The Quest for Mere Christianity
- Thursday, August 04, 2011
Of course, many traditional churches aren't seeking unity with the emerging church, which, after all, is theologically liberal in their eyes. A serious charge, no doubt. If they are theologically liberal, that is, they reject the rebirth of orthodoxy, then ecclesial unity may be neither possible nor desirable. I hope this is obvious. If someone denies the deity of Christ or the incarnation, for example, unity would not be possible. Nevertheless, on a personal level, love, civility and kindness would still guide us. Dialogue is always a good thing even with those outside the bounds of orthodoxy.
But what if the emerging church is not theologically liberal? What if those within it are nonetheless distrusted and made to feel as if they are the enemy? They would feel insecure, on guard and threatened when talking with traditionalists. They might even return the favor by dismissing the traditional church. This makes real dialogue nearly impossible. When each side distrusts the other, we have a divided evangelical church. Is there a way forward? how do we get to the point where both sides can talk about their differences and learn from each other without being accused of heresy? By first agreeing about what binds Christians together. It is that simple. We have to arrive at what John Stott calls the "unity of the gospel." All unity has a doctrinal aspect. No unity is possible without boundaries of thought and belief around something. There is always a limit to what any group can tolerate without being torn apart.
In his book Evangelical Truth, Stott argues that the apostle Paul "begs his readers to ‘stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel' (Philippians 1:27). He goes on to urge them: ‘make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose' (Philippians 2:2)." Stott argues that Paul is not calling for unity at any price, for example, being willing to compromise fundamental truths in order to maintain relational unity, or splitting from those who are not in total agreement on every theology point and doctrine. "It is rather unity in the gospel, in evangelical essentials, ‘standing . . . side by side in the struggle to advance the gospel faith' (Philippians 1:27 reb)." This is a commitment to both the purity of biblical teaching and the peace of togetherness.
The problem for evangelicals, Stott contends, is that we have a "pathological tendency to fragment." We place doctrinal purity over unity, or we stress relational unity over sound doctrine. The reality is that Jesus wants us to be equally committed to both—the peace and purity of the church. When this is not the case, our disunity is a major hindrance to our evangelism and witness to the world. We fail at the "final apologetic," our love for one another. If we can agree on the essential matters, the "unity of the gospel," then we have a shot at rebuilding trust and moving forward.
What Stott calls the "unity of the gospel," Tom Oden calls the "new ecumenism." This "new ecumenism is above all committed unapologetically to ancient ecumenical teaching." It is committed to God's Word, "a long-term view of a cumulative, historical consensus, and a classic ecumenical view of God the Father, God the Son, and God the holy Spirit." It also holds, he continues, "to the classic consensual doctrines of incarnation, atonement and resurrection, and the return of the Lord." As Oden makes clear, "These are fixed boundary stones in the ancient ecumenical tradition—stones that we are commanded not to move or attempt to refashion. In the old ecumenism . . . these classic doctrines were largely submerged under the provocative rhetoric of supposedly radical social transformation."
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