This is a guest blog from Jared White of Finite Calls Infinite. Jared is a musician, a Web developer, a photographer, and a Charismatic Christian who believes that the Spirit of God is moving dramatically across the world today and impacting entire nations with the Gospel of the Kingdom.
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” — II Timothy 2:22-26
In both of Paul’s letters to his young protégé, Timothy, he commands him several times to avoid irrelevant babble, myths, controversies, endless debate of genealogies (something that apparently was a huge deal in those times!), ignorant arguments over finer points of the law, and so forth. Over and over again, Paul entreats him to focus on the revelation of Jesus and the things that Jesus taught and the facts of His death and resurrection and ultimate authority in Heaven and on earth. Why is this important? Why does Paul ask Timothy to be a teacher and stand firm against false teaching and false doctrines, yet at the some time reinforce the policy that controversy, argument, and vain quarreling be avoided?
In Part 1 of this series, I referenced Jesus’ prayer that His disciples (which includes all of us who follow Him today) be one with Him and in Him just as He was one with the Father, and that we would be one with each other. In part 2, I broached the subject of Christian unity in a fractured age and how loving one another as Christ loves us will bring about Kingdom transformation in our local communities. The big question I want to address in this the final installment is: how can we have unity and fellowship together as Christians when our various doctrines and beliefs and traditions are all so wildly different? So many churches, so little trust — can that ever change? Should it?
The way I see it, there are three basic viewpoints on this matter. The first is that only certain denominations, or even one denomination, is the True Church and everyone else is in error or apostate in some significant way. For lack of a better term, I would call this the fundamentalist position. Unity therefore can only go so far — perhaps in some common dialog or charity work — but beyond that, fellowship barriers go up and congregational division must be maintained. I can walk into any number of Catholic churches today and be denied the Lord’s Supper due to the fact that I have not taken the steps necessary to be accepted into Catholic circles. And lest I be one-sided in my examples, there are numerous Protestant churches that refuse to have any association with Catholics and accuse their traditions and their leadership — especially the Pope — of honoring satan rather than Jesus. It goes far beyond that classic split — there are independent churches, often of the Charismatic/Pentacostal vein, that denounce all denominations as heretical and against the mission of Jesus. And there are inter-denominational squabbles that have wracked the Church in recent times, often over the issues of gender and sexual orientation. I don’t think this is what Jesus was thinking of when he prayed that we would all be one in Christ and love one another. As long as the Church is divided to such a wide-ranging extent, the world will not see the Kingdom transformation that Jesus died and paid for with His own blood.
The second viewpoint is the liberal, or universalist position, which basically states that all roads lead to the Divine, or at least those that make Jesus the hero, and we simply need to set our differences aside and work together on the important stuff, like feeding the poor or saving the environment or fighting government corruption. All noble causes to be sure, but doctrinal differences aren’t non-important. Feeding the poor is just as vital as establishing who Jesus is in relation to the Father or establishing the boundaries of sin when it comes to sexual relationships or upholding the rights of the unborn. Social justice, personal responsibility for holy behavior, compassion for those who aren’t following Jesus, and love of eternal truths, must stand together or else die apart. Actions alone can’t dictate spiritual reality — after all, Buddhists and atheists give food to the poor. There must be an additional element of governmental authority that Jesus Christ exercises over His people that absolutely sets the boundaries of right and wrong, and only with this reverential mindset can we hope to see real change in people’s hearts and minds and in the governments of this age.
Which brings me to my third viewpoint, which I don’t really know what to call. I prefer to name it the charitable viewpoint, in the words of St. Augustine: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity. This viewpoint is simple: if someone declares Jesus as Lord and Savior, co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and is not living an obviously sinful lifestyle (i.e., engaged in theft, murder, sexual immorality, slander, abusive behavior, etc.), then I will be glad to join hands in fellowship to worship God together in love. And when I am unable come together on that level of unity, I will still choose to be charitable and show compassion towards them as Christ commands — correcting my opponents with gentleness, as Paul says, and avoiding unnecessary and unfruitful quarrels. Now there are some who would say that I am naive to believe in this way, that just trying to be Mr. Nice Guy will result in a watering down of vital truths and in everyone hating me on all sides. And there are others who would say that my refusing to accept certain lifestyles or beliefs and daring to label sin a sin is still fundamentalist and that all the smiles in the world can’t hide my bigotry. I realize that I cannot please everyone. But my sincere hope is that when someone takes the first step to cut the ties and prepare for war, it won’t be me.
You see, I believe that Jesus’ prayer that we all be one so that the world will know that Jesus was sent by God is not unanswerable. I believe it will be answered, and it has been answered in part already. The importance of unity in the Spirit, of coming together not because of doctrinal agreement and common creed but because of mutual identity as children of God saved from wrath by grace and righteousness, is because of the importance of the mission. The Great Commission that Jesus gave us wasn’t that we would all fully agree with one another, but that we would go out and make disciples of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t that His Denomination would come and His propositional truths be sung, but that His Kingdom would come and His Will would be done. It’s not about us, it’s about God. His Kingdom. His plan. His mission. His love. His grace. The more we realize that the world isn’t seeking truth in statement, it’s seeking truth in life, we will realize that we teach sound doctrine largely by living out the Christ-life that Jesus modeled for us.
I could go on, but as this post is already quite long, I want to close by answering my original question. Does the world know? Does the world know that God sent Jesus to us? Does the world know that God loves His people just as He loves His Son? Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? Has the vision that He laid out in this prayer come to pass? If not, why not?
Jesus’ prayer has not been answered only to the extent that we fight against it. If we really believed that Jesus desires that Christians be one with the Father, loving one another as Christ loves us, we would model our churches differently. Denominations would be about common purpose and the beauty and inspiration of traditions that have gone before us, rather than about exclusivity and creedal affirmation. Independent churches would be about a vibrant expression of local culture and a willingness to be on the cutting edge of missional outreach, rather than a rejection of all that is rooted in the past and a mindset of isolation apart from the wider Christian community. Church networks would be about reaching the unreachable and loving the unlovable, planting Kingdom churches in a variety of settings and contexts, rather than building commercial enterprises and entertaining the masses with superficial glitz instead of teaching the timeless truths of the Jesus way.
People may be buzzing about the “missional church” a lot these days, but the concept is nothing new. Jesus founded the missional church 2,000 years ago. We are called to be missional, but only when we come together in unity and fellowship can we see the mission of Jesus come to its fullest expression in all the earth. Love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8), so let us love one another as we seek to step into our glorious destiny as children of the Lord Most High.
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” John 17:1b-5