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01 July 2009

The Basics: Christian brothers and sisters

The Basics: Christian brothers and sisters

This is the first in a series relating the Alliance's Practical Resolutions to the task of mission. Justin Thacker discusses...

We welcome as Christian brothers and sisters all who experience the grace of new birth, bringing them to that fear and knowledge of God which is expressed in a life of obedience to His word.

Living out our faith does more to promote genuine Christianity than merely professing it. So we seek to promote good Christian practice, as well as true Christian doctrine, not least by the manner in which we conduct our relationships with each other." So begins the preamble to the Practical Resolutions adopted by the Alliance and the then British Evangelical Council (now Affinity) in 1997.

The preamble continues: "It is intended to stand alongside our Basis of Faith, and to express how we should be treating each other. It should be seen as an integrated expression of the responsibilities we owe each other in the Body of Christ. The Executive of the BEC and the Council of EAUK commend this commitment to members as a reminder of our basic Christian duty towards fellow Christians, and in particular as a guideline when making comments in the media, in book reviews and in public ministry generally."

In John 17.20-23, Jesus directly links our unity with each other and our unity with God to our visible witness in the world. Jesus prays that as believers display such unity "then the world will know that you sent me". In a similar vein, Jesus also says, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13.35).

So if we are concerned about mission, if we desire to reach those outside our church, then necessarily we will also be concerned about visible unity. The first step on that road, at least according to these practical resolutions, is to "welcome as Christian brothers and sisters all who experience the grace of new birth".

Coming to terms

"We are quick to decide who is in and who is out"

This was the classic challenge that Peter faced as he came to terms with the salvation of the Gentiles. Almost everything he knew until that point had taught him that those who were not born Jews, or did not explicitly convert to Judaism, were outside of God's kingdom. They were the "dogs" of Revelation 22.15. Yet in his vision in Joppa, the Lord instructs Peter that he should "not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10.15). So Peter visits Cornelius, witnesses the Spirit fall in power on these Gentile believers, and in that moment his understanding of who is in and who is out is transformed.

When called to defend his actions, Peter says, "If God gave them the same gift He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God's way?" (Acts 11.17).

Similarly, at the Council in Jerusalem, Peter makes the same defence: "God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us ... for He purified their hearts by faith" (Acts 15.8). For Peter, then, it was this gift and transformation by the Spirit that demonstrated their inclusion in the kingdom of God.

In a similar manner, this first practical resolution attempts to capture the truth that we should welcome and recognise "all who experience the grace of new birth". Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, this is far from how we behave. Instead, like Peter, we are quick to decide who is in and who is out, not using the criteria that Scripture provides, but rather by establishing our own walls of division.

Defining boundaries

At times, this can manifest itself doctrinally whereby we specify with such rigidity the beliefs to which people must subscribe that frankly I'm amazed that anyone without a PhD in systematic theology can be saved. At other times, we do it behaviourally in such a way that even Jesus Christ would fail to pass the tests of the most ardent moral purists.

To give just one example, in our ongoing debates about sexual sin, one of the things worth bearing in mind is that if we take Jesus' words about lustful looks in Matthew 5.27-29 seriously then most men (and possibly most women) have at some point in their lives been guilty of sexual sin. And if we consider ourselves, despite this sin, as among those who have experienced new birth, then this means we should be cautious before prematurely declaring others to be outside God's kingdom simply because they struggle with, for instance, same-sex attractions.

The bigger issue in all this, though, is simply the fact that if we preoccupy ourselves with defining ever more precisely the boundaries of who is and who is not a genuine Christian, or who is and who is not a genuine evangelical, then we will be spending our energies on a relatively small number of people and completely ignoring the masses who undoubtedly are at present outside God's kingdom.

It strikes me that our first call is to reach out to those significant swathes of people who do not in any sense know "the grace of new birth", rather than endlessly sweat over precisely how much "new birth" people need to have before we label them as "in".

Moreover, if we got on with that first command and calling - to reach the lost - and if we did it with the unity to which we are called, then it would seem, at least according to Jesus, that this is how people will recognise both that we are His disciples and more importantly that God sent Him to save them.

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