Thursday, 27 August 2009

Two forms of unity

Reflections on how to practically work out the call to unity between Christians and churches in an age where the faithfulness of church fellowships is very varied:

The New Testament commands overseers to protect their flock from false teaching. Due to the current doctrinal diversity within the Church of England it has therefore become necessary to clarify the grounds for Christian unity and outline some means of ensuring the teaching of biblical truth.

Relational unity.

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Ephesians 4:2-6
All true Christians are united in Christ simply on the grounds of their common faith in him. The New Testament teaches the bare rudiments of that faith to be as follows:
  • Admitting our need of God’s forgiveness to escape his judgement and receive everlasting life (Luke 18:9-14, 1 John 1:8-10).
  • Believing that Jesus was and is fully God and fully man, and that he enabled us to receive this forgiveness and life through his death and bodily resurrection from the dead (John 5:23b, 1 John 2:22-23, Romans 11:9).
  • Calling on Jesus as our Saviour for these things, recognising that we receive them by no moral or religious merit of our own, but only by his free gift of them to us (Acts 4:12, Romans 10:1-4, 11:9-12).
  • Devoting ourselves to live in obedience to Jesus as Lord and so shaping our lives to that end (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 John 2:3-6, Hebrews 10:26-27).
Undoubtedly, certain churches that teach these things may veer from scripture on other matters in quite serious ways. Yet we are not at liberty to assume such churches are void of the life of God: For where they comprise true believers, they comprise those bought with the blood of Christ and renewed by the power of his Spirit.

Likewise, we will certainly differ from other believers in all manner of things, and where feasible are to help one-another toward greater conformity to scripture. But we are not at liberty to cease loving and respecting one-another as we do so, nor question one-another’s salvation over less central matters.

There is no place for ridicule, slander, or partisanism amongst God’s people. All believers are Christ’s body; and so as we treat one-another, so we treat Christ.

Operational unity.
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
2 Timothy 4:1-4
Having noted our relational unity in Christ, we must also note the need of good bible teaching if churches are to protect and develop the faith of their members. It seems only responsible then to ensure that those we unite with operationally - i.e. churches and missionary organisations that we commend or work alongside - are those that better conform to scripture.

Here a distinction between essentials and distinctives is important. The former comprises primary issues which must either be believed for salvation, or that if denied, are likely to undermine salvation. It seems wise that these should provide boundaries to operational unity. The latter comprises those secondary issues which, though important, should never prohibit operational unity, and should be gracefully tolerated by those who differ from them.

The following summarises the bible’s essentials:
  1. There is one God, absolutely good, pure, loving, and just, who eternally exists in three distinct persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  2. God is the supreme ruler of the universe, governing all matters of creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement according to the faultless purpose of his will.
  3. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and so infallible word of God. It is entirely trustworthy in all it asserts for salvation and righteousness, and so the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
  4. The Law of God is the eternal and unchangeable rule of his moral government, it is binding on all, yet to be obeyed not to merit salvation, but as the fruit of true faith. The essence of the law is love for God and neighbour, including a rejection of all false religion, blasphemy, hatred, extra-marital or homosexual sex, dishonesty, slander, greed, and drunkenness.
  5. Since the fall, all humankind has disobeyed God’s law and is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.
  6. The Lord Jesus Christ is God’s incarnate Son, fully God yet born of a virgin, fully man yet without sin. He died on the cross, was raised bodily from death, and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
  7. Sinful human beings are forgiven and freed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of Jesus Christ, the only mediator between humanity and God. On the cross Jesus bore sin’s punishment as a substitute for all who would turn from their sin and trust in him.
  8. Those who repent and believe in Jesus are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God’s sight because the righteousness of Christ is then counted as their own. This justification is God’s act of undeserved mercy, or grace, received solely by trusting him for it, and not on the grounds of moral or religious effort.
  9. The Holy Spirit alone applies the work of Christ to individual sinners, enabling them to understand and accept God’s word, turn to him from their sin, and trust in his Son Jesus.
  10. The Holy Spirit lives in all those he regenerates in this way, writing the law on their hearts, making them increasingly Christ-like in character and behaviour, and giving them power and gifts for witness in the world and service of the church.
  11. The one holy universal church is the Body of Christ comprising all true believers. Its local expression is the primary means by which God matures his people and extends his kingdom.
  12. The Lord Jesus will return in person, to raise and judge all humanity, justly sentencing those who have not repented and believed in him to everlasting destruction in hell, and mercifully receiving the redeemed to everlasting glory in a new heaven and earth.
The above doctrinal basis is to be assented to by:
  • Those regularly teaching in our church.
It is also preferable that the beliefs of the following are in general conformity to it:
  1. The overall pastor of any church we are to encourage attendance at.
  2. The overall pastor of any church we are to engage in mission with.
  3. The overall pastor of any church we might financially support.
  4. Any missionary organisation we might encourage involvement in.
  5. Any missionary organisation we might financially support
We must be clear that being united in Christ with all believers doesn’t mean that we should be blind to the merits of some churches or organisations over others, nor that we should seek to bring all believers together under one denominational umbrella or even work together in all we do. Unity is expressed by warmth between Christians and similarity in conviction, not co-ordination of activity.

Just as any organisation achieves much more as each department does its own work, so very often does God’s family. As we all seek a clearer understanding of scripture, each denomination or church is likely not just to own different errors, but also different strengths that can be promoted for the good of the whole.

The following is a list of distinctives, which we believe are scriptural, and that we hope under God we can gracefully offer to the richness of his universal church. These should never be a barrier to relational or operational unity. Nevertheless, we would ask all our members to respect our convictions about them, raising any uncertainties with the leadership, and conforming to them if teaching or leading others within this church.

Position papers on each should be available to be downloaded from the church website.
  1. The baptism of children on the grounds of their parents’ repentance and faith.
  2. The use of responsive liturgy within services.
  3. A focus on expository preaching through books of the bible.
  4. An open but cautious perspective on contemporary charismatic theology.
  5. Remarriage only of those divorced through another’s adultery or after desertion.