Adventures in Christian Unity

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Scott Kistler in The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism, The World-Wide World

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 Rick 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.

  1. paul says:

    good good article. I agree with almost everything you say and am passionate about this subject. God’s blueprint for church in scripture indeed seems to be “one city, one church, one administration”. The apostle’s creed, I believe, is bedrock for christian agreement and unity. We like to add this doctrine or that doctrine to the apostle’s creed and so creating further division. Every time doctrine is added to the creed and is made a bigger deal than fellowship and unity, division occurs. People just go and make a new church. Now we have many churches in a city and the world doesn’t know where to look. This is the weakness of protestantism. This has been happening for a long time (Martin Luther). The word catholic means universal. The catholic church tries to have one universal global church. One administration for the entire world. This also in my opinion is faulty. God’s design in scripture seems to be “one city, one church, one administration”. Citywide churches are autonomous and have relationship with other citywide churches through apostolic ministries. There are no national affiliations of churches based on doctrine in scripture. We must choose fellowship over doctrine in our cities and continue to walk together in life so the Spirit can shape our doctrine and agreement. We must have the maturity, grace and humility to see that noone has God completely figured out and that we are all on a journey in Christ at differing stages and should not be proud or overbearing if we have great understanding. If we are too proud, we will insist and be dogmatic and break fellowship. That’s religion showing its ugly self. With the apostle Paul, the more that was revealed to him, the more humility he walked in. He taught and brought harmony on issues of food to be eaten or of the sabbath keeping buy instructing whoever had the greater faith should keep in mind his brother so as not cause him/her to stumble. Fellowship and love among bretheren is paramount, despite the differences. Paul was dealing with jews and greeks sitting together. It’s all about glorifying the Son by reforming into one living unified body and representation of our God who is a triune God. 3 persons, 1 God, perfect in nature, union, function and agreement. The commanded blessing of bretheren in unity and the glory of the Father and the Son upon us is what we need to walk in so the world will know that the Father has sent the Son. The apostle Paul is always encouraging believers to unity and calls them immature when we break into schisms like some were saying in his day “I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas” etc. Christian unity and love reflects the nature of the Father and we are to be like Him. Until the importance of christian unity is paramount for many many, we will, in my opinion, continue to be a house divided and the glory/reflection of Christ be dim. I think that to come to a practical/functional unity, however, we may have to put our beloved denominational identifications on the altar to see if God wants them to live or not. Would we be willing? Is it enough to “shake hands over the fences”? Is that the Father’s plan? I think we really need a reformation…that is a re formation of churches in a city. Church leaders as you mentioned, must begin to prefer one another and do the one anothers of scripture together. At some point, others who undergird and lead and support get on board. And then others. And then others. I can see small groups and fellowship and committed relationships across denominational lines where there was none before even though they may have lived just down the road. Geography is important. God will lead. He will build the house, build His church, according to the blueprint he has set out (just like the tabernacle and the temple of stone had exact instructions) so His church will be built together to be a dwelling place where He lives by his Spirit……..and His glory will fill the house. Hopefully in my lifetime we will break dividing walls………….

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