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01 November 2009

The Basics: Diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding

The Basics: Diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding

In our series relating the Alliance's Practical Resolutions to the task of mission, Justin Thacker looks at the second resolution...

We recognise our Christian duty of trust and mutual encouragement to all who serve Christ as Lord, not least to those who conscientiously prefer not to be identified with the same churches, alliances or councils as ourselves.

Mission, I hope we would all agree, cannot be done alone. We need God's help, we need the empowering of  the Holy Spirit and we need each other. One of the more unfortunate consequences, though, of our evangelical and Protestant heritage is that at times we seem to be more drawn to division and separation than to "trust and mutual encouragement".

As an example, for those of us who are church leaders, sometimes our response to a new church that is planted down the road is a sense of competition rather than encouragement, especially if they are not identified with "the same churches, alliances or councils as ourselves".

The same thing happens in the para-church world, though here the patch is not so much geographical as organisational: "Why are they campaigning on that issue when we have the expertise?" or "Don't they realise we are the best at working with that age group?"

Of course, the good news is that it's not always like that. Perhaps just as often we see churches united together in mission in the same locality and, increasingly, different para-church organisations come together to work on the same agenda, precisely because they have expertise that they can share. Encouraging such visible expressions of unity is what  the Evangelical Alliance is all about, and two of the values at the root of such unity are highlighted in this second practical resolution.

True ownership

No geographical or organisational patch is ours, for all are Christ's

"We recognise our Christian duty ... to all who serve Christ as Lord." The key phrase here is "Christ as Lord". It is something that trips off our tongues easily in our worship songs, but is it as real in our hearts and minds? For if we really lived and breathed the lordship of Christ, then we would recognise that no geographical or organisational patch is ours, for all are Christ's. When we confess Him as Lord, it is not just as sovereign over our lives, but sovereign over the universe. So for those of us who work in the service of the King of Kings, there is no such thing as "my territory" or "my issue"; they are all His. That is what it means to be subjects in His kingdom.

And it is for precisely that reason that, whether or not different churches or organisations associate themselves with us, as long as they are also acknowledging this same Christ as Lord, then not only must we get out of the way of their kingdom proclamation, we must, as the resolution suggests, offer them "trust and encouragement". That is certainly what the apostle Paul taught us.

At least one of the problems besetting the Corinthian church was their tendency to fragmentation. In particular, they seemed to have a penchant for attaching themselves to different tribal leaders and making much of those allegiances: "I follow Paul, I follow Apollos" and so on (1 Corinthians 1.12). To that, Paul rightly asked, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?"

In other words, Paul took them to task for failing to put Christ front and centre. He went on to say, "What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe - as the Lord has assigned to each His task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3.4-7).

God makes things grow

I wonder how the evangelical world would look if we all adopted this attitude that Paul encourages. No longer would we say, "I follow this theologian", "I align with this ministry" or "I come from this movement". At least, we wouldn't say these things in the sense of excluding others, or in the sense of saying that those other theologians, or ministries or movements are not also part of what God is doing in our world.

The two specific issues that this practical resolution highlights are trust and encouragement. And, not surprisingly, they are related. If we trust someone or their ministry, we feel more comfortable in encouraging them. We are willing to bless them in their endeavours. Conversely, if we do not trust them, if we are unsure of quite what they will preach or how they will use their resources, we are less inclined to offer those words of support.

Our attitude is one of establishing trust first, then offering encouragement. The problem with this, though, is that when trust has broken down - for whatever reason - then a pattern of mutual encouragement almost never returns.

Perhaps what is required instead is to recognise that if we seek first to encourage, then as a result mutual trust might grow. Encouragement actually builds relationships and ultimately builds trust.

In particular, encouraging those who may be outside of our particular circles might be a way to forge relationships with them. It sends a message of openness, a willingness to engage, to support and work together. Others may not wish to be identified with us, but that is no excuse not to encourage them as together we serve the Lord. After all, it remains His kingdom and His glory we seek, not our own.

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