Mission Impossible?

By: Northern Seminary

I apologize for not writing for far too long. I remember visiting the office of the pastor of a large church. On his desk lay a heap of correspondence, so high he had to sit to one side of the tower of paper to see across the desk. I remarked that he was obviously in demand. He managed something between a smile and a grimace, and replied: “I have to assume that those still waiting for a reply know I’m not sitting back doing nothing…”

The pastor’s answer was good and bad. It was good for over many years he has avoided a stress-induced heart attack. It was bad for those trying to organize an event and needing to know his availability.

My apology is sincerely meant, but I do hope you realize I’ve not been snoozing in a corner or round the corner from the Seminary in Dick’s Sporting Goods buying my Cubs or White Sox regalia for the new season. Northern life has been not only busy but very fruitful. We have many new initiatives under development and news of those will be on this web site and in other publicity in the near future.

Just a few days ago we had Rev. Dr. David Coffey deliver the annual Brady Lecture. It was fabulous. A lot of people gathered in our Lindner Conference Center for the one hour lecture followed by discussion time. The title was “Evangelical unity – Mission impossible?”  David has been my friend for many years. He held the senior staff post of General Secretary for the Baptist Union of Great Britain while I did the equivalent job for the Baptist Missionary Society, and we worked from the same building. For the last five years he has been President of the Baptist World Alliance, travelled to some 68 countries, and seen the damage done worldwide by evangelical disunity.

His talk was informative, challenging and inspirational. Some champion ‘unity’, he said, and they tolerate a great deal of diversity of belief. Others champion ‘purity’ and have a low tolerance for those who disagree. Reasoned conversation is often in short supply. Evangelical dialogue can seem more like war, or at least the shouting of a TV game show. David was not holding back!

I am not going to summarize any more of someone else’s talk! Especially since we will be making both the video and text of Dr Coffey’s talk available on the website shortly.

However, let me share my answer to a question that was asked during the discussion time which followed the lecture. It’s a short question, but one that captures a dilemma most church leaders must resolve: “How should I decide whether I can cooperate in Christian work with another church?”

The church I belonged to when I was just converted faced that question with difficulty when the local group of churches – made up of all the major denominations in the area – decided they would have a combined mission outreach campaign in the area. I belonged to the Baptist church and I know the shared campaign proposal caused the leadership much heart-searching about how fully they would get involved. Most of the other congregations did not agree with our idea of mission. I recall the pastor saying only the Catholics shared our idea of someone being converted, but in Scotland (an overspill area for hostilities from Ireland) Baptists and Catholics are not famous for working together. In the end I think our church participated with hesitancy and only ever in part.

In the first town where I worked full-time as a pastor the issue was just as real but seemed less complicated.  Most of the churches in town belonged in a formal ecumenical federation. Various denominations had combined resources and set up ecumenical congregations. They were meant to reflect the values and beliefs of all of them, but it felt like they had settled on the lowest common denominator of belief. That may be unfair, but long before I got there the Baptists had said they would be friendly but could never be part of the ecumenical group. Even shared services were problematic since speakers were invited who did not preach a gospel I recognized as Christian.

It was during those years, though, that I found a principle that guided me well through later years of pastoral ministry, and still works for me today. In its full version, I have many qualifications and nuances. But in its simplest form it was this: “I will work with another church when I can be confident that sending an enquirer there will help them find a real faith in Christ and be nurtured in their Christian faith.” On that basis, I often worked with other churches. Their pastors and people loved Jesus and intended to live as disciples of Jesus, and anyone I pointed in their direction would be led to the same Savior and commitment.

I didn’t agree with some points of their doctrine, didn’t agree with some parts of their church governance, didn’t agree with some ways they went about Christian work or witness. But they loved the same Savior, wanted to live rightly, and would help anyone else do the same. And therefore it should be no harder for me to work with them than for them to work with me. I still feel the same today.

I cannot surrender to either extreme of the divide between what has been called “isolationist fundamentalism and ecumenical Protestantism”. Shunning those with whom you disagree on fundamentals, and second level, third level, fourth level, every-level issues soon leaves you in a lonely place.  Accepting the views of everyone who comes along, with no discrimination and no qualification as if all is equal, soon leaves you naked of doctrine and values.

Northern Seminary welcomes people from a range of evangelical churches. Our core values and beliefs are shared, but we still find room for stimulating discussions in the classroom. What trustees, faculty, staff, and students do have in common is that we love the Lord and our lives are committed to him and his work. We explore many subjects and enjoy doing that, but we’re serious about extending Christ’s kingdom in this nation and around the world. We find unity in our diversity because we’re all held in the hand of the same Master. It’s a good place to be.

April 27, 2010

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