Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

In Pursuit of Unity (Sep-Oct 1999)

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by Rubel Shelly
September – October, 1999

It is a difficult thing to acknowledge, pursue, and implement. The unity of the Body of Christ is not, after all, an achievement we fabricate and offer to God. It is created by a gift of divine grace and offered to all those who seek to follow Jesus in true faith and daily obedience to his will (cf. Ephesians 4:1ff).

The human obligation is to pursue unity without compromising what one believes to be the truth. Yet the human presumption seems to be that one’s own understanding at the moment is the truth and that anyone who holds a contrary view is wrong and unworthy of fellowship. Thus the arrogance of sectarianism. Thus the isolation of believers from one another. Thus the harsh judgments so often made by one person or group against another.

A humbler approach permits one to function within his or her own beliefs, maintain dialogue with persons of good faith who have different understandings, and work together with those persons in areas of shared conviction. Churches of Christ haven’t bee known for this humbler approach in the past half century or so. We have isolated ourselves and become known as “the people who think they are the only ones going to heaven.”

Alexander Campbell represented a consortium of Protestant denominations in defense of the Christian faith when he debated Robert Owen in April of 1829 and preached for the largest church in Cincinnati – the Methodist Church – on the Sunday following. David Lipscomb drove a buggy for Roman Catholic sisters to assist in treating the victims of a terrible cholera epidemic in Middle Tennessee back in 173 and preached for both instrumental and a capella churches in his own fellowship. When I was 14 years odl, I preached for an annual Decoration Day event in West Tennessee that had been co-hosted for years by the local Pentecostal Church, Baptist Church, and Church of Christ.

Today it is often presumed that Churches of Christ will not join community worship events or evangelistic outreach, will not help fund Christian ministries whose boards are not drawn exclusively from their own ranks, and will not permit believers from other fellowships to benefit directly from those parachurch ministries they do control (e.g., adopt children thorugh a Church of Christ-sponsored home or child-care agency). There are exceptions to the rule, but they are clearly exceptions rather than the rule. The churches or agencies that are exceptions are typically castigated and no longer supported by those who subscribe to the more general and accepted policy of exclusivism.

The notable exceptions to the general rule of religious particularity are things such as community referendums on liquor by the drink, parimutuel gambling, so-called “adult entertainment” and the like. This is a distinction our Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, and other religious neighbors find hard to understand. We can oppose evil with them but cannot jointly do something that we all believe to be holy?

The shepherds of my home church have adopted a different policy. We look for, are open to, and help create opportunities for believers from different backgrounds to share in spiritual experiences that give glory to the Lord Jesus Christ and show his compassion to people in need.

Yes, we have participated in community campaigns against alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, pornography, and abortion on demand. But we are even more interested in positive experiences of affirmation and fellowship.

“I knew it!,” someone chortles. “You fellowship people from the denominations!” Well, yes and no. I/we fellowship Pentecostals, Baptists, and Methodists in ways hardly dissimilar to my/our fellowship of men and women from the Church of Christ. In matters where we believe something true, beneficial, and Christ-honoring is happening, I/we participate and affirm the event. In matters where we think otherwise about the event or process, I/we don’t.

For about a decade, we have been open to participation in community events of worship with others who honor Jesus Christ. Around holidays like Easter and Christmas and in season such as Thanksgiving, we are pleased to celebrate foundational events of our fatih and to honor God as the giver of all good gifts. Good things ranging from pot-lucks to new friendships, from new first-time visitors to baptisms that unite families in Christ have resulted. A methodist minister recently used our baptistery to immerse a teenager who requested immersion after completing his Confirmation classes.

My relationship with ministers and pastors from other churches has led to events ranging from teaching hermeneutics to the entire staff of a Pentecostal Church to co-hosting a Lyle Schaller seminar with a Christian Church to preaching for an African-American Baptist Church on the anniversary celebration of its pastor’s 19th year f service. We have also hosted more than a dozen of these ministers to preach, teach special classes, or otherwise participate in events at Woodmont Hills.

After the burning of several church structures in the South in 1995 and 1996, our church linked arms with well over fifty congregations across denominations and racial lines to help raise money to rebuild them. Good Samaritans traveling along highways where thugs have beaten someone up don’t ask the victim’s name, race, and religious preference before stopping to help. They rush over and give aid. And that is true of Good Samaritan churches as well as Good Samaritan individuals.

Many of these activities have grown out of the most important trans-denominational event in which I participate. When the pastor of an 8,000-member church in Nashville was hit with a high-profile scandal within his congregation that was disrupting his church’s life, he phoned seven or eight ministers he believed he could trust. He asked us to meet with him on a Thursday morning to pray for him as he attempted to minister to a family being threatened by sin and a church being distracted by intense media attention.

After a couple of hours in tears and prayer, the group was getting up from a conference table to leave. Then a pastor from a Baptist Church asked all of us to sit down. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said, “but I need this sort of environment on a regular basis. I need people I can trust to give me counsel and to support me in prayer as I try to honor the Lord.” We have been meeting once a month for over five years now, and twice each year we go away for a two- or three-day retreat. We study Scripture. We confess weakness, frustration, and sin. We encourage one another. We seek the Lord.

On the first Sunday of the new millennium, our churches – inviting people from all over Middle Tennessee who wish to join us – are planning to assemble in the 16,000-seat Gaylord Entertainment Center (formerly called the Nashville Arena) in downtown Nashville to worship together. We will bear joint and unified witness not to any denomination but to Jesus Christ. Without abandoning our separateness as congregations or our distinctives of belief and practice, we will use January 2, 2000, to affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord and call the people of our city to seek him with their whole hearts. All the money collected in an offereing at the afternoon event – as well as the total Sunday morning offering of most of the churches sponsoring it – will be delivered to dinstinctly Christian ministries serving the poor of Nashville. The overhead expenses for renting the arena and costs related thereto will have been paid in advance by the churches and corporate or individual donors.

Then, in June of 2000, Woodmont Hills will help host a Billy Graham Crusade – perhaps the final one Dr. Graham will preach personally – in Nashville. In response to his preaching, people will be called to “make a decision to follow Jesus Christ” and come to the stage arena in Nashville’s new NFL football stadium for counseling about the implications of their decision. Respondents will self-select counselors out of their religious background or preference. I will be there – along with ministers from other Churches of Christ in the city and region – to assist those who respond and designate the Church of Christ.

There will always be believers in Jesus Christ who have particular takes on doctrines ranging from the trinity to baptismal theology to church government to eschatology. When we get to heaven, perhaps the first few millennia will be used for instruction that will get all of us convinced and uniform in our understanding. Until then, God calls his people to pursue unity amidst our flawed ideas and sinful behaviors. Our history and heritage say we are interested in this pursuit. Our actions need to match our words.Wineskins Magazine

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