At Cor Deo we recently had a conversation about Christian unity. How do we, as believers, determine with whom we can work? In recent decades this has been an important conversation as evangelistic campaigns became a feature of the evangelical landscape, not least because of the growth in numbers of denominations. And as we discuss issues of Christian unity, we also feel the sadness as this year’s Cor Deo training programme is drawing to a close. Why is it that we feel such a sense of loss as we head our separate ways to serve the Lord?
The whole issue of Christian unity is typically addressed by a shifting scale of truth declarations. There is a category of primary, essential or core doctrines. Then there is a category of secondary or non-essential doctrines. And some will speak of a third category of personal preferences. Sounds all very helpful. But how are the lines drawn, and by whom?
Well, typically the primary issues will relate to statements about the Bible, the trinity, the deity of Christ, the lostness of humanity, the “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” nature of salvation, etc. And apparently, so the common logic goes, as long as we can find agreement at this level, then it is possible to work together. Issues in secondary and tertiary categories can be overlooked if there is unity at the level of a broadly evangelical statement of faith.
Secondary issues might include such issues as positions on origins, eschatology, form of baptism and so on. Differences at this level do not negate the possibility of fellowship, or working together, but might hinder association in the context of a local church.
Tertiary issues of preference might include disagreements over style of worship music, preferences over dress codes and so on. Dividing into different churches at this level of issue can be frowned upon as the church will then end up divided into special interest groups and lack the diverse multifaceted intricacy of God’s wisdom manifest for the watching eyes of the spiritual realm (see Ephesians 3:10).
So the logic is simple: fellowship and work together with folks who agree on the primary issues, do church together with folks that agree on the secondary issues, seek to do church together with those who differ at the tertiary level and be gracious in everything.
As we come to the final week of the Cor Deo full-time programme in 2013, I can’t help but ponder the logic of this rubric for Christian unity. A group of participants from different churches, different cultures, different backgrounds and with different personalities, different ages, and different interests. Is the profound sense of unity that we feel really the fruit of agreement in the primary issues and graciousness in the tertiary? Is our unusual sense of unity based on agreement on secondary issues? In reality the three-part scale doesn’t seem to be a helpful road map to the unity we feel, even though it may have some value as we move out into different settings.
During the six months together we haven’t “majored on minors” in order to create unity at a secondary or tertiary level. We honestly don’t know where each person stands on these types of issues. And as far as primary issues are concerned, we could have declared agreement on those after a couple of days. So where does the unity come from?
The sliding scale of truth declarations emphasizes truth, but lacks recognition of other “softer” issues relating to unity. We have grown to trust one another, recognizing integrity in each other and being bonded through shared experience and relational reciprocity. “Doing life together” does something in us because we are relationally designed. Perhaps churches would do well to look beyond post-meeting handshake fellowship as the pursuit of unity. Avoiding close interpersonal life-on-life experience does not foster unity, it may undermine it by making the unity entirely too brittle.
But simply switching from truth declarations to the experience of life and relationship together is too much of a leap. In reality the unity we feel at Cor Deo has been fostered in a very specific context that combines truth with life. Let me briefly describe what I mean:
The list of primary issues can easily be checked off a list by would-be ministry partners. And it is true that relationships tend to bond in the context of shared life experience and mutual trust. But the blessing of something like Cor Deo combines the two (and herein is a lesson for local churches too) . . .
Affirming a list of primary issues by signing off on a statement of faith is not difficult, and it is not the path to unity. Remember, the devil could sign your statement of faith as true!
How much more is unity generated by sharing the life experience of probing and exploring the realities reflected in a statement of faith? That is, take a group of people eager to probe together the big five issues of Christianity: who is God and what is He like?; what is man and what does it mean to be made in His image?; what is sin and how profound is the human problem?; what is grace and how wonderful is God’s solution?; what is Christian life and how do we grow in the faith? Five big questions: God, man, sin, grace, life.
If churches could find a way to stop pretending unity is guaranteed by agreeing on a statement of faith and striving to not fall out over tertiary issues, and instead be drawn together by a shared pursuit of the good God who stands behind these big five issues, with hearts open to each other and to what the Bible has to say . . . well, perhaps Christian unity would not feel so brittle.
Cor Deo has been a privilege again this year, because God brought together a diverse group of people hungry to know and love Him. As we pray about who will join us next year, let’s all be praying for more churches that are bonded together by a profound pursuit of this God who is so worth knowing!