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.