Monday, February 12, 2007

On What do We have to Agree in Order to Cooperate?

"Can't we just all get along?" It is a great question to ask. The proper answer requires a rather Clintonesque desire for clarification. What do you mean by "get along?" That is, in what situation are you asking the question?

If, by "get along," you mean "ignore asking or answering difficult questions and sacrifice truth on the altar of unity," the answer is no. We will eventually lose the gospel. A casual look at the mainline denominations in the United States and Europe is a tragic example of what happens when churches lose the gospel. Rodney King Christianity does not work.

If, by "get along," you mean "agree to disagree on issues; have open, honest dialogue; and engage in debate without disparaging or questioning the motives of those with whom you disagree," then the answer should be yes, we can "get along." In fact anything else would not demonstrate a Christ like spirit and would bring shame and reproach upon the church of Christ.

If, by "get along," you mean "cooperate in ministry," then we have to step back and examine the type of cooperation desired and how close the relationship would be. The closer the relationship, the more we must be in agreement in order to cooperate. How can two walk together unless they are in agreement (Amos 3.3)?

The challenge is deciding on which areas we must agree in order to cooperate. Do we have to agree on which translation of the Bible is the best before we can cooperate with other churches to send missionaries over seas? Not really. Do we have to agree on what constitutes a New Testament church before we partner with others to send church planters overseas? Yes, at some level we must agree.

There are different levels of cooperation between Christians and each level requires a different level of theological agreement in order for genuine cooperation to take place. Al Mohler has coined the phrase theological triage to describe the process by which we examine these issues. Triage, is the practice physicians and medics employ in emergency medical situations to decide the order in which to treat patients. For example, if you and I show up at the emergency room at the same time with injuries, our injuries will be assessed by significance and immediate danger. If I have a broken ankle and you have severe chest pains, you will be seen first because a potential heart attack is much more important than a broken ankle, no matter how painful it may be.

If we apply the process of triage to theological issues (using Mohler's principles), we arrive at at least three levels classification:

First order theological issues, are those things which define us as Christians. They include at a minimum, the fundamentals of the faith (as classically defined): 1) Inspiration of Scripture, 2) Virgin birth of Christ, 3) Christ's death as a substitutionary atonement, 4) bodily resurrection of Christ, 5) the historical reality of Christ's miracles. These issues are foundational ('fundamental') to the Christian faith. To abandon one of these issues would eventually lead to an abandonment of the faith altogether. To these issues we might also add the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, etc. Agreement on first order issues allows cooperation, but only on a limited basis. For example, as Baptists, we can stand with Methodists and Presbyterians who also affirm these issues in an effort to defend the gospel, impact the direction of our government (pro-life and pro-family causes), and do social ministry. We cannot, however belong to the same denomination because we have radically different understandings of church government and authority outside of the local church. Baptists see no hierarchical authority outside of the local church, Presbyterians and Methodists do. This disagreement would cause significant issues as we embarked on ministry endeavors that required more cooperation.

Second order theological issues, are those which often identify us as a denomination. These issues are often clarified by a particular denomination's statement of faith. For most Southern Baptists, our confession of faith is the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Included in these statements are first and second order theological issues that would prevent cooperation on a denominational level if significant agreement did not exist. The issues discussed at this level include church government, the nature of baptism, salvation, etc. and are addressed in generic terms that generically at this level. These issues have to be clarified

Third order issues are those which would not prevent denominational cooperation but would make it difficult to belong to the same church. These issues can be both practical and theological. Style of worship, the doctrines of grace, convictions about home schooling, roles of deacons, application of specific principles of church government, and questions about whether or not women can teach men in any environment are all examples of issues that may be considered third order issues.

Can you think of an issue I have not addressed? Pose the issue and let's discuss it. This is a hot topic in SBC life at present. The members of CrossRoad Church should be able to discuss it in an informed manner since we are a cooperating church of the SBC.

As always, if you prefer not to post a question (or cannot figure our how) you can email me:

Yours in Christ,