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02 May 2011

Last word: Disagreeing agreeably

Last word: Disagreeing agreeably

General Director Steve Clifford says that as one body in Christ, let's focus on our mission and not those things of secondary importance.

I find it hard to believe it is more than two years since I first started this job. Ann keeps saying I can't keep talking about 'L plates' and learning curves, but I still feel this has continued to be my daily experience in the role.

One of the high points for me over the last 24 months has been meeting up with fellow evangelical leaders from many parts of the country, a cross-section of denominations, streams, ethnic backgrounds and of course theological persuasions. If I haven't reached your part of the country yet I'm really sorry but I'm on my way. One of my predecessors, Clive Calver, who is now pastoring a church in America, commented in the 1980s that according to his calculations there were 12 tribes of evangelicals. We have gained a few more since then but as I have met up for coffee, tea, an occasional meal (and even a curry or two), I realised I was privileged to be meeting many great people, who are doing some stunning work, are passionate about serving God and making a difference where he has called them. I have also had the privilege of seeing first-hand, the Church at work on the ground and coming together from across our tribal groups to see communities reached for the gospel.

As an Evangelical Alliance our history is one of providing a meeting place for a wide body of evangelical Christians; finding a place of unity around a broad statement of faith and a series of practical resolutions. The statement of faith provides some boundaries for that word 'evangelical' while the practical resolutions put down some markers as to how we relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we might not always agree. It seems right from the start, way back in 1846, there was a recognition that we would need to work hard in order to maintain good relations.

Loving one another 

Over the years, there's been a lot of attention to the statement of faith. Articles and books have been written, debates held, sermons preached but perhaps not enough attention has been given to the practical resolutions. How can we learn to disagree agreeably, holding onto our strong convictions while remaining true to our higher calling to "love one another as he commanded us" (1 John 3:23)? As an Evangelical Alliance we are committed to modelling a generous expression of our evangelical convictions in order to see that articulated in our relationships not just to fellow evangelicals but to the wider body of Christ.

Evangelical Christians, according to D.W. Beddington in his key work Evangelicals in Modern Britain, find their unity around four areas of conviction: the authority of scripture, the centrality of the cross in our understanding of God's work in the world, the call for personal salvation and an active engagement with society. With this as a backdrop, and the Evangelical Alliance's statement of faith as a helpful summary, we quickly realise that there is a great deal that we can find ourselves disagreeing about.

I have been amazed over the years how, in so many areas of theology, ministry and lifestyle, things which I thought were pretty obvious from scripture actually were not so obvious to others. The wonderful story is told of an international congress, where one European delegation was so deeply offended that a South American beauty queen had been given platform time that they walked out in protest. Why? They felt that the exploitation and degradation of women had simply been accepted and not challenged. As the session finished, and the rest of the delegates left the hall, they were met in the hallway by the Europeans happily smoking their cigarettes and pipes, unaware how that could be regarded by Christians in other parts of the world.

As evangelical Christians we unite in key areas of faith and action but we also differ on so many. Let me list a few: women in leadership, end times, the place of Israel, the nature of hell, war, how we trust scripture, how best to explain the cross, response to climate change, baptism, church governance... I could go on.

The big question 

So the big question is - how are we going to handle our differences? How are we going to love each other even when we are convinced our brother or sister is 'just wrong'? Let me make a few suggestions: a good place for all of us is humility. You know I could be wrong, and even if I'm right, I could be disqualified from sharing my opinion because of my bad attitude. Secondly, how about respect? We are family together, brothers and sisters in Christ, surely that requires me to come to an appreciation of my family members even though I disagree with them? Thirdly, believe the best. It is so easy to slip into a way of thinking that puts the worst possible interpretation on what has been said or done. Gossip robs a person of their reputation - it's theft yet we can easily fall into it. Finally, let's make sure that when differences appear, we are committed to speaking and listening to each other - come to think of it, maybe more listening would help.

So two years into the job, here is my plea. We have a God-given call on all of our lives to participate in his mission for this world. Why would we allow ourselves to get distracted and waste ourselves on issues which - as previous Alliance director Gilbert Kirby was so fond of saying - in light of eternity, are of secondary importance?


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