My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-1)
This is one of the most poignant of Jesus’ prayers, both for the fact that it espouses Christian unity in such vivid terms, equating it with the consubstantiality of Trinity, and for the fact that it failed. Think about it. Jesus, God Incarnate, who could walk on water, raise the dead, and convince the corrupt and the wicked to repent immediately, prayed to Almighty God, his Father, for this. Yet it did not happen. Within the decades, heterodoxy and schism were rife in the Christian Church, and much of the rest of the New Testament books are devoted to attempts, by Paul in particular, to eradicate these.
Thinking about heterodoxy, a subject dear to my heart, I thought that it might be worthwhile to look at what Jesus had to say about it. The result was enlightening. In all of the Gospels, Jesus only says one thing which is applicable to Christian heterodoxy, while discussing the Ten Commandments:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).
Even in this, he censures the activity rather than villifying it. While I say that Mt 5:19 is the only thing that he says against possible Christian heterodoxy, he does condemn aspects of the teaching of the Church of his own time, the Jewish lawgivers. Thus he says of those who use their own traditions to countermand Scripture,you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men’
Thus, we see that heterodoxy was less of a problem to Jesus than was legalism. There is also the extended, vehement rant in Matthew 23 against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, whom he condemns for adhering to the letter of the Scripture rather than the Spirit of it. Here is one tiny slice:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (vv. 23-4).
Along with his abhorrence of this legalism, he condemns the idea of the ‘great teacher’, saying,
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mt 23:8-12).
He does validate his own teaching, frequently advising that following it is both wise and efficacious, e.g., in John 14:23, where he says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him,” and John 7:17, where he says, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Nonetheless, he never disagreed with John the Baptist, although John did not have the full revelation of the message that Jesus did (Luke 7:18-23).
If he valued the Truth of his own words, why was he not afraid of distortion of them? Why did he not want to protect the purity of the message? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in this:
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9: 37-41).
Jesus, like his Father, was more concerned with the purity of action than with the purity of doctrine. God has never been a legalist.