As a followup to our proposal for a Baptist future, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about unity – especially unity in SBC life.
Unity doesn’t just happen. In fact, our natural tendency given our various opinions, personalities, temperaments, priorities, callings, contexts, theological bents, and our common sin nature all make DISunity the more natural outcome. Yet, the New Testament, over and over again, makes an appeal for the unity of believers – both within the local church and among churches who were markedly different from one another. To achieve such unity, we can’t just sit back and hope it happens or shrug our shoulders in resigned defeat – we must yearn for it, actively pursue it, earnestly strive for it, and give our utmost effort to achieve it. We Baptists like a good fight – why not stop fighting each other and instead fight for unity for the cause of Christ and the sake of His gospel?!?
What does that mean on a personal and practical level – especially when even the call for unity is met with skepticism, suspicion, and distrust? What are the first steps toward unity? Particularly, in SBC life, where there are so many fractures and fault lines, how can you and I begin as regular pastors and laymen, to strive for unity? Let me offer a few suggestions:
Expand your circle of friends. Seek to build friendships with people across ideological, contextual, generational, racial and ethnic lines. Unity is difficult to achieve when we are not together. In your region, seek out friendships with other pastors and believers who are not like you. On the web, get to know the persons with whom you banter and spar on the blogs. Take the conversation off the comment stream into private chat. Seek out ways to partner together with churches and leaders who are different than you. Lay down your arms and share a meal together at the next meeting or Convention or call up a brother and invite him to lunch. Unity and friendship go together well.
Listen. Listen to others’ concerns and try to understand why they feel the way they do. Listen to an Asian, Latino, African-American, or Native-American brother tell you what they would like to see in our Convention. Listen to the Traditionalist pastor about their real concerns about the direction of our current leadership. Listen to the young Calvinist pastor’s concerns about being pushed out of the Convention. Listen to the planter outside the Bible belt wanting to reach a culture that knows nothing about the South. Listen to why one brother is concerned about hyper-Calvinism and another is troubled by abuses in the altar call system. Listen to the small church pastor concerned about the demise of the CP. Listen to the mega-church pastor’s concerns about biblical stewardship. Listen to the concerns of the country preacher, the urban church planter, the Bible Belt pastor, the pioneer state director of missions, the executive director and the entity head. Each comes with their own set of concerns and yet each wants to see Southern Baptists working together in kingdom work. Listen, seek to understand, and work toward common solutions.
Fight fair. Baptists love to disagree. In a previous post, I wrote about things to avoid when disagreements arise. The main point here is that we should have honest disagreements and not dishonest ones. The main way to do this is to actually hear what the other person is saying and not what we think they are saying or what someone else has said. Engage in conversations, not arguments, rants or diatribes. And when we do fight, do so with the goal not of winning, but of persuading, finding common ground, and working toward solutions. On many issues, we can agree to disagree and still walk away as brothers agreeing on the most important things – especially our cooperative effort to take the gospel to this nation and to the unreached peoples of the world.
Stop assuming ulterior motives and hidden agendas. If we’re honest, most of the time we don’t really know the reasons behind someone’s actions or arguments. More often than not, they are sincere and innocent. Don’t get triggered by buzz-words and phrases to which you’ve assigned particular meaning. Don’t create a sinister narrative and then interpret all of their words and actions to fit your preconception. Admittedly, some actions and behaviors are wrong and others sinful, but far less than your imagination assumes. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
Give others the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I think we just need to cut each other some slack. When we have disagreements about worship style, invitations, outreach methodology, church planting strategy, mission partnerships, discipleship models, denominational strategy, entity actions, politics, contextualization, eschatology, ecclesiology, or even soteriology, let’s do so as brothers. If we agree on the gospel, we can disagree about lots of other non-essential issues. Sure we can seek to persuade and have legitimate disagreements over such matters. Many issues are important, but we don’t have die on every hill. We don’t have to always assume the other does not care about the lost, disregards sound theology and practice, or is worldly. Most of your brothers share the same passions and commitments you do. We’re never going to agree on everything. We agree on a whole lot – and that agreement is enough to partner together in kingdom work.
Be Kind. This one does not require a lot of explanation. Suffice it to say that unity does not thrive in an atmosphere of snarky, rude, sarcastic, cynical, mocking, derisive, caustic, discourteous, and disrespectful behavior toward one another. Rather, we are to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” We ought to be “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Forgive. Baptists are sinners. I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner, our leaders are sinners. Sinners sometimes do sinful things. We do things and say things that hurt one another. One of the biggest ways to be unified is to forgive. Whether you are the one who sinned or the one who was sinned against, the Bible puts the ball in your court. We are to seek reconciliation with our brothers. We are to extend and ask for forgiveness. If you’ve wronged someone, seek to make it right. If you’ve been wronged, ask God to change your heart. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Pray for one another. Something happens when we begin to pray for one another. Barriers are broken down. Hearts are changed. We begin to see each other as brothers. We desire one another’s well being. We see each other for who they are – fellow sinners in need of God’s grace and love and care. Pray for one another. Pray with one another. Prayer really does change things – often it changes us.
Love one another. The most oft repeated “one-another” in the Bible. Unity begins and ends here. Think about the person with whom you have the hardest time in SBC life. Think about the group or faction with whom you disagree most often. Think about the all the people who give you fits on the blogosphere, your local association, your state Convention or on the national level. Think about all those you disagree with but are part of our SBC family. Now ask yourself, Do you love them? Do we love each other? We’ll never have unity until we do.