I spent most of this week with Christians I disagree with.
It was great.
The annual gathering of our denomination took place over the last few days, and as the new pastor of our church, I got to attend for the first time. I say “got to attend,” not “had to attend.” Because it really was a privilege. As someone new to New England, new to rural life, and new to full-time ministry, I need all the help I can get. This week has provided me with great opportunities to connect with and learn from others who are a few steps farther down this road. I am so looking forward to continuing these relationships in the days and years to come as we all work together for the faith of the gospel.
Denominations, like churches, come in all kinds of flavors, and in all states of spiritual health. They may be divided or united, competitive or cooperative, top-down or bottom-up, structured or spontaneous, growing or shrinking. They may embrace Christ, proclaim Christ, affirm Christ, assume Christ, or deny Christ. An unhealthy denomination can be a burden; a healthy one a rich blessing.
No group of people outside the New Jerusalem is perfect. And I’m sure there will be downs as well as ups in my relationship with this association of churches, as there will be in my relationship with my own congregation. But I come away from this week very grateful for our denomination, for two reasons.
First, I am grateful for my denomination because we are united in our confession of Christ. We come together as people who know that we were by nature alienated from God and others, but that God has reconciled us to himself and each other through the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son. And we have now been given the ministry of reconciliation, as ambassadors of Christ inviting the world around us to receive the amazing grace of God (2 Cor 5:17-21). I am so glad I get to do this ministry in company with brothers and sisters who agree on the truth of the gospel.
Second, I am grateful for my denomination because we don’t agree on almost anything else.
I’m not saying agreement on secondary things is bad. Not at all. I am so grateful that I have brothers and sisters (including a good number within our denomination) who share my views on many secondary issues, such as baptism, gender roles, the gifts of the Spirit, church leadership, the sovereignty of God, and the authorship of the Fourth Gospel. (It was John Son of Zebedee, guys.) After all, the Bible does touch on all these things, so we should let it shape our views on them. I’ve tried to do that. I hope those who I believe to be mistaken on some of these issues will come to understand them more accurately so that they can be more faithful and effective followers of Jesus, and so we can partner together more closely. Agreement is good.
But I am so grateful to be in fellowship with believers who disagree with me. I love being around people who I think are just plain wrong on some important stuff, but who are just plain right about how great Jesus is. Because when it all adds up, that’s what makes us family, what makes us one. We aren’t reconciled to God by supralapsarianism or blended worship or a correct understanding of the timing of the millennium. We are reconciled to God by faith in Christ.
When the Apostle Paul was in prison, there were some messed up people in the church where he was. People who didn’t just have flawed ideas, but sinful motives. While some believers were inspired to preach the gospel through Paul’s example, others were stirred up to preach Christ “from envy and rivalry … out of selfish ambition.” Apparently, they saw Paul’s influence as a threat to their own standing, and they were trying to put him in his place by winning more converts to their own faction (Philippians 1:14-17). Paul’s response is amazing. While he fully recognized the unworthy motives of some of these preachers, he saw their ministry as a win. “Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
This is a model for us. Paul’s example challenges our tendency to view other Christians with suspicion and hostility of they don’t belong to our particular tribe. If he can rejoice in the proclamation of the gospel by people with such sinful motives, how much more should we rejoice in the proclamation of the gospel by people with a less than perfect understanding on this or that secondary issue?
It is such a privilege to live in fellowship with other believers – in our congregation, in our denomination, and beyond our denomination – who proclaim the good news of Christ out of sincere hearts. Even while I disagree with them – and sometimes voice that disagreement – over secondary issues, I am humbled to be in partnership with people who are such great examples to me of faithful and loving gospel witness. I am glad that all we have to hold us together is Jesus. Because, really, that’s all we need.
Image credit: Andy Stafiniak, https://www.freeimages.com/photo/hands-1545330