Our church, each summer, is privileged to participate in joint services with a handful of other like-minded churches in greater Cincinnati. This past Sunday evening was one of them. And, during the refreshments after, the pastors present had a chance to be reminded (by a pastor from another area) just how good a thing God has going here, and to reflect on what it is that brought us and our churches together, and also to mull why it is that, sometimes, Christians (pastors, mainly) seem not to have a heart for such linking of arms, sharing of pews, and so on.
Why is that? If it really is “good and … pleasant … for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1), why is it that churches and pastors can sometimes build such fences around themselves? Why is it that, sometimes, even churches of very like mind (on even secondary and tertiary issues) have very little heart to fellowship together?
Well, let me say that there are very real theological issues (of which pastors are often keenly aware) which force us to draw lines in the sand in terms of who we really call ‘brother’. Just because a person or religious group claims to be Christian does not mean that they are, or that we should link arms with them. And, sometimes, even when a church really is a true church, the errors they espouse in doctrine or practice may still cause us to be cautious in what ways we join forces, even while calling them brothers and sisters, and finding ways to cherish and embrace them. Just as in a nuclear family, you may love your brother dearly without being able to join in his every endeavor.
But it’s not these sorts of situations about which I write. I’m thinking of the instances when churches and pastors are more than just generally like-minded … but in which they are actually in virtual lock-step even on secondary points of doctrine. Even then, it was pointed out by our brother-pastor from out of state, it is not always a given that churches and pastors will really lock arms and share pulpits, pews, and fellowship tables. Still they may remain like relative islands – theologically sound, but largely alone in terms of real, tangible cooperation with other churches.
Why is that? Let me suggest three possible reasons:
1. Myopia. Sometimes in church, as in life, we are so busy looking at ourselves, and our schedules, and our families, and our routines that it rarely occurs to us to check in with old friends, or to invite anyone over, or to care deeply about what is going on with those around us. We’re just too busy! We feel like we’ve got enough to think about just within our own four walls. But we are much the poorer for staying always within them. Note this well, any pastors who read this little column … and purpose to lead your church in looking without now and again. And note it well church members, too! It is a blessing if your church participates in something like our local joint services. Take advantage!
2. Nitpicking. One of the things about churches and pastors who actually know what they believe about second and third-level issues is that we may sometimes make those second and third level issues bigger tests of fellowship than they really need to be. Or, maybe just as likely, we may find it hard to believe that other brothers or churches really care about doctrine and truth as much as we do (because we really have encountered so many churches who do not). And so we either make too big a deal out of our doctrinal distinctives, or we just assume that others are not as serious as we are. And we just stay where it’s safe – within our own four walls, much the poorer.
3. Fear. This third point was actually made by a couple of my fellow pastors during our fellowship and conversation on Sunday night. Maybe sometimes we pastors don’t make efforts to join with other like-minded churches because we are afraid that our like-minded people will actually enjoy so-and-so’s services (or preaching, or fellowship, or demographic) a little more than our own. As though we (or pastor so-and-so) were really the proprietors of the church! The church – both in its local and universal manifestations – belongs to Christ, not to us! And so it has pleased me greatly to have brother pastors, from time to time, send our way visitors who happened upon their churches … because they thought PRBC might be a good fit for such-and-such a person or family. Why are they able to do that? Because they know that the church, and the individual members thereof, belong to Jesus, not to us! And we are much the richer if we learn that lesson well.
And so, brothers and sisters (and especially fellow pastors) … let us lay aside our myopia, our nitpicking, and our fear … and “dwell together in unity.”