United Around What?

I’m not going to weigh in on today’s events; enough people are talking about that. I’ve got something else in mind today. I want to talk about the calls by many pastors for more unity in the Church, as a reaction to the Charleston tragedy.

[I guess I need to say this right off the bat, because the Internet is a place of stupid assumptions, so you have to be explicit about EVERYTHING: The Charleston shooting was a brutal act of racist violence that is completely indefensible. The man responsible should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. This attack was an attack on the Church, but more specifically on African-American believers in the Church. We can’t miss that detail in our discussion of it. Racism *is* part of this discussion, but I’m not going to talk about it right now. It doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important. I’m just taking a different angle on all this, today. Okay? We clear on all that? Thanks.]

Last week, I heard a pastor praying, in reference to the Charleston shooting, that the Church would come together and be unified as Christ prayed we would be. He prayed that we would join across denominational lines and become one, as we were meant to be.

Now, I will say that I know this pastor, and I know that he affirms sound doctrine (even if we may disagree on some of the finer points). But the way he prayed didn’t sit right with me.

Doctrinal distinctives (and by extension, denominational distinctives) matter. I know it’s a popular attitude to eschew such distinctions and instead hold to a naïve comment like “I just follow the Bible” or “I’m on Team Jesus.”  That’s all well and good, kiddo, but HOW we follow Jesus and HOW we interpret the Bible matter. Right doctrine produces right practice. If you think you can get right practice without right doctrine, I’ve got a stack of NOOMA DVDs to sell you—never mind, you probably own them. (OOOH, BUUUURN.)

I’m a Southern Baptist (at least for now…that’s a different conversation for another time). And I do believe I can have fellowship with believers from other traditions.

But the nexus of our unity is not centered on the mere phrase, “I’m a Christian”–because a lot of people call themselves Christian and live out a religion that is antithetical to the Christ of Christianity.  Rather, Baptists like me can have unity with (for example) some Presbyterians and some Lutherans and some of those non-commital Non-denoms (c’mon guys, pick a side!) because we hold to the same Gospel. If a professing believer holds to the absolute truth of Scripture; the triune nature of God expressed in those Scriptures; the reality of man’s sin and separation from God; salvation that is only received by grace through faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross; and a hope in our future inheritance based on Jesus’ bodily resurrection—then we stand on the same ground. We can disagree on the implication of some of those truths, but we have to start there before I can feel comfortable calling you my brother or sister.

Does that make me a fundamentalist? No. Because a fundamentalist’s list would be much longer than that (and God bless you, if that’s you—I don’t see you as the enemy). What that makes me is, Lord-willing, faithful to sound doctrine and the Gospel once delivered to the saints, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

I talked to a friend about this pastor’s prayer, and he observed, “Times of tragedy are not really the best time to start arguing over doctrinal distinctives.”  It’s a fair observation, and I understand where he’s coming from. But I’m not expecting that pastor to use his prayer to dig into systematics. However, an unqualified “unity” (even from the mouth of a pastor who believes the Gospel) is a dangerous thing to say, because it can give the hearer the impression that mere nominal unity was the point of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

What did Jesus actually say about unity in that “High Priestly Prayer”? In John 17:20-21, Jesus prays, ““I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  But what does He pray just before that?

 “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  (John 17:14-19)

Our unity is born out of our common understanding of the truth of God, revealed in Scripture. This truth sanctifies us, makes us holy.

Here’s the point, friends: if we truly seek unity across denominational lines as the body of Christ, we must center our unity on the unchanging truth of the Gospel, found in the perfect and powerful Scriptures. Any other unity is a false foundation of sinking sand.

“Father God, in light of all that is going on in our country, I pray that You would call Your people back to Your perfect Word. I pray that we would become a people who walk in Your ways and obey Your commands, a people who pray for Your Kingdom to come and Your Will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. And as we pray these things, Father, I ask that You would unify Your true church, the born again and redeemed members of many denominations and churches, around the only standard we need to embrace wholeheartedly: the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, expressed in the pages of Scripture. Help us to love Your truth, so that we can be sanctified by Your truth. By our faithfulness to Your truth, expressed in our love for one another and our compassion for those outside the family, the world will know that we truly are followers of Jesus. Be glorified in our lives, Father. We live to bring You praise. We pray this in the name of our Savior and King, Jesus. Amen.”

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