Saturday, October 28, 2006

Core Value # 2: Christian Unity

A desire to honor the desire of Jesus that his Body may be one, and that we not divide unnecessarily over 2nd and 3rd tier issues (recognizing at the same time the complexity of many 2nd tier issues).

I believe Tim Sweatman’s comment on the "Core Values" post is especially apropos at this point:

"I share these core values as well. Numbers 1 and 3 have always been central to me, but it's only been over the past year or so that I have come to recognize the importance of Number 2."

I appreciate Tim’s honesty here. I believe that, as Southern Baptists, we have traditionally emphasized both denominational unity and local church unity, but many times, at the expense of the wider-scope unity of the Body of Christ. Actually, in my opinion, to emphasize either of these first two, outside of the broader context of the unity of the Body of Christ, may even serve to hurt the cause of true unity. The unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17 was the unity of His entire Body.

Traditionally, the unity of the Church has been a "core value" of Christians down through Church history. The Apostles Creed includes among those points of doctrine singled out as being the most essential of all: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (or universal) church, the communion of saints."

Martin Luther was deeply troubled over the prospect of causing division within the organized "Church" of his time. John Wesley never intended on founding a new denomination. Even the early Anabaptists, under the spiritual guidance of Michael Sattler, in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, declared:

"So it shall be and must be, that whoever does not share the calling of the one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one spirit, to one body together with all the children of God, may not be made one loaf together with them, as must be true if one wishes truly to break bread according to the command of Christ" (thanks to Alan Knox for the quote).

Yet, for some reason, true Christian unity has come to be the "Cinderella" doctrine, as it were, of Southern Baptists. There are certainly reasons for this. In order to defend the biblical doctrine of believers' baptism by immersion, Baptists, for centuries, have had to suffer the scorn and rejection of much of the rest of Christendom. In more recent times, the Ecumenical movement advocated by the World Council of Churches has, while giving much emphasis to unity, compromised, at the same time, on biblical authority, and other crucial points of Christian orthodoxy. As a reaction, I believe that, at times, Christian unity has tended to get "swept under the carpet," as it were, in Southern Baptist circles.

Yet, the truth is, it is impossible to truly be faithful to the authority of God’s Word, and the Lordship of Jesus, and at the same time, not care deeply about the unity of His Body. There is a delicate balance that must be maintained. I am not advocating an accommodating stance on doctrinal error. False unity, based on error, is, in reality, no unity at all. Yet, we must, as Dr. Albert Mohler has recently reminded us, know how to distinguish correctly between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd tier priorities of Christian doctrine. The only ones of us who agree about 100% of our interpretation of the Bible are "spiritual robots."

The tricky point, at times, is correctly dividing between 2nd and 3rd tier issues. It is almost impossible, for instance, to work together to plant churches with those who have different convictions as to the basic nature of Christian baptism. I have known of churches that tried to get around this by practicing both believers’ baptism and infant baptism, according to the preference of the individual (or, in the case of those favoring infant baptism, the parents). What really ends up happening, though, in such churches, is that both sides end up compromising on their convictions.

Even in cases like this, though, when there are legitimate issues that would give credence to the need for separate congregations, care must be taken to maintain a spirit of cooperation and mutual support towards other groups of believers who, in essence, are cherished members of the same spiritual family. Also, while recognizing the existence of authentic 2nd tier issues, I believe that if we are to truly honor the Lord’s desire for unity in His Body, we must be especially vigilant to not allow issues that biblically warrant no more than 3rd tier status to be elevated to 2nd tier category.

I am glad to see a new generation of younger Conservative leaders (and some not so young) within the SBC who are finally waking up to the relative importance of Christian unity. The path will not be easy to find, due to the other false paths that have muddied the water (WCC, et al). But I am beginning to see encouraging signs that perhaps the time is finally drawing near for "Cinderella" to "go to the ball."

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