Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rocks on the Path to Unity

My last post on "Unity with Other Religions Too?" has got me thinking more about the whole matter of our essential unity with other Christians, and how hard it is, at times, to make it work. A very interesting conversation, in which I was involved, ensued on this topic in the comment string over at Paul Grabill’s blog. Also, I had a conversation yesterday with some family members, including my Mom, in which I mentioned this post, and the various issues involved.

In the midst of this conversation, my Mom shared about how my Dad, early on in his ministry, when he was pastor of a church at Fort Pierce, Florida, decided to drop out of the local Ministerial Alliance, because they voted to include the Mormons. In the latter part of his ministry, here in the Memphis area, I know he was a regular participant in pastors’ meetings in relation to the local Baptist Association. I know he also met together on a regular basis, and actively pursued fellowship, with several other area pastors from other denominations, including Methodists, Presbyterians, and Assemblies of God.

I am proud of my father, and the example he set for me in this area. I believe that biblically, there is a legitimate tension between the injunctions, on the one hand, to not be "yoked together with unbelievers" and "come out from them and be separate" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), and, on the other hand, to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).

As I have observed other pastors and Christian leaders in various contexts down through the years, it seems to me that one of the major causes that keep them from more actively pursuing practical unity with believers and churches from other backgrounds is the fear of being "yoked together with unbelievers." I personally find it hard to find fault with someone, whenever their decisions are truly based on a desire to be as faithful as they possibly can to the teaching of the Word of God. However, I am convinced there is still a "more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Back in Extremadura, Spain, where I learned and experienced many of the things that have molded my current thinking regarding Christian unity, at one time, the Seventh-Day Adventists applied for membership in the regional Evangelical Council. The vote among all the participating churches, which included Baptists, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, Charismatics, Presbyterians, and Independents, was unanimous to not admit them.

Personally, I have known several brothers and sisters in Christ, who are now solid, committed evangelicals, who shared with me that they first came to a saving knowledge of Christ while they were still with the Seventh-Day Adventists. So, I am not saying that you cannot be Seventh-Day Adventist and saved at the same time. I would say that pretty much the same thing holds for Roman Catholics. However, the official doctrine of both of these groups, as I understand it, if rightly understood and embraced, would preclude salvation, because it is, at its root, a doctrine of "grace plus works."

Because of this, my personal position has always been to pursue fellowship and unity on a personal level with all those who give evidence in their personal life and testimony of being truly born again; and on an organizational level with all those whose official doctrinal position, if truly understood and embraced, would lead to being born again.

What if the Extremaduran Evangelical Council had voted to include the Seventh-Day Adventists? What if they had voted to include the Catholics, or the Mormons, or the Muslims? I freely admit, that, in such a case, things would have gotten a lot more complicated for me. But, I still would have felt a compulsion to do my best to work towards practical unity with those I understood to be true believers, even if I disagreed with them about admitting others who were not.

Within the family of faith, there are plenty of things we can discuss and disagree about amongst ourselves. But, they are, at the root, "in-house arguments." They do not affect our basic unity one with another.

There are also certain individual believers, as well as certain groups of believers, with whom God joins our hearts in a special way, and with whom we have particularly close fellowship. There are also some who, for more pragmatic reasons, turn out to be more conducive partners than others in certain ministry projects.

But the fact that there are difficulties and complications involved in putting into practice our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ should never lead us to put the topic of unity on the back-burner, or to treat a fellow believer as if he/she were not a true, full-fledged member of the family.

20 comments:

Brent said...

I am forced by the Spirit to view through the lens of scripture the "Seventh-Day Adventists" along with the "Catholics", "Mormons", "Muslims" as I should, ones to evangelize the "Good News" too. The Catholics & The Adventist tend to need to be brought back to the "doctrine of the apostles", and the Muslims etc, need the 'whole counsel' preached. No unity (it is impossible to be unified in Spirit and Truth, no matter the label of 'unity' that man might place on it) until the work of the Holy Spirit alone does the converting.
1 Corinthians 11:17-19 (KJV)

17Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.

18For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.

19For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

Can I repeat the last verse for dramatic effect....

"For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you."

David Rogers said...

Brent,

Good, relevant passage of Scripture. Thanks.

Brent said...

David,
I love that passage because it helps me understand that I can find more rest in Him alone while fighting the good fight in Spirit and keeping "The Faith". The heresies help me to identify those who are falsely taught and keeping works, so that we may, by grace and His Spirit present Him as our 'rest'.
Hebrews 4:9-11 (KJV)


9There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.

10For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.

11Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.

Thanks for the opportunity to encourage and be encouraged!

Dave Samples said...

Our local Ministerial Association includes a wide variety of Christian churches including the Catholics and Episcopalians. I've found that we share many things in common including the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We have a great fellowship and I've found that God has given me a place of influence within these other churches and certainly within the life of these other ministers. In many ways, the local ministerial association is more vital to my ministry than is the local Baptist association.

selahV said...

David, I have numerous friends from various faiths. Don't think I could say we'd be unified in all we believe, but believe I could say we are unified in Whom we trust to deal with all our differences and can lean on Him to keep us focused on that which is most important. Namely, Himself. selahV

David Rogers said...

Dave Samples,

Thanks for sharing your experience. For me, a "ministerial alliance" that includes Catholics and Episcopalians brings up some interesting questions. I would guess that is fairly normal here in the States where the Catholics are often looked on as one more denomination, just like everyone else, within "Christendom."

Not trying to be argumentative or critical, just thinking out loud a little bit here. I think I see your point about having in common the "Lordship of Jesus Christ." At the same time, I have to wonder to what degree we really have Christian unity with people who understand salvation in a totally different way than we do. If justification really is by grace through faith alone, can we really be in unity with those who believe and teach otherwise?

Maybe the purpose of the "ministerial alliance" is not strictly that of Christian unity, but rather of camaraderie for those who share a common "profession."

I don't pretend to have all the answers about this. Just trying to think through it.

If you, or anyone else, have some thoughts to help think through these questions, that would be great.

Blessings,

David

David Rogers said...

selahv,

I think that is a good point about the difference between "unity in all we believe" and "unity in Whom we trust." As I understand it, Ephesians 4:13 makes this same distinction when it talks about "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God." From how I understand it, "unity in the faith" refers to the doctrinal content of what we belief, and "unity in the knowledge of the Son of God" to a personal, experiential knowledge of (relationship with) Jesus.

The big questions (at least for me) here are:

1. Is it possible to have one type of unity without having the other?

2. Does "unity in the faith" include agreement on secondary and tertiary questions? Or is it just unity in the essentials of the Gospel?

3. How do we reach an agreement on what points comprise the essentials of the Gospel, and what points are secondary and tertiary questions?

4. Is our unity with those with whom we differ on secondary and tertiary points less than it is with those with whom we are in agreement on all these points?

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Russell said...

David wrote:
"unity in the faith" refers to the doctrinal content of what we belief, and "unity in the knowledge of the Son of God" to a personal, experiential knowledge of (relationship with) Jesus.

my initial thoughts on how these spheres inter-relate:
Biblical unity hinges on actual loyalty to Jesus as Lord in the Kingdom of God in word and deed.
(Ephesians 5:6-10)Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
(Ephesians 5:6-10)

Your practical questions, what does this actually look like, how do we break it down? are certainly challenging.

Like you mentioned, it is questionable to separate one's knowledge of the savior and doctrine/teaching. Like a Venn diagram, there is a way to see some aspects as being outside of the range of criteria for/against unity/fellowship.

Example 1: a really smart, well placed Baptist leader guy I know who yells angrily about the doctrine of love... hmmm. His alleged doctrine I agree with, his apparent doctrine (what he really seems to be loyal to) I don't agree with. So, I would hesitate to have active unity with him. (I would have lots of questions hoping that good answers were coming).
Example 2: A person from a different theological structure/camp/community who actively lives out the essence of the doctrines I find most compelling (Romans 5, 1 Cor 13, Eph 5... sacrificial love in the Name). I would be much more prone to unity, but like the other example, I would ask lots of questions (You live like this, how does that work in your teachings/doctrines?).
I have a Dutch Pentecostal friend that I asked a lot of questions about his theology because I loved his humble and effective walk with the Lord. Eventually I discovered much fewer doctrinal differences than I thought (maybe the traditional Dutch reformed churches around him handed out the term Pentecostal relatively easily ;p)
Ex. 3
I have a really great Mormon friend. We talked through our manifestations of nice-ness in Jesus' name. The end result? Different Jesus, different meaning of actions, no unity. We agreed to pray fervently that the True God would reveal the Truth to each of us and that we could have Unity that was actual, not just seeming. His name is Neal if you want to pray with me for him.

So, an interactive back and forth between what people say is real (stated doctrine) and what they show as real (demonstrated behavior). Primary, secondary and tertiary levels don't work very consitently in my experience, it is more integrated and dynamic. Like the Extremadura example, you the 7th Day friends may have been really good people and very possibly brothers, but their responses to doctrinal questions left them just outside the acceptable clarity of Jesus as Lord by grace (not grace +)

long enough start to a crucial challenge....
Russell

R. Grannemann said...

Anyone who has entered the Kingdom of God is our brother or sister in Christ and someone with whom were are to be united in love. This should be our goal.

But you can't avoid practical issues when money, organizations and codified doctrines are involved. In fact, one's stewardship dictates placing one's money and labor in something that will result in the promulgation of the clearest religious teaching. However, if a joint effort will result in more souls saved, how could one possibly hold himself aloof? So there is no simple answer. An organization as large as the IMB necessity needs some such policy, but no rigid policy is likely to ever rightly fit every occasion.

Steve Sensenig said...

David,

Do you and I agree on secondary and tertiary issues? I'm not sure that we do. Yet I feel a tremendous unity of the Spirit with you. And I get the sense that is a mutual feeling.

So, how does that happen?

Russell, I'm not sure if I understand this part:

the 7th Day friends may have been really good people and very possibly brothers, but their responses to doctrinal questions left them just outside the acceptable clarity of Jesus as Lord by grace (not grace +)

How can someone be a brother and yet "just outside"? Can you clarify what you meant by that?

SelahV said...

David, I'm pretty whipped up on pain meds right now but I want to answer part of your questions to me on unity of faith.

In that passage I understand the unity of faith as something we will attain in perfection from Jesus as we grow in knowledge of Him and eventually see Him face to face. Verse 13 in my Amplified says , "[that it might develop] until we all attain oneness in faith and in the comprehension of the [full and accurate] knowledge of the Son of God."

until we ALL attain oneness cannot happen on earth as we are all moving toward the oneness in Christ. So He must make us one in Himself and through that oneness we strive to bring all people to Him and His oneness. We must study and know to the best of our knowledge, effort and intelligence--but He reveals to each of us as we can accept it and understand it. I can understand a lot more today than I could 30 years ago. And I have by no means attained all the knowledge of Him that would guarantee others of a perfect revelation of all He is in every way.

So...in answer to number 1., I'd say yes, it is possible to have one type of unity without having the other. In answer to number 2., I'd say that the unity is still of what I explained above. And we while we are not all unified in all issues, we are all unified in the Spirit of Jesus Himself. That is His doing and the more we abandon ourselves to Him, the more unified we become with Him and others.

Number 3 is a tricky one. "How do we reach an agreement on what points comprise the essentials of the Gospel, and what points are secondary and tertiary questions?"

We may never reach an agreement on what points comprise the essentials of the Gospel--nor what are secondary and tertiary questions.

We are each seeing them from a specific perspective we bring to the table. We have our own knowledge, interpretations, history, visions, hopes and dreams. So what I hope for is that we never allow our differences in these to become an impediment to the essential of the gospel--Jesus and Him crucified. The Gospel is the essential. When we do this, we ourselves are the impediment.

Finally you ask # 4. "Is our unity with those with whom we differ on secondary and tertiary points less than it is with those with whom we are in agreement on all these points?"

I think David, that our unity is equally important with both groups. Our fellowship is not unity. Our agreement is not unity. Our relationship by the blood of Jesus is our unity. He will unite us when we yield ourselves to Him. I hope I've given a sampler to each question. In reality, number 3 and 4 could have had their own post, don't you think? selahV

Russell M. Minick said...

Steve asked Russell:
How can someone be a brother and yet "just outside"? Can you clarify what you meant by that?
Thanks for giving the chance to explain, Steve.
SelahV makes the point that one aspect of unity (same family) is beyond our control. I think we sometimes confuse our responsibility to hold people accountable for sound doctrine with that reality. Can someone with muddled doctrine be saved? Let's hope so! Does doctrine matter? Rev. 2 and 3 say that it matters very much to Jesus.

So, what did I mean by 'just outside'? I meant just outside of the boundaries for fellowhship in the sense of presenting a common identity.

I was part of a team in Panama doing evangelism and church planting. It was through an evangelical group with mainly Baptists and Bible churches. On a sub-team was a Catholic who was born again. He was a Texas supreme court judge. He went door to door in the Panamanian supreme court chambers sharing the 4 Spiritual Laws tract with each member of the Panamanian supreme court.
Later the same guy joined the team I was leading in the jungle areas. He was excited and wanted to share at the church planting gathering we had that night. I asked what he wanted to share. He wanted to say "...and it doesn't matter what church you belong to..." I said no. I would not allow him as part of our group to tell RCC villagers that it was ok to follow Christ and to affiliate with a church who has mothers walk up the stairs of the cathedral on their knees with their newborns in their arms as a way of gaining merit before God. He was mad at me and raised the unity issue.
I assured him that I really believed his testimony (though we don't really know anyones full standing before God)but that I could not partner with him if it meant me sharing the message that the church (and doctrines) did not really matter.

I have more examples with some individual 7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals etc. who are at various level of ambiguity and leave me to affirm them as apparently in-Christ but simulataneously 'just outside' acceptable boundaries of a clear testimony.

I think that is where Paul and Peter got at one point when Paul blasted Peter as a brother who was muddling the message (not eating with gentiles) enough to endanger partnership.

How about you Steve, others? Do you have experiences with people who very much seem to be IN your Christ family as individuals but OUT of your range of acceptable partnership?

Russell

David Rogers said...

Wow, so much to respond to.

Basically, I think everyone has made some good contributions to the discussion.

I think there is a certain type of unity we share together with all true believers. However, it is not enough to just recognize that this exists in theory. We should seek to carry it out in practice as well.

I am not sure right now if there are any exceptions to this. But I am thinking that the way to carry out this unity is through the practice of all the "one another" exhortations in the New Testament. We should carry these out not only with those in our local church or denomination, but, as much as possible with all believers, and especially those in our locality.

However, there is another kind of unity, that is perhaps better described as cooperation in ministry. I think I agree with R. Grannemann's comment about stewardship here. We cannot support everything equally. And we do well to give our support to those things with which we really are in agreement, according to our understanding of Scripture. Also, I think Russell's illustration of his Catholic friend in Panama fits in nicely here.

Actually there are some differences among true believers in which it is practically impossible to cooperate together. For example, you can't have woman pastors and not have them at the same time in the same congregation.

That doesn't mean, though, that just because you believe women shouldn't be pastors, that you should treat those who believe they should as if they were not your brother or sister in Christ. You should still practice the "one anothers" together with them, even though you may not cooperate together in the same congregation.

David Rogers said...

Steve,

So, how does that happen?

I think it happens by recognizing we are brothers in Christ, and then doing our best to treat each other that way (e.g. practicing the "one anothers").

David Rogers said...

selahv,

Yes, I agree that as we all get closer to Jesus, we will necessarily grow closer to each other as well. It is kind of like being on different edges of a pyramid, with Jesus at the top. As we get closer to the top, we automatically get closer to the other edges at the same time.

Actually, the thought did cross my mind about making a new post of all 4 of these questions. But, since we are having such a good discussion about it here, I think I will refrain.

Brent said...

I have recently read Martyn Lloyd- Jones' book titled:
"Authentic Christianity"
I would recommend this treatise only second to the New Testament.

With that being said, I also recently ran across this quote that sums up allot of what has been discussed here.

“It is being said that the chief need of the Church today is to repent because of its ‘lack of unity’… we would suggest that before she repents of her disunity, she must repent of her apostasy. She must repent of her perversion of, and substitutes for, ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.’ She must repent of setting up her own thinking and methods over against the divine revelation in Holy Scripture. Here lies the reason for her lack of spiritual power and inability to deliver a living message in the power of the Holy Ghost to a world ready to perish.”

-Matin Lloyd Jones,
given at the annual meeting of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in 1954

Now that is the order of 'unity'. We cannot be unified in Spirit and Truth with those who have been perverted by an apostate so-called gospel, or with those who give credence to them.
Paul 'rebuked' Peter, a very harsh upbraidng, which he did publicly one of God's chosen for hanging with and 'doing ministry' so to speak with those who were causing confusion within the presence of the 'called out ones'. Paul didn't say, "well let's get along and do ministry with them on the things we agree on and put on a public face, then we will each go to our camps and teach however we 'feel' led and not cause the others (born again & the lost who are also watching) to see publicly that we don't get along with them on all points.

Those who are so-called 'believers' and practice apostate teachings and teach others to do so, Do Not need any public 'nice ministry face' put on by us, those who, by His grace alone have been entrusted with 'His Gospel'. I'm not talking about Baptist as opposed to 'Carismatics' or something of those type differences. I'm talking here about the pure Gospel, of which many so-called believers have added works and keeping of 'holy days' to it or 'church memberships' and rites . Those kind, we should evangelize TO, and the others we should bring them to scripture for reproofs of secondary doctrines.

The real problem, as always is how others will 'see' us (self), is this...saying it like it is will cause division(and it should), but REAL 'unity' cannot happen without it. The faith that was delivered to the apostles will cause division and persecution from our 'friends', neighbors, and family. We will be perceived as 'absolutes' on biblical faith matters (like Paul) which will cause us to 'be put out for His names sake'. But in that alone, we will gain new families and houses as Jesus promised, to meet in and share in the unity of the Spirit and in Truth. By His most precious grace alone! He paid with His blood, it cost us nothing...the least we can do is honor it as a trusted message we don't even deserve to preach.

David Rogers said...

Brent,

I too have been helped by Lloyd-Jones on these questions. I have his book "The Basis of Christian Unity" in my personal library back in Spain. Thanks for reminding me of his insight and wisdom. I will have to go back, and read up a little more on Lloyd-Jones.

I think you are right in not compromising one iota in regard to essential Gospel doctrine. Unity is NOT just being tolerant to whatever. At the same time, though, I think we need to be very careful to separate correctly between in-house family disagreements, and matters that truly should divide us from apostates and infidels.

Brent said...

David,
Amen.

As a side note, I'm just a few minutes from Ft. Pierce as you had mentioned that your Dad was a pastor in a local body there. Are you still or have you ever been around these parts?

David Rogers said...

Brent,

I was born in Ft. Pierce in 1960. My family moved from there to Merritt Island in 1965, if I remember correctly. This year, I will be in central & south Florida several times for speaking engagements, but nothing in Fort Pierce. We might drive through sometime, though.

Alan Knox said...

David,

I'm sorry that I'm replying late. But, I've replied to your 4 questions in a post on my blog called "Continuing discussion on unity".

-Alan