30 January, 2014 Ed Moll
What responsibilities do we have towards other churches? Keeping abreast of the relationships in our own congregations is absorbing enough. When we’re at full stretch we need a really good reason to invest precious time and energy in relationships with other churches. Why bother?
I think that we have two different kinds of responsibility when it comes to other churches:
• We have a responsibility to like-minded churches to seek unity as partners in the gospel. The gospel that we share unites us in Christ as brothers and sisters, with a common bond and a common task. My litmus of a partner ministry is that ‘if I were there, I’d be doing what they’re doing; and if they were here, they’d be doing what we’re doing’. We have a responsibility to like-minded churches to find the greatest degree of partnership in the gospel.
• We have a responsibility to local churches at least as neighbours. We share a postcode, and our responsibility to know and love our neighbourhood extends to knowing and loving the other churches and church leaders. Whatever we may think of them and their ministry, the locals think of them as churches and church leaders.
The ‘Churches Together’ model of working confuses the two responsibilities, assuming that every local church is also a likeminded church, that we all both neighbours and partners. In practice there will often be a degree of both partnership and locality. For example:
• A Regional Gospel Partnership has a high degree of common gospel. We are united by a common faith and a common task, despite our denominational distinctives. But the Region can be a large area: it takes me 1 ½ hours to travel to our regular Gospel Partnership meetings. So the Gospel Partnership scores high on Gospel, and not so high on Local.
• A local project such as a Foodbank on the other hand scores high on the local end because it serves our town. Churches in the area join in serving the neighbourhood but have modest theological common ground. We’re mainly neighbours.
• Our real joy would be to see Local Partners, churches that are both local and like-minded. We have a clear responsibility to work with them to reach our local area for Christ. Or work out how to plant churches that will.
We can add them to the graph:
In our town, we have replaced the
In our town, we have replaced the ‘Churches Together’ group with a Church Leaders’ Forum, whose sole purpose is to get church leaders to meet. We are local and accept a low threshold for what counts as ‘Church’ and ‘Leader’. There are some benefits of working this way
• First, as mentioned already, we don’t confuse partnership and neighbourliness.
• Second, the Forum is the seedbed for any joint initiatives. If we needed to write to the local council about parking on a Sunday, then most churches could join in. If on the other hand one churches wanted to invite a Christian band for a gig hosted by several churches, only those who are interested needed to opt in. It’s the coalition of the willing. What we attempt together is a function of what he have in common.
• Third: if and when we need to oppose positions taken by other local churches, the Forum allows us to do so in relationship. I believe that I should be able to address my opponents’ arguments as if they were in the room with me. And even better if I have already expressed them to my opponents. There will be issues that divide us. But consider two Christians in a workplace. They may go to different churches, and hold very different theological views, yet they must find a way to work together for joint Christian witness to a hostile workplace. We do not serve them well by publicly tearing chunks out of other church leaders. Neither of course do we serve them well by remaining silent on important issues. Even if other church leaders are more Neighbour than Partner in the gospel, we have a responsibility to treat them with integrity:
...the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)