“…that all of them may be one… that the world may believe.” ~John 17:21
We just concluded our latest three-week church orientation classes here at Central. Three or four times a year, Matthew Blake and I host brand new members and anyone else who wants more information about our church family. We talk about our history and our future, our goals and our dreams. We describe in detail the clear expectations we have of our members. And we spend a good deal of time on our congregation’s vision that, we believe, has been handed to us by our God.
A very important question came up last week as we were discussing the “reconciliation” part of our vision. See, we take the prayer of Jesus in John 17 very seriously. We believe it is God’s holy will that all of his children, that all disciples of his Son, be reconciled. We think God’s great desire is for all Christians to be brought together as a powerful witness to the world of his love and grace. We believe that when Paul writes that Jesus died on the cross to break down all the barriers that exist among men and women and between mankind and God, that includes the barriers between Christian denominations. We’ve very much in to tearing down walls and destroying barriers because our God is very much in to tearing down walls and destroying barriers.
So, I’m talking to this group of thirty people or so about our cooperative efforts with the other churches in Amarillo. I’m discussing our partnership with the Southlawn Assembly of God on the pantry plant, the pulpit swaps with the Christian Church on Washington Street, our prayer breakfasts with the Presbyterians and Methodists, my lunches at First Baptist. We believe these kinds of cooperative efforts and expressions of Christian unity are good for the Kingdom and very beneficial to the city of Amarillo. We believe it shapes our own people more into the image of the Son and moves toward reclaiming our whole city in the name of Jesus.
“But how do you deal with the fact that a lot of these people you’re working with aren’t baptized like we are?”
The question came from my right. And I’ve heard it before. I hear it quite often, actually. There are many variations of the question. “They don’t believe the same things we believe; how can we fellowship with them?” “What about our differences?” “Are they saved?” “Are you saying we’re all the same?” “What are we teaching our kids?” The woman who asked the question on Sunday quoted the same passage I’ve heard quoted many times in these types of discussions: “…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” from Ephesians 4:3-6. But this woman wasn’t accusing anybody. She wasn’t aggressive or confrontational. She really wanted to know. She was genuinely wrestling with it.
Yes, there is indeed one faith. That is what we believe and what we profess. There is one faith: that the almighty Creator came to this earth in the form of a human to restore that which was broken by sin and to save that which was lost by evil; that he lived and died and was raised to eternal life by the Spirit of God; that he reigns right now at the right hand of the Father in heaven; that he calls us to follow him by denying ourselves and submitting completely to his Lordship, receiving forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Spirit of Truth, and participating fully in his sufferings as we work toward that same restoration and salvation for the sake of his world; that he is coming back very soon to reclaim what is his, including all of his faithful disciples, and that he will live with them face-to-face forever. That’s the one faith. That’s it. And the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and any other Christian denomination you want to lump in there all hold to that one faith and that one Lord with the same white-knuckle death grip as you.
It’s one faith, not one expression of faith.
When we start arguing about worship styles or leadership structures, when we start dividing about baptism methods or communion frequencies, we’re not working toward the same things for which our God is working. We’re not moving in the faith we profess, we’re actually moving away from it. Yeah, we’re all a little different. And none of us is perfect in our understanding or our practice. Not yet. So why would God’s grace cover me in my misunderstandings and misapplications, but not cover the other Christ-followers in the other churches in their misunderstandings and misapplications? That is the height of arrogance. An attitude like that actually denies the need for God’s grace.
(I came across this line from Alexander Campbell, penned in The Christian Baptist (ha!) in 1837, that perhaps explains much better what I’m trying to say:
“How do I know that any one loves my Master but by his obedience to his commandments? I answer, in no other way. But mark, I do not substitute obedience to one commandment, for universal or even general obedience. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth so far as known… He who infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision… Every one who despises any ordinance of Christ, or who is willingly ignorant of it, cannot be a Christian; still I should sin against my own convictions should I teach anyone to think that if he mistook the meaning of any institution, while in his soul he desired to know the whole will of God, he must perish forever.” )
The conversation in our orientation class went on for almost fifteen minutes. A couple of our shepherds joined in, explaining that here at Central we like to concentrate on the things we have in common with other Christians, which are many and important, than on our differences, which are minor and fleeting. They described our deep desire to both teach other Christians and to learn from other Christians, recognizing that we cannot do either without being in loving and trusting relationship.
I received a lengthy text from another woman in the class later that afternoon. In part, it read,
“After hearing the response from you and the elders to the question about baptism this morning, we know Central is the home for our family. We want to be part of a church that is seeking to be like Christ, focusing more on God’s Word than man’s traditions. My husband and I both need to grow in our knowledge and faith and feel that Central is the place to do that. We want our children to look for what people are doing right and not pick at what others are doing wrong…”
I’m never sure how our vision statements and mission explanations are going to be received by long time CofCers. As much as I hate it, and as much as our Lord’s heart is broken by it, there are still many in our faith stream who condemn Christians of other stripes who don’t baptize the same ways they do or sing exactly like they do or read the same English translations of the Scriptures that they do. It still happens. All the time. But I do know that we have to stay true to our God’s calling here at Central. We must boldly proclaim and practice the ministry of reconciliation and the doctrine of unity that are major and explicit in serious discipleship to Christ Jesus. We can’t ever compromise our teaching on the subjects for fear of offending a visitor or running off a potential new member. It’s better that people know exactly what they’re getting in to when they jump in with our congregation. It’s much better having these faith discussions in our orientation classes than a couple of years down the road.
By the way, the woman who asked the questions is officially placing her membership with us, too. I figured she would. Jesus promised that his great truths would set people free.