Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How to do unity in a Christian Union, in principle...

What kind of unity are we talking about? Not the kind of unity that creates a local church, but rather a student-led partnership of students who belong to local churches who form a mission team for the collective benefit of the local church. This being the case there is probably some difference in the kind of unity required. A local church by necessity probably has to tie down fairly closely what it means and thinks about certain things so that it doesn’t spend all its time caught up in debates and controversy.

A Christian Union has a clear purpose of doing mission together. Historically what unites such a group has been divided between Primary and Secondary beliefs. The Primary beliefs being those listed in the UCCF Doctrinal Basis of Fellowship, a document that describes itself as detailing fundamentals that form the basis of fellowship. This is akin to Peter and Paul sharing the right hand of fellowship in Galatians 2. This list of convictions is supplemented by various statements about vision and purpose which shape the focus of this fellowship. Other matters are then classed as Secondary.

The danger here is that we start to think the Secondary things are unimportant, and it’s possible that practice has often reflected this. In fact that is not what’s being said. Secondary matters far from being trivial are rather those things where we can have room to disagree yet still retain fellowship for the stated purposes. In no way should this trivialise those secondary things, yet difference on them wont lead to a breaking of fellowship. In fact there will, if the fellowship is truly around the primary matters, routinely be difference on the secondary matters in one direction or the other.

Mark Driscoll uses slightly different language here. Driscoll speaks of things that are in a closed hand, and other things that are in an open hand. Matters where there is not room to differ, and matters where there is. What’s in each hand depends on the purpose of the fellowship being formed. If the goal is to unite the entire universal church then those things in a closed hand is probably quite small, recognising that required belief for salvation can be stated quite simply. That said, as soon as you start wanting to do anything together more details needs to be added to avoid spending all of our time in controversy, and to ensure that the fellowship will be moving in a clear direction and be able to achieve anything. Driscoll notes, after John Piper, that within a local church you want as small a closed hand as you can for membership, but by the time you move to consider elders the closed hand contains quite a lot of non-negotiables – so that the church can remain clearly on vision without confusion.

In a Christian Union, working for the purpose of mission, the contents of the closed hand are summarised in a public document known as the UCCF Doctrinal Basis. This is a list of 11 statements about the Christian faith. It’s brief compared to many creedal statements and confessions. It doesn’t list every conviction I hold, nor everything I consider important, but it does list everything I’d consider necessary to agree with someone about such that we could do evangelism together. It’s breadth as a document is illustrated in practice when I consider the varying convictions of student, staff and supporters within the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. It is unashamedly evangelical in character but that remains, rightly, a broad way. It’s not vague but it’s not overly specific.

For example, point b. speaks of the sovereignty of God without going into details, such that both a Calvinist and an Arminian can (and do) happily stand within the fellowship. The statement makes no mention of the specific continuing gifts of the Spirit but does speak of the ongoing presence and empowering of the Spirit such that both the Pentecostal, the Charismatic and the Cessationist can happily stand within the fellowship. No mention is made of church initiation, membership or leadership so that the Baptist and the Anglican, the Congregationalist and the Episcopalian can all happily stand within the fellowship. Likewise no mention is made on the rising issues of Complementarian and Egalatarian roles of men and women in the church – partly because they’re quite recent developments and the document isn’t all that new, and because there is no desire to divide on this issue either.

The fellowship is intentionally narrow in places and broad in others. The local churches that the members of the fellowship belong to will necessarily have to pin down most of the above issues in order to have any kind of functioning care and unity, but for the purpose of evangelism this isn’t the case.

What I see on the ground is a great range and tendency to vary in how this unity plays out. In the CU's bread & butter of personal witness by living and speaking for Jesus it makes almost no difference where anyone stands on most of these issues. Challenges come through the necessarily events in which evangelism occurs and the equally necessarily training meetings it will hold.

Inevitably the make-up of any particular Christian Union shifts by a third every year due to graduation and the arrival of new freshers. Those new students usually arrive with some convictions on certain matters and then join local churches which develop those convictions on secondary matters in existing or new directions. This inevitably gives Christian Unions slightly different flavours from place to place and from year to year. This is fine.

But how are we to work that out in practice? There has been a tendency at times to suggest that there are neutral positions on open hand / secondary matters. In some cases this is true. On baptism this is true. Anyone who becomes a Christian through the Christian Union will be directed to join a local church. The issue of baptism normally remains unaddressed until then. The Christian Union need not adopt any position on this. But take the issue of the exercising of spiritual gifts or the ministry women. In both cases since the Christian Union will, for the sake of mission, need to both run some events where the gospel will be preached and gather Christians to equip them it will need to adopt a position on these matters....

In the next part of this I want to address how this can be done.
May not be the next post on the blog.

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