Christians with all other Christian groups,[22] but only with the Petrine community, who, we may assume have a pure, albeit distinct, brand of faith and practice. The conclusion might be made, then, that the very nature of the sectarian Johannine community highlights the importance of purity of doctrine and practice.

D. Purity in the Johannine Epistles
“Love one another” at first hearing sounds like a call for unity, but when contrasted to Synoptic renditions of the second greatest commandment, it seems rightly to be rather introverted. The Synoptic Jesus taught the importance of loving neighbors, and via a question went on to expand the definition of “neighbor” beyond expectations.[23] By contrast, the refrain found in Johannine literature, limits obligation to love to those within the community. Johannine love, in Gospel and Epistles alike, is a family affair. In fact, love outside of the community is not only not encouraged, but rather it is warned against. The author of 1 John explicitly enjoins not loving the world, or the things in the world.[24] The separation of the two makes clear that not only worldly possessions but worldly people themselves are not to be loved. Brown summarizes this position as “internal love and external opposition.”[25]
The elders accusation against Diotrephes for his failure of hospitality in 3 John, does not prohibit the author of 2 John from employing similar tactics: “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deed of such a person.”[26] It would seem that the importance of hospitality has given way to the importance of maintaining orthodox belief and practice.

V. Negotiating Unity and Purity
It is clear from our survey that unity and mutual love of fellow believers is important in Johannine thought, but equally clear that there are limits upon whom to love just as there are limits to whom Jesus prayed for the unity of.[27] In the final section of this paper we will consider what these limits are and, in conclusion, I will offer some preliminary thoughts regarding what insight this examination might yield for mainline churches who are also considering where to draw the line.
The author of 1 John is the most explicit about the failures of those with whom his community has broken fellowship. Assuming that the major evils listed are to be attributed to the secessionists, their chief sins are: an inadequate Christology,[28] unrepentant immorality and hatred toward those within the community. Because these are the sins which seem to legitimize no longer including other Christians within the command to love one another, a closer examination is due them.
The Christological failure of the author’s opponents are summarized as their denial that Jesus is the Christ and that he has come in the flesh.[29] It has often been suggested that the secessionists were early Docetic or Gnostic derivations of Johannine Christianity. While these suggestions are interesting, further attention is not necessary to our inquiry. What is relevant is the centrality placed upon Christology; a sufficient Christology must include recognition of the physical existence of Jesus and of his fulfillment of the salvific hopes of Israel.
The failure of practice is two-fold; entailing a failure to maintain a moral purity, as well as the principle failure to love the friends.[30] Michaels sees a link between the failure of Christology and the failure of morality in that they seem to have been unable to recognize the salvific importance of Jesus’ life and death. Instead they rather considered the ‘coming into the world’ of the Word to have been the salvifically important act. As a result of this depreciation of the importance of Jesus’ life and death, the moral behavior of believers was considered somehow less relevant to salvation. The author of 1 John rebuts this by asserting that all that have the hope of transformation into Christlikeness when he appears presently work toward purity.[31] He challenges the notion that any are without sin,[32] but rebukes this passivity, maintaining the importance of striving after righteousness.
The second failure of practice the author accuses the secessionists of is hatred of the friends. This is the sin of Cain,[33] and a sure sign that eternal life does not dwell within those who commit it. The secessionists are not to be counted among the faithful, and the author seems to feel no compulsion for unity with them, because they have harbored hatred.
It is clear that the author finds his opponents guilty of great sin, but sin is not in itself reason for excommunication, for all believers sin.[34] So how then does the author of justify excommunication of those who were once part of his community? I believe the key is found 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.
D.A. Carson understands Jesus’ prayer to refer “to a unity of all true believers.”[35] It is that word “true” that the elder capitalizes on. If his opponents would have really been a part of the community, they would not have left, but since they left, he can now regard them as having failed to love the community and therefore not of the community, walking in darkness, of the world, children of the devil. [36] The secessionists ultimately are not identified only as sinful brothers, but as outsiders and enemies to the community. Somewhat surprisingly this verse suggests that they are known as such not by their doctrine or practice alone, but penultimately by their exodus from the community. Christ commanded that they abide, but instead they have gone out from the community, and therefore from Christ himself. This is what is suggested in 2 John 9; the secessionist have progressed so far that they no longer are abiding in Christ’s teaching or community.
Michaels distinguishes two varieties of sin in 1 John, that sin which leads to death, and that which does not. He asserts that the deathful sins are lying (Christological heresy) and murder (hatred toward a brother or sister). In fact, the author is uniting these sins as each “paradigms for the rejection of Christ.”[37] The author restates Jesus commandment, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”[38] The intention is to wrap the sins of the secessionists into a unit: they have rejected Christ in two ways, by denying him and breaking his commandment of unified love.
Back to our question: “On what grounds does the author disunite with his opponents?” Most practically speaking, he expels them only after they have deserted the community, the final expression of their desertion of teaching of Christ.

VI. Conclusion: WWJD—What Would John Do?
Many have said that the chief error of the secessionists was their inadequate Christology. I do not disagree, but wish to lay emphasis on the way in which this inadequacy is finally exposed undeniably in the mind of the author: they went out from us.”
As debates rage about heavy matters of Christology, ordination, authority and homosexuality, many, out of zeal for faithfulness to Scripture’s teaching, have threatened to break off from their denominations if they fail to take a similar stance. John, I believe, has several pieces of wise teaching to offer in this crisis.
The first teaching is that purity of doctrine, especially regarding Christology, and practice are of the utmost importance. The second is that unity and peace among Christians is central to Jesus’ vision for the church and the church’s witness to the world. The third piece of wisdom may perhaps help us to negotiate between the first two. That is, breaking fellowship with Christians is itself a rejection of Christ and his teaching. For the author of 1 John, this was the linchpin that confirmed that his opponents belonged not to Christ, but to the world.
These insights have two very practical applications for churches in turmoil. Do not give up on unity and leave, is the first. Those who are indeed in Christ must be committed to love for one another as long as they share fellowship, which suggests they can not be the ones to initiate a schism. The second application ought to guard against the danger of accommodation: Do not cease efforts to share what knowledge of Christ you have with those with whom you share fellowship. The importance of doctrinal and behavioral purity demand that the community not stifle any voices which call for purity. We must argue and attempt to persuade, all in a spirit of love, for we speak to those with whom we share fellowship with Christ.
What would John Do? I suspect that John would boldly declare the truth, not catering to inadequate doctrine or practice, but he would do so as though he were speaking to a brother or a sister. He would not initiate a split, but neither would he passively accept error. The PC(USA) Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity is right: “one of the most compelling reasons to continue to hold on to one another is to persuade one another of the truth as God has given us to know it.”[39] The church can not give up on unity, and it can not give up on purity. Those who hope in Christ purify themselves, just as Christ himself is pure, and by this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.[40] Amen, Amen.

Related Posts
The Goal of Ecumenism: How and Why to Be One
That the World May Know: Newbigin's Eschatological Ecclesiology of Mission and Unity
The Mysterious Union: Christ-Church and/or Husband-Wife

Works Consulted
Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
Carson, D.A. The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980.
Ferreira, Johan. Johannine Ecclesiology. United Kingdom: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
Gundry, Robert H. Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism Especially Its Elites, in North America. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.
Smith, D. Moody. The Theology of the Gospel of John. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. A Season of Discernment: The Final Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church to the 217th General Assembly (2006) with Study Guide. Chicago: Presbyterian Distribution Service, 2005. Available on the Internet: www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity

[1] Matthew 12:30
[2] Throughout this document I will use “purity” in order to mean both orthodoxy--right belief, and orthopraxis--right behavior.
[3] Smith, 136.
[4] Smith, 136.
[5] Brown, 141.
[6] John 14:26, 16:12-13
[7] Brown, 62-87.
[8] Suggested in a lecture by Dr. R. Michaels, 11/17/2005
[9] Brown, 151.
[10] John 1:47
[11] John 17:6
[12] John 15:16
[13] Smith, 155.
[14] Brown, 72.
[15] John 15: 12; John 15:17
[16] John 17: 11
[17] Peace Unity Purity, 44-45.
[18] Brown, 90.
[19] Smith, 46.
[20] 3 John 11
[21] Smith, 152.
[22] Brown lists three non-Johannine groups of Christians: Crypto-Christians, Jewish Christian Churches of Inadequate Faith and the Christians of Apostolic Churches
[23] Luke 10: 25-37
[24] 1 John 2:15
[25] Brown, 61.
[26] 2 John 10-11
[27] John 17:9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”
[28] Smith, 58.
[29] Denial that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22) and denial that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2).
[30] Jesus invites his disciples into friendship in John 15:15 and the elder uses this term in 3 John 10.
[31] 1 John 3:3
[32] 1 John 1:8
[33] 1 John 3:12
[34] 1 John 1:8
[35] Carson, 201.
[36] “of the world” - 1 John 4:51; “children of the Devil” - John 3:8-10
[37] Dr. R. Michael’s in lecture 10/27/2005
[38] 1 John 3:23
[39] Peace, Unity, Purity, 45.
[40] Purity - 1 John 3:3; Love - John 13:35

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