Working with other churches

Tonight I am going to talk about working together with other churches. Even before I became a minister I have always been committed to working with Christians from all the other denominations. After growing up with no church contact at all I became a Christian through the witness of the interdenominational youth work Crusaders, now called Urban Saints, and then in the years while I was a schoolteacher I went on to be a local group leader and a speaker for Crusader holidays. At University I worshipped at the Anglican College Chapel and a charismatic Anglican Church as well as at a Baptist Church while I served as a leader of the interdenominational College Christian Union. I trained in theology at the evangelical London Bible College where many of my contemporaries became Baptist, Methodist, Anglican and Pentecostal ministers and academics.
In my first church I served two terms as President of the 26 churches of the Tunbridge Wells Council of Christian Churches and was also chairman of Nightstop, the churches’ homelessness shelter. In my second church we worked alongside a struggling Congregational church and established Elstree Free Church, a church plant by adoption. There in Borehamwood I enjoyed especially close relationships with all the clergy in the town. In my third church I served six years as Moderator and then three years as Secretary of the 45 churches of Churches Together in Brentwood. Since coming to North Springfield I have served three years on the Steering Group of Churches Together in Chelmsford and also nine years on the Council of the Eastern Baptist Association, all helping churches to work together.
Over the decades I have also had responsibilities in a number of ecumenical organisations, from running Billy Graham Livelink Missions and On The Move East Missions, to helping lead Harvest For The Hungry and The national Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. I have enjoyed many wonderful friendships with ministers of all the denominations as well as spending time working very closely with Methodists, Anglicans and Pentecostals in Bulgaria, Uganda and Zambia and Roman Catholics in France.
Here are some words from my Presidential Address to the Tunbridge Wells Council of Christian Churches back in 1989.
“Why does unity in the church matter? Sometimes folk stop caring about the church being united because it seems like too much hassle with not enough benefits. But what WE get out of church unity doesn’t matter. The most important reason for unity isn’t even the fact that division within body of Christ grieves Holy Spirit of God, the fact that division grieves Christ the Head of the Body, the fact that division grieves the Father heart of God. We don’t need unity for its own sake. We may not feel we need be united for our own sake. We may not even care about unity for God’s sake. But unity within every church is VITAL for the sake of the world, that the world might believe.”
I still believe every word of what I said then about the importance of church unity. Nobody has any grounds to question my commitment to working together with other churches wherever possible. Tonight I want to explain the principles I have always held to when it comes to working with other churches. Because there can sometimes be tensions when it comes to cooperating with other churches in outreach and mission and evangelism. Our cooperation should not be unconditional.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned all his disciples not to judge each other. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). We should not begin to take the speck out of our brother’s eye until we have taken the plank out of our own eye. When it comes to disagreements over ecclesiology, we should not take the bishop out of our brother’s eye until we have first taken the church meeting out of our own eyes. We are not to judge other Christians.
But at the same time Christian leaders are all called to show discernment in matters of faith. There are some matters of theology and doctrine and ethics which are not negotiable. Some things are true and some things are false and wrong does not become right just because lots of people believe it. The New Testament is full of warnings about false teachers who seek to deceive the church from inside the church. Jesus himself warned against false prophets who would lead his followers astray. We saw this in a number of our sermons from the Letters to Timothy and Titus. Christians and especially church leaders have a solemn responsibility to “guard the gospel”.
2 Timothy 1 13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
Church unity is no optional extra for Christians. It should be at the heart of our agenda because it is at the heart of God’s agenda. (John 17:20-23) But difficulties can arise in practice when it comes to working out church unity. It is too simplistic to say that we are obliged to cooperate with everybody who calls themselves a Christian. It is not appropriate for individual Christians to make judgments about whether other people are truly saved. However, it is absolutely vital for churches and church leaders to know what the Bible teaches and to defend the truths of the gospel against any deception or dilution. We must avoid the traps of pride and self-righteousness, but we must also make sure that we are faithful, in love, to the truth as we have received and believed it. We should be prepared to enter into dialogue with any others who call themselves Christians. But we must hold fast to our convictions. Not all who claim to be Christians are actually Christians. Conscience demands that we only work in mission and outreach and evangelism alongside others who worship the same Lord and preach the same gospel. We are obliged to show discernment.

I believe there are at least three areas at the heart of our faith which are indisputable and NON-NEGOTIABLE.
1 We should only work with other people who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and God within the Holy Trinity.
1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
The Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons, the other world faiths and even the Jews have got it wrong because they have wrong ideas about who Jesus Christ is. The earliest declaration of faith is simply this – Jesus is Lord! We don’t pass judgement – but we must exercise discernment. We cannot worship in spirit and truth alongside those who worship different and false gods. So called “multi-faith worship” is completely off-limits – that is not Christian worship.
2 We should only work with other people who submit to the Bible correctly interpreted as the supreme authority for faith and practice.
Remember Paul’s final address to the Elders of the Church at Ephesus.
Acts 20 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
We should be on our guard against false teachers – savage wolves. Churches need to stand firm against theological liberalism and wooliness and the post- modern political correctness which says that the only thing we can be certain about is that we can’t be certain about anything!
In our beliefs and in our practice I believe it is right and important to be (to borrow a phrase) “tentatively definite” – that is to proclaim boldly and defend vigorously the truth as we have currently grasped it, whilst remaining humble enough to recognise that God may always teach us something new (probably through a Christian from a very different tradition) which will cause us to re-examine and even change our position.
We don’t pass judgement – but on the authority of Scripture we must exercise discernment.
3 We should only work with other people who recognise the fallen-ness of humanity and the need for personal repentance and faith in order to receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life, which comes through grace alone on the basis of Christ’s atoning and substitutionary death on the cross.
The Bible is very clear. Every person either is a Christian or they are not Christian. A Christian is somebody who has been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3). They have passed from death to life (Romans 6:13, 1 John 3:14). They are in Christ and there has been a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Either a person has been brought from darkness into light (1 Peter 2:9) or they have not. Either they have received mercy and become part of the people of God (1 Peter 2:10) or they have not. Either a person is a believer or they are not. Just as either they are in England or they are not in England, but they cannot be in some strange place in between.
In this life, we may not be able to tell who actually is saved and who is not, who is a true believer and who is not. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds tells us that we will not know for certain who is saved until the final judgment (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). The Parable of the Sower tells us that some who initially seem to be strong Christians actually will prove not to be so (Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23). From our human perspective we will not be able to be certain whether another person is truly a Christian or is not. It is not our place to judge. But in God’s sight they are either alive or dead. They cannot be “on the way to being alive.” Either they are saved or they are not saved. Either Christ is in them and their destiny is to spend eternity with Christ in glory, or it is not.
Jesus was very clear. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)” The Bible teaches us everywhere that Christ is the only way to God! I believe we must stand opposed to any ideas of universalism. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Don’t believe and you are doomed. It really is a matter of life and death. We don’t pass judgement – but we must exercise discernment!

The Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 show how even before the end of the first century some churches had wandered away from God. They had watered down ideas of sin. They were tolerating immorality. They were promoting other ways of salvation. In working with other churches, the other obvious tension which has been arising over the last decade or so is over matters of Christian ethics. Some ministers and some clergy have abandoned the classic understanding of Christian marriage as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. In essence the question is whether certain actions which the churches have historically and universally regarded as sinful have now become acceptable to God. I have always remained firmly convinced of the truth of what is usually called the traditional or orthodox or conservative understanding. This remains the position taken by the vast majority of Christians across the world. As a result, I would be very uncomfortable working alongside clergy whose own lifestyles reject the classic Christian understanding of marriage. We must not judge but we should show discernment.
God does not want all churches and all denominations to look and act the same. God’s plan is for church unity in diversity and in community. The differences between denominations and between congregations have evolved for all kinds of reasons. Some are historical, some theological. Some are just matters of taste and preference, others of emphasis and perspective. Some differences are down to different interpretations of particular Bible passages. In most matters, differences in interpretation are entirely legitimate. But the Bible itself puts boundaries on the limits to acceptable interpretations. Church leaders and theologians are obliged to do the hard work necessary to identify those boundaries. When we believe we have discerned what the Bible is teaching, there are some areas where we must not compromise.
Let me say one more thing about how I think should work out in practice in our relationships with other churches and other ministers. When it comes to worshipping with other churches, I am comfortable with any of the traditions of all the main denominations. I am happy to worship alongside everybody who calls themselves a Christian in almost any style of worship. I may not share the same understandings with some Christians over all kinds of things, but if we love and serve the same God then we can worship side by side. Our worship cannot be tainted by other people worshipping alongside us, whatever they do or don’t believe.
More than that, I am very happy to engage in dialogue with all other Christians and all other ministers even if we disagree on the interpretation of many issues. We can still enjoy rich fellowship together.
The rubber hits the road when churches are planning to work together in some form of united outreach, mission or evangelism. In that situation, I ask a simple question. Suppose a person comes to believe in Jesus through that witness: would I care which church they settled in? Am I happy that the person would receive the same loving welcome and pastoral care and reliable teaching in that other church as our own church would hope to provide? If I am, and I almost always have been, then I am very keen to cooperate with that church and that minister in any ways we can. But on the other hand, there have been rare churches and ministers where I have sadly felt that I would be unhappy for a new convert to settle into that church. This has never been to do with their denomination but always to do with specific beliefs and practices of that particular church or the lifestyle of that particular minister. If I would be uncomfortable if a new convert settled in a different church, then I do not believe it would be right to cooperate with that church in outreach, mission and evangelism.
Acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and God within the Holy Trinity. Submitting to the Bible correctly interpreted as the supreme authority for faith and practice. Recognising the fallen-ness of humanity and the need for personal repentance and faith in order to receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life, which comes through grace alone on the basis of Christ’s atoning and substitutionary death on the cross. When it comes to these things we don’t pass judgement but we must exercise discernment! We are called to guard the gospel. The quest for church unity does not oblige us to compromise.

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