Divisions which have developed over the last decade mean that evangelical unity is at an all time low. The effects have been disastrous – tribes no longer speak to each other and the witness to the world is damaged. So how do we overcome these divisions and strive for unity for the sake of the gospel?
They had each seen the advert in a Christian magazine. It was for a Christian singles house party taking place over a long weekend in the New Year. On the first evening, nine of them sat round having a late night drink in the hotel lounge and informally introduced themselves to each other.
Alan worked for a Japanese car manufacturer based in Sunderland and spent his summer vacations leading youth groups on mountain climbing expeditions in Scotland. Brian was a representative for a pharmaceuticals company based in Nottingham and had a heart for homeless people. Jo was a palliative care nurse working in a hospice in the Home Counties. Her younger sister had died from cancer when she was 24 and Jo had a special concern to support the families of patients with cancer. Kwame was a financial consultant from Ghana, living in South London and passionate about football. He not only saw the home matches of his beloved Chelsea but travelled to a majority of their away games. Rachel was a dress designer from Liverpool and had met all the ‘big names’ in the rag trade. She was a new Christian and hoping to find more life and fun at the houseparty than she had encountered in the traditional church where she was worshipping. Steve was a computer programmer from South Wales. His father was a pastor and Steve had rebelled against his parents’ spiritual and moral values during his teens. Now looking for a spiritual home where he would be comfortable, Steve was relieved to be with a group of people who knew nothing about his past.
I have conducted numerous house parties where I have met this broad cross section of God’s family. There is sufficient diversity when a group of Christians describe where they live, what they do and their passions in life. But if you add to this mix their doctrinal emphases, denominational backgrounds, worship preferences and personality types, then deep differences will emerge.
Unique unity in Christ
Those who have confessed Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9–10) are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). One way to understand the phrase ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ is ‘You are one person in Christ Jesus.’ In most parts of the world, differences are made to matter and diversity is a major barrier to uniting people. The uniqueness of the Christian family is that our unity is grounded in diversity. Humanly speaking, Christians in the UK are an incredibly diverse group of people, but if you add to this the membership of God’s family in scores of nations, you have diversity with a capital D! But in Jesus Christ, this multi-coloured diversity is focused exclusively on the one who by his sacrifice has made our amazing unity possible.
There are three key areas which for centuries have been flash points for divisions between people. Society has frequently made differences matter when it comes to ethnic background, social class and gender. History teaches us that racial prejudice, unjust class divisions and the subjugation of women have been the cause of violence and civil unrest.
The unique message of those who are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ is ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’ (Galatians 3:28). Differences are not meant to matter when it comes to membership in God’s family. Whatever our ethnic background, social status or gender, if we have been saved by faith in Christ, we have been born again into a new family. God is our heavenly Father and we are his children: all believers in Christ are united as brothers and sisters in the one family. The point to note in this passage from Galatians is that the world made differences matter in the first century and this attitude was marring the full potential of experiencing the diverse unity that God had planned for his family. Jesus Christ, by his atoning death and mighty resurrection, has inaugurated a new family which renders null and void the differences which the world says matter.
The message of Galatians is plain. Guard this unique unity you have in Christ. In our concern to defend the truth of the gospel and the purity of the Church, we can be tempted to introduce ‘add-ons’ to the faith. God says membership in his family is based on trusting ‘In Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.’ When we say this principle is insufficient and insist on further proofs, such as precisely defining aspects of doctrine and lifestyle, then we are in danger of lapsing into legalism as a basis for relating, and going beyond scripture which says we are to accept one another as Christ has accepted us (Romans 15:7).
There are important issues on which Christians disagree. But must there be full agreement on all matters of doctrine before we can extend the hand of fellowship? Issues that can divide evangelicals include creation, eschatology, atonement, women in ministry, gifts of the spirit, hell, Israel, interpreting scripture and sexuality.
No one doubts the seriousness of these issues. But do I have to check that the views of another Christian are totally in accord with my views before I can accept them as a believer? Or am I prepared to stand on the principle that those who have been saved by Jesus Christ are all one in him? There is a unity between the saved and the saviour and a unity that binds together all the saved.
Why unity matters
Given that evangelicals will always have their differences – sometimes serious to breaking point – why do we need to lay stress on evangelical unity? Is it not more desirable that when we reach a point where serious differences are damaging us spiritually and emotionally, we agree to a separation?
I fear that currently in the evangelical world we are reliving Paul and Barnabas’ experience of sharp disagreement which led to a parting of the ways (Acts 15:36–40). But note this scripture passage is not a mandate for division: rather it is an encouragement to strive even more for the unity of the gospel in the bonds of peace.
I suggest there are six reasons why evangelical unity matters:
1. The truth of the gospel
Our unity is intended to be a witness to the truth of the gospel. Those who profess they are saved by faith through grace a visual aid of the reconciling power of the gospel. Jesus Christ broke down the walls of partition that divided us from God and each other and, by his death, reconciled us to himself. Jesus by his death also healed our divisions and abolished the human barriers that separate people from each other.
2. God’s intentions for his family
God intends his family to enjoy close fellowship with each other. We should not learn about each other through third and fourth hand opinions. Differences of emphasis and deep disagreements have always been a feature among evangelicals, but we have neglected to our cost the value of meeting with those with whom we have the deepest disagreements. Our Pharisaic attitudes are a poor witness to the unity that God wants, as is our speaking of other family members in a graceless tone.
Wherever the Church is persecuted by a despotic state, the process is typically:
1) Disinformation through the media.
2) Denigration of leaders to discredit their character.
3) Discrimination which deliberately marginalises.
I find this same pattern of disinformation, denigration and discrimination in parts of the evangelical world. It is a dreadful stain on our Christian witness and needs to be addressed.
3. Tribal gatherings exclude people
We are diminished when we choose to meet only members of our tribe. One of the most damaging features of evangelical life is our structured gatherings which one of my friends has described as: “hermetically sealed communities where we only meet with those we broadly agree with”. We are more comfortable meeting in conferences with people who do things our way. Some conference organisers aim for the highest common denominator when issuing invitations to speakers – if you can tick all our boxes then you can grace our platform.
4. Evangelical core commitments
If we meet in what Os Guinness calls our ‘enclaves of separateness’ then we lack a broad forum to debate the substantive issues of the day. It is a matter of urgency that we create an ongoing forum to come up with a definition of one of the major issues facing us: What is an evangelical? Will this be a ‘tribal’ theological description which will simultaneously include and exclude? Will we be open to both traditional and progressive ways of describing evangelical identity? Such a forum would provide space to debate some of the most divisive issues. What is lacking between the tribes at present is agreement about core evangelical commitments. We need to find ways of articulating what is primary and what is secondary. In which areas may we exercise legitimate plurality? How do we interact graciously with those we differ from doctrinally? There need to be ground rules for articulating our differences graciously. These debates need to take place in a forum which includes all the tribes.
5. Local pressures
Our national disunity places pastoral pressures on the local church. The national and international debates among evangelicals are influential in the life of the local church. Tapes from the ministry of Keswick, Spring Harvest, New Word Alive, New Wine, Proclamation Trust, church.co.uk etc, are freely shared among the home groups of dozens of local churches. Sharing in the local church is a natural part of life together in a local fellowship and linking with a national conference can be the means of spiritual blessing. The danger comes when there are subtle pressures to conform to a particular pattern of doctrinal teaching with no freedom to dissent. Under the influence of a national movement, we can become more guarded in expressing fellowship with local believers, and expressions of local unity can be weakened as a result. We can end up feeling a greater loyalty to a national movement that defines and speaks more clearly for us, than we do to the local expression of unity.
6. The spiritual needs of the world
The spiritual needs of the world command a greater unity. Our disunity weakens the potential for thoughtful and effective evangelism in the UK. Unquestionably, the greatest challenge facing all the UK churches is how we reach a new generation of citizens with the good news of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, evangelistic initiatives have been the strongest contribution the evangelical movement has made to the British church scene. It was the zeal and vision of evangelicals which lay behind the initial invitation to Billy Graham, whose ministry in the 1950s-1980s brought thousands to Christ. Only later did the wider church back this initiative.
Linking unity with evangelism corresponds with the emphasis Jesus gave to his disciples and the indivisible relationship between the unity of disciples and their effective mission. We need to reflect seriously on the words of Jesus: “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35) and his prayer that his disciples would be brought to complete unity “to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Jesus emphasised unity and evangelism when he spoke of the disciples’ unity and the effectiveness of their mission. It applies just as much to us.
These are gospel commands and presumably, where there is a failure in obedience, we are allowing our divisions to say to the world “We hate each other.” This is a sinful disobedience by the Church which carries a high penalty in a world starved of gospel knowledge and kingdom power.
Unity among evangelicals has never been as threatened as it is now, with the apparent divisions that have developed over the last decade.
Evangelicals are losing the ground that we gained in the 1970s and 1980s when we honoured and accepted one another with greater grace across the denominational and organisational divisions. It grieves my spirit that evangelicals cannot find a greater gospel unity, and I fear we are in grave danger of missing the fullest expression of evangelical cooperation to face the demanding missionary opportunities here in the UK.
I accept that when it comes to the interpretation of biblical truth, differences do matter and deep issues of conscience must be addressed. It is, however, unacceptable and contrary to scriptural unity that we appear no longer to meet, talk and debate our differences. Evangelical unity has always been a fragile part of our identity and we have been more diverse than we are prepared to acknowledge.
Evangelical tribes are much more complex than they first appear and there has always been disagreement on a range of issues. But in our diversity, we have always affirmed that our unity is more important than our disagreements. We have symbolised this unity through our support for the Evangelical Alliance and national initiatives such as CARE, Care for the Family and the international ministry of Tearfund.
For all the plethora of national conferences, there is no one place where we can hear a range of evangelical voices. We have deepened the tribal identities by inviting speakers who are carefully chosen to reflect the emphasis of the organisation. Ten years ago there would be a number of speakers whose ministry was accepted across the tribal divides. It is a sign of the times that today there are only a handful of speakers who could unite evangelicals in a conference. Similarly there is a lack of Christian journals read by the whole constituency which are constructively critical of evangelical life. We have succumbed to ‘talking up’ an event without critical evaluation. Whatever our tribal affiliation, this lack of critical yet affirming evaluation needs to be acknowledged.
We attend our tribal conferences, read our tribal newspapers and listen to tapes by our tribal leaders and all the time the challenge of Acts 15 is avoided. The Jerusalem gathering was a defining moment in the life of the early church when differences where brought out into the open and the believers were seen to be making ‘every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3).
Our Acts 15 moment has arrived. It just needs someone to send out the invitations.
This is an adapted extract from All One in Christ Jesus by David Coffey (Authentic/Keswick). Used with permission.