Adventures in Christian unity

Like many Christians, I’ve wished that Christians could be more united even while I am a Protestant, a member of the most divided of the branches of the Christian tradition.  Recently I read two articles about two efforts to address our current divisions.  One is far away from me in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the other nearby in the Northern suburbs of Chicago.  The Christ Together movement in Lake County, IL, has apparently spread to Hampton Roads in coastal Virginia too.

I read the article about Argentina first.  Here are some excerpts from the article that explain the rationale and story:

Argentina’s unity movement is based on a simple biblical concept.

“Each time the New Testament speaks of the church in a city such as Ephesus, it is always singular, never plural,” says Carlos Mraida, pastor of Del Centro First Baptist Church. “Yet when the New Testament speaks of leadership in a city, it is always plural. The church is singular, but leadership is plural.”…

A new spirit of unity arose in the early 1980s, when hundreds of Argentine cities formed pastors councils thanks to the crusades of Carlos Annacondia. The Pentecostal businessman-turned-preacher required the formation of a council before he would visit a city. The decade closed with two national retreats attended by 1,200 pastors.The Buenos Aires council was founded in 1982 by five pastors: Bongarrá, Saracco, Mraida, charismatic pastor Jorge Himitián, and Baptist pastor Pablo Deiros. Their starting point was creating friendships between pastors, said Saracco, as it’s easier to unite people than denominations.

Next came reconciliation over past wrongs. The political tumult during the nation’s Dirty War of the 1970s and ’80s created a deep divide between mainline churches, which defended human rights, and evangelical churches, which remained silent, says Saracco. At a downtown summit in 1999, the council asked the two sides to forgive one another in front of the 250,000 gathered.

Over time, pastors wanted a formalized structure and created rotating elected offices of president, vice president, and other traditional positions. But functioning as a typical institution did not work well, says Bongarrá, and the council lost momentum. So in 2006 the council invited the founders (minus Deiros, who had left for Fuller Theological Seminary) to come back and revitalize the council. The four agreed—on one condition.

“We changed the mindset and said, ‘Let’s not work like an institution; let’s work like a church and focus on spiritual gifts,’ ” says Bongarrá. “Which pastors are evangelists? Teachers? Prophets? Apostles?” Today more than 180 pastors representing almost 150 of the city’s 350 churches participate in the council.

The unity movement soon shifted from fellowship between pastors to churches helping churches. When an Anglican church was forced to end its Sunday school program in 2008 for lack of teachers, prompting an exodus of families, Saracco’s Pentecostal church sent four volunteers to run the program during 2009. When a suburban pastor faced losing his Christian school in a property lawsuit in 2008, the council paid his tax debt and teachers’ salaries until the school got back on its feet….

Then, in November 2009, the unity movement made the significant shift from churches helping churches to churches evangelizing the city together. “Over the years we established relationships,” says Mraida, “but we were not able to reach the level of mission.”

Pastors incarnated the priesthood of all believers by seeking people to assume “spiritual responsibility” for each of the 12,000 blocks in the city center of 3 million residents. Volunteers pray for their block and pass out Bibles and fliers. Today the council has 7,000 blocks covered by volunteers from 100 local churches. Pastors are confident they will find volunteers for the remaining 5,000 blocks by year’s end.

The council also launched a five-year ad campaign based on the Didache, an ancient treatise on Christian living, condensed into 40 propositions in contemporary language. Every two weeks, the city is saturated with a new message promoting Christian values. The message is distributed by newspapers, television, radio, billboards, taxis, and fliers, all with the catchphrase: “The Argentina that God wants … with Jesus Christ it is possible.”

As far as the theological content of their unity,

Churches do not have to abandon their distinctives in order to participate. Pastors agree on core theological elements—”the Trinity, Jesus’ death on the cross, his second coming—basically the gospel of Billy Graham and the Lausanne Convention,” says Bongarrá—and agree to disagree on the rest. They continue to diverge on divorce, eternal salvation security, second baptism of the Holy Spirit, and worship, for example.

“These debates may be important in my congregation, but they are not important to work together and preach the gospel to the city,” says Bongarrá. “We accept the differences as a richness. It would be very boring if all the churches were the same. Imagine if God made just one flower; that would be boring.”

Instead, churches are trading strengths. “Today the mainline churches are helping the evangelical churches do social work, and the evangelical churches are helping the mainline churches do evangelism work,” says Bongarrá. Christians now enjoy greater leverage in the public square because they can present a united front when confronting the government, most recently in November over the issue of gay marriage.

Christ Together in Gurnee seems to have taken a similar route.  The website of website is actually a better way to get to know what’s going on there than the article that I linked to above.  It seems to be bringing together Protestant churches from the northern suburbs, perhaps with a vision for the greater Chicago area too.  The unity is based on four theological statements:

The Bible is the Word of God.
The Bible is inspired by God, serves as a trustworthy guide to life, and functions as the foundation for all we believe, say, and do. (2 Timothy 3:16)

Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus is like no one else. Along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus is one of the three members of the Trinity. He is God’s Son, the Lord of all creation, and Savior of the world, fully God and fully man. (John 3:16; John 14:6)

The Gospel is the way to God.
Though God created us to live in a harmonious relationship with him, we turned away from him. Through Jesus, we have the opportunity to restore that relationship and experience a new life with God. (John 14:6, Luke 9:23)

The Church is the people of God.
There is only one Church in Chicagoland, which gathers in many locations and whose purpose is to lead people into a new way of life with Jesus through the leadership of the Holy Spirit. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Recently, I learned from our pastor here in Kankakee, Illinois, there are some similar stirring for better cooperation in our area too, which is exciting.  These are my reflections so far on these kinds of projects.  I’m interested in your feedback too.

  • The Argentine organization seems to have stronger authority at the top than does Christ Together, which is a good thing.  I’ve done some blogging through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, which I hope to resume soon.  One of the biggest lessons to learn from them is the necessity of unity in truth and under proper authority.  This is certainly more needed in our individual churches, with members submitting to the authority of our pastors and elders, who are themselves in submission to God and His Word.  At the city level, unity would also require some kind of authority.  I think that authority should be very limited at first as Christians grow into biblical unity so that immature or overreaching authority doesn’t spoil the growth.
  • The theological content of the unity would be really important.  For me, the goal would be an evangelical unity, by which I mean those who agree with a traditional Protestant explanation of the gospel and submission to the authority of Scripture.  The statement would need to be broad enough to encompass Calvinists and Arminians, paedobaptists and credobaptists, liturgical and contemporary worshipers, but also exclude theologically liberal churches that, when push comes to shove, don’t really proclaim the gospel or believe in the authority of Scripture.  My first thought about a theological statement would be something like the Apostles’ Creed with an explanation about how the organization understands specific clauses.
  • “Evangelical unity” would also mean that some of the sad divisions in the Church would continue.  Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers have some real differences on very important matters, obviously.  Local Catholic and Orthodox congregations would not be anathematized and could be partners in certain efforts, and evangelical unity could lead to mature dialogue with these traditions, but the schisms between these different branches do exist for important reasons and can’t be simply ignored.

Challenges exist too.  Here are some that arose in my mind:

  • Would Christians of different denominations and theologies be willing to really work together?  What is an “agree to disagree” issue for some is a non-negotiable for others.
  • What powers would the citywide church have?  How would it discourage church-hopping?  What would happen if a church rejected the unifying understanding of the gospel but refused to acknowledge it and leave?
  • Evangelical Christians at present are divided over women’s ordination.  How would that affect cooperation and unity?  Would such an organization take a position?

I think that geographical unification efforts could be a very good thing for the Protestant world, even with the challenges.  I’ve been influenced in my thinking by Doug Wilson and a quote that Joel put up by James Jordan.  On the one hand, both think that American Protestants simply aren’t ready to say anything particularly profound to society because of our immaturity.  This is a major reason for Wilson’s efforts in pursuing what he views as more Biblical, liturgical worship.  They argue for a Christendom model (not a theocracy, strictly speaking, where the church controls everything), which I’m not able to endorse or reject without a lot more reflection.  So I’m taking their point more broadly: I think that we do need to grow up more, and that unity in truth and under authority is a way that we can become more mature.  As my friend Rick Hogaboam (from Endued) and I have talked about before, traditional Christians of all stripes can agree that the church must be the church, a community of believers who worship and partake in the ministries of word and sacrament.  The context of greater unity in the truth would seem to be a much better context in which to address how we are to relate to society.  And who knows?  Maybe some of the churches that make me uncomfortable with their worship styles or their overemphases on certain doctrines or parts of the Bible will actually change in the right direction.  Or maybe I’ll change as I see my errors.

This idea of maturing together is also something in which I’ve been influenced by Wilson.  Against the pessimism that always sees the gospel in danger and seems to suspect everyone of compromise, I think that we need to keep our guards up but also trust that God will build the church, and that the gates of hell won’t prevail.  This video in which he talks about the controversy when John Piper invited Rick Warren to speak at his conference really made an impression on me.  Wilson asks why critics assumed that Piper was sacrificing his integrity rather than that Warren could possibly be moving closer to Piper.  I’m somewhat optimistic about unity movements with the critical element of a strong theological basis for that unity.

I hope that true unity really will take root here in Kankakee.

UPDATE (4/17/2012): I fixed a word jumble that I found when re-reading the post.
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15 comments

  1. Pardon the long response. I can move it to my blog, if you’d prefer.

    I can’t comment too much on the Christ together movement, since it seems so small and recent. However, I find the unity movement in Argentina most fascinating because it strikes me one of the largest cross-denominational unity movements in recent memory, and possibly more significant at the local level than any in the last 100 years. Personally, though, I’m skeptical whether these movements both offer real unity and are able to sustain themselves for very long.

    Regarding whether the Buenos Aires movement offers real unity, I was struck by this quote.
    “Churches do not have to abandon their distinctives in order to participate. Pastors agree on core theological elements—”the Trinity, Jesus’ death on the cross, his second coming—basically the gospel of Billy Graham and the Lausanne Convention,” says Bongarrá—and agree to disagree on the rest. They continue to diverge on divorce, eternal salvation security, second baptism of the Holy Spirit, and worship, for example.

    “These debates may be important in my congregation, but they are not important to work together and preach the gospel to the city,” says Bongarrá. “We accept the differences as a richness. It would be very boring if all the churches were the same. Imagine if God made just one flower; that would be boring.”

    So, adultery and salvation’s relation to post-conversion sin are non-essentials and agreement would be “boring?” Picking just one of them, the statement that divorce isn’t important for unity is ridiculous, given that Jesus equated remarriage with adultery. What Bible passage are they reading when they come to that conclusion? Later on they point to their opposition to gay marriage as being a sign of their unity, but this is simply because (at this point) there is significant agreement among their member congregations. If their congregations can accept divorce and remarriage, many will find a way to accept gay marraige if it succeeds in becoming the defacto norm among the wider society. The actions that demonstrate their unity are based on a local concensus at a particular moment in time, not on anything enduring or substantive. They have set up unBiblical standards on what real unity looks like, and that is a significant problem for a Christian unity movement.

    Secondly, the movement in Buenos Aires seems to be highly dependent on individual personalities. A small group of men started this and rallied other pastors together. They left, and the group withered, at which point they were brought back to revive it. This is the same problem that personality centric, non-denominational churches have. How do you pass on the baton? When unity is dependent on a personality and not a position, it is extremely hard to make it work once that person leaves the position. There are often major cat-fights over the vision and direction of the group. Corporations that move past the retirement of their founders usually survive this, though the damage to sales is sometimes severe. For Christian unity movements, this fault has mortal consequences. They don’t survive. At least, I’ve never heard of one that has.

    Honestly, my own knee-jerk is that the Buenos Aires movement will quietly fall by the wayside in another 5-10 years. In it’s place another fad movement will arise which claims to be bringing churches together for a superficial unity, only to itself fall by the wayside in less than a generation. Ultimately, they fail because they don’t take Jesus call to unity seriously enough or conduct their efforts in a Biblical manner.

    On the plus side, they are correct that Jesus pegged unity as essential for evangelism in John 17. As faulty as their methods are, I’m sure God will bless these efforts far more than if they hadn’t even tried, which has sadly been the status quo everywhere I’ve ever lived.

    • Thanks for the response, Doug. The line about divorce made me cringe, too. I don’t think that diversity for diversity’s sake on important issues is not God’s goal. It may be the reality, but it shouldn’t be a permanent solution.

      I think for now there can be a tactical unity on issues of sincere disagreement but with the goal of growing into a greater, more biblical unity. I don’t know what the level of disagreement is on divorce between these congregations. If it’s between an absolute bar on remarriage vs. only in cases of adultery vs. only in cases of adultery or abandonment, to me those are different interpretations that have been made by Christians seriously wrangling with the Bible. If it’s between a serious interpretation vs. divorce and remarry whenever you feel like it, that’s more serious.

      On eternal salvation security, that’s a disagreement that evangelicals here have been dealing with for a long time but at the same time have been able to agree to disagree with (like Whitefield and Wesley).

      On these issues, I think the environment of unity may provide a space for a growth together. Because the Protestant church is so fragmented, I think that there needs to be a broadly but solidly creedal basis for unity at first which will allow for this growth.

      • “I think that there needs to be a broadly but solidly creedal basis for unity at first which will allow for this growth.”

        So do you see these movements as opportunities to grow in doctrinal unity, then?

        “If it’s between an absolute bar on remarriage vs. only in cases of adultery vs. only in cases of adultery or abandonment, to me those are different interpretations that have been made by Christians seriously wrangling with the Bible. If it’s between a serious interpretation vs. divorce and remarry whenever you feel like it, that’s more serious.”

        I would agree that a complete abandonment of forbidding to remarry is more serious, but it seems to me that when it comes down to brass tacks, that is what well over 90% of Protestant churches do. They may talk big theoretically, but they have no method of church discipline and there are no consequences for remarriage, even if it is theoretically forbidden. In effect, one is free to do whatever one wants, no matter what the pastor thinks. Many denominations actually teach that once a person is remarried in the state’s eyes, everyone else just needs to accept it instead of asking the couple either to divorce or to abstain and live like brother and sister. They really don’t take Jesus ideas seriously. If remarriage truly is adultery, then no matter what the state says regarding the dissolution of one marriage and the formation of another, in God’s eyes the original couple is married and the new couple isn’t married. Trying to marry someone else is like trying to marry your dog or your sister. Even if the state were to recognize such a marriage, God wouldn’t.

        Perhaps in that sense, most Protestant churches really do have unity on divorce and remarriage, even if they claim that they don’t. I just don’t see how two different churches can claim to have unity if they don’t even agree on whether a given couple is truly married in God’s eyes or living in an adulterous, sinful relationship. It’s like agreeing to disagree on whether two men are married. It may be tactically expedient, for the purpose of fulfilling some common short term goal, but it is light years away from Biblical unity.

      • Yes, I think that there’s a possible opportunity to grow in doctrinal unity. I don’t know that this will be the case, but I think that it could be the case by providing the environment for it. It may not happen in the first five or ten years, but it could be a long term outcome.

        As far as the marriage issue goes, the way that you stated it was pretty arresting. As far as a non-biblical remarriage goes, the way that I’ve heard it explained is that the non-biblical remarriage constitutes adultery, which then cancels the original marriage on acceptable grounds (presumably, this would only be for people coming into the church like this, while an unbiblically divorced person would be urged not to remarry).

        That seemed to make sense to me, but it makes less sense when I look at it as you do.

        You also talked about church discipline, which many (maybe most) Protestant churches don’t really do. What have you seen in Catholic parishes?

  2. I know this sounds simplistic, but I think the key to the unity of believers is to focus on the Whom rather than the What. The Whom of course being Jesus. Doctrines generally divide us, whereas Christ unites us. The real, living, breathing, reigning person of Christ – not all the stuff we know about him theologically.

    In America we love academics, theology, books, and all the things that talk ABOUT Jesus. But are our hearts truly inflamed with Jesus himself? Do we love HIM more than we love discussions about him? I know we need theology, but sometimes we go a little overboard (myself included). The gospels are pretty simple… love God, love others, hear the word, obey the word.

    When our focus moves to loving Jesus and obeying him (rather than merely learning for head knowledge), that’s when we see true unity and growth in the body.

    E. Stanley Jones has an entire chapter about this in “Christ of the Indian Road.” I think it’s chapter 9. Definitely worth a read. He says it much better than I do 🙂

    • Ryan, that’s true. Theology and doctrines for their own sake just “puff up.” We have to put them in the service of the reigning Christ.

      At the same time, (true) doctrines define how we love Jesus and what we believe about him. The epistles urge us to grow in the knowledge of Christ and exhort leaders to teach true doctrine. Doctrines also give us safeguards from overemphasizing some aspects of Christ at the expense of others, preventing us from going, for example, here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/10/07/the-antinomian-gospel/.

      But complex doctrines, of course, don’t make us love Jesus and our knowledge of them certainly doesn’t save us. At the same time, theology and applied doctrine are needed (again, in the service of Christ, informed by his love, and under his authority) to meet the challenges of the world. A lot of the good books and theology comes from a passion to defend Christ from false doctrines. And our contemporary efforts at theology have as part of their foundation the thought of people not from America or the West, but from the Middle East and north Africa. In some ways, the proper academic pursuit of the truth can be a sign of health.

      • That article is way out there and a direct result of what you afore mentioned. In all of this, I believe the real task is going to be simplifying our core beliefs to the extent that we can all not only agree, but remain sound as a body and “grow up in Christ in all things.” I assert that concluding what tenets of our faith are conducive to salvation is essential. It may seem simple until we see how some issues have dogmatically attached to salvation such as “eternal security”. Ultimately, whether I believe my it’s eternally secure today or I won’t find out until the end, is not going to save me. On the other hand, we can see in scripture other issues that are as clear as a bell. Further, it’s going to take us getting together and praying like never before if we’re going to see some serious progress. I’ve been working at that in our community for awhile now with not much success. We need the power of God to knit our hearts together in the Spirit, give us the grace to walk in harmony, and give us the revelation of the His direction for the Church. That’s supernatural and therein lies the problem. Men are still in need of God to do the impossible yet continue to take intellectual stabs at it. It’s going to take us humbling ourselves before and crying out for His mercy to get it done.

  3. “What have you seen in Catholic parishes?”

    Catholics aren’t allowed to marry unless they are free to do so (i.e., their spouse has died or any previous civil marriage was considered invalid). Living in adultery is considered mortal sin that prevents a person from receiving communion. Typically, such a person would also not be allowed to teach or exercise any sort of authority in the Church. If someone is unwilling to change their behavior, they typically attend church without receiving the Eucharist, stop going to church or become Protestant.

    This is a hard teaching, especially in a divorce-happy society such as ours, but as Jesus replied when his disciples pointed out how difficult it was, “some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake.” In some ways, it is the most compassionate interpretation (esp. for kids), because it calls people to repentance and forgiveness instead of a hardening of heart. Also, it’s the only way to make a Scriptural case for Jesus forbidding polygamy.

  4. Aaron, I agree: we have to start out in unity where it’s clear and simple and perhaps God will grant that we can grow further, or perhaps our children will.

  5. Doug, here’s the text of a recent sermon by Kevin DeYoung on divorce and remarriage. I thought that you might be interested in a thoughtful Protestant’s approach to these issues: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/11/03/a-sermon-on-divorce-and-remarriage/.

    I realize that you might say that he and other Protestants make it too complicated; why “wrestle” with “complex issues” when Catholic teaching is actually quite simple? Nevertheless, I thought that you would find it interesting, especially the part about unbiblically remarried couples, which has a better perspective than just saying that we need to accept whatever the state says about remarriage.

  6. Scott,

    I would never say that Protestants are making the issue too complicated (nor do I regard the Catholic position by any means simple. It has taken me years to feel that I mostly understand it). Simply put, by changing the words of Scripture, DeYoung makes the issue far too simplistic. No longer do Christians need to determine whether a state sanctioned marriage or divorce was really considered to have happened in God’s eyes. The infallible State can speak for God, so the hard work is rather ignored, as long as one is sorry for past wrongs. Honestly, I found the dismissive manner with which his assertion on God’s view of state sanctioned divorce rather stunning, not at all indicative of a thoughtful approach to the topic. His response is also simple because it completely ignores how this topic intersects with state sanctioned polygamy and homosexuality, the changes Jesus made to Jewish marriage custom regarding the standing of women, and the typological manner in which Christ’s relation with the Church is likened to marriage. Even the Scriptural example of God wooing back the spouse he divorced is mostly glossed over. Mostly, though it is simple because it accedes “to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” as Chesterton would say. By looking at Scripture and changing Jesus words from “adultery” to “like adultery” and then ignoring Christian history and interpretive context, he can justify continued sex in an illegitimate marriage without ever having to wrestle with why no Christians before the 1900’s held his view exactly, and none held most of it before 1500. Like Mark Driscoll, DeYoung makes a commendable attempt to wrestle with these topics, but ultimately he’s brought down by his obeisance to 20th century American culture and his arrogant disregard for any interpretive framework between the years 30 and 1500 AD (one could easily argue far beyond 1500). The early church of the martyrs would wail in grief if they could see not only the defilement of our congregations by rampant serious sin, but the culturally servile manner in which it’s supposed leaders justify this defilement. The Shepherd of Hermas, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria are all examples of this truth: the early church knew nothing of the licentious interpretations moderns apply to Scripture.

    Doug

    • Doug, I meant to respond to you earlier this week.

      First off, I realized later last Sunday that the way that my comment where I talked about the simple Catholic view and the complex view might have come off wrong. I was anticipating your response to my comment, thinking that it might appear that Protestants take a clear teaching and needlessly complicate it while claiming to be wrestling with complexity. I realized afterward that my comment, especially with the words in quotes, might have seemed either patronizing or mocking toward your position. I didn’t sense from your response that you were offended, but I apologize if I did offend you in any way or if I gave the impression of being patronizing or mocking. It wasn’t my intent.

      Also, I did a bad job in anticipating your response, which makes me 0-for-2: a clumsy and inaccurate summary. Nice job on my part.

      Anyway, thanks for your response. I clearly need to look more at the history of divorce and remarriage teaching, especially before the 20th century. I should try to look at what Calvin’s Institutes said on this topic for starters.

      I don’t think that I have an answer to the problems that you brought up without doing some more looking into this topic.

      Thanks again for your comments!

  7. Scott,

    Thanks for your charitable view of my words. If I had the ability to delete the comment, it would have been gone long ago. I wrote it at 3 am after a very long day at work, and it is far more offensive to my own ears than your comment about simple vs. complex. It comes off to my own ears as confrontational and condescending in a manner that I never intended. Rereading it, I seemed to convey a frustration that I have with “Christian” subcultures/churches which never look at the topic and misdirect it toward those who are at least trying, however imperfectly, to seriously address it. While I have serious misgivings about the thoroughness and depth with which DeYoung and Driscoll address this topic, they are light years ahead of most Protestants and many Catholics. I really should have conveyed the respect that I have for their attempts better. In many ways, they are attempting a heroic task: divining the teaching of Christ and the apostles on divorce and remarriage solely from Scripture. It seems to me that Paul, Matthew, Luke and others never intended their NT writings to be the sole source for developing a complete doctrinal understanding of the topic. Their primary means of conveying such teaching was oral, and they just didn’t put much effort into laying it out in the gospels and epistles, which were intended as complementary and not exclusive of their oral teaching (II Thes. 2:15, etc.). One gets the feeling reading many of Paul’s epistles that he is relying on one’s understanding of a previous conversation or tying up loose ends that he didn’t address before being run out of town. It is topics and discussions like this that make what Papias wrote about listening to the apostles in person much more understandable, “For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.”

    • I meant to reply to this a while back. No need to apologize — I didn’t take any offense. I really enjoy our conversations and I’m thankful that you’re challenging me to look at things in a different way. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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