A picket fence must be maintained carefully or it will fall into disrepair. The ecclesial picket fence requires constant maintenance as well. It is always easier to sequester ourselves with like-minded believers who reinforce our ideas that to fellowship with those who challenge them. We can caricature and condemn instead of seeking to understand and embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not an easy job. But it is worth it.
I believe that there are three keys to maintaining the picket fence in the Christian neighborhood. First, we must make a covenant of blessing. I used to go out of my way to criticize other churches and denominations from the pulpit. I try not to do that now. When I address the baptism in the Spirit, I will articulate how my view differs from “our brothers and sisters across the street.” The largest Assembly of God church in town is our closest neighbor. I try to make sure that even if I highlight our theological differences I make it clear that I believe that we are part of “thechurchofSioux City” together. It is important that we represent those we disagree with carefully and fairly. An Assembly of God pastor sitting in my church when I preach about the baptism of the Spirit should come away believing that I fairly represented his views even as I disagreed with them, and that I affirmed as brothers in Christ those who held his view. We are so quick to magnify disagreements into Brick Wall issues and question the genuine Christian commitment of those who hold differing views. Few things are more damaging to the picket fence than harsh words of condemnation in the family of God. Disagreements do not divide, but vilification, harsh criticism and condemnation do
Second, we must seek to be involved, within the limits of our conscience, in the greater Christian community. I have my boundaries and my limits, but I am committed to not living in isolation from the greater Christian neighborhood.
I was a student at Dallas Seminary when the 1979 Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy issued its report. It was also at the beginning of the “Battlefor the Bible” which has come to be known as the Conservative Resurgence. I asked my professor how theChicagostatement would affect the Baptist struggle. He said, “It won’t. Southern Baptists live in their own little world and nothing that goes on in the rest of the Christian world affects them.” It was pretty much true back then. I transferred to Southwestern to get my degree, largely because at the time, if your degree was not from a Baptist school, you couldn’t get a job in the SBC. Southern Baptists were a cloistered enclave within the Christian world. I am glad that this is no longer true. This is partly a cultural thing – denominational branding is out of style today. It is partly the result of trends such as Promisekeepers and conservative “co-belligerency” which brought us together on pro-life issues and such. And a few leaders arose within the SBC who saw the value of involvement with the outside world. I was a fan of Dr. Jerry Rankin at the International Mission Board because he saw the value of wider involvement in missions.
When I lived in isolation from charismatics, it was easy to condemn them as nuts and define them by the extremes. But when I talked with them, I realized that they had a passion for God and a desire to see him glorified in this world. I realized that not all in that camp were Benny Hinn wannabees or Kenneth Copeland clones. When we intermingle in the greater Christian world, we have to deal with real people and not our caricatures of those people. I’ve had some pretty good fellowship in Christ with people when there was little theological or ecclesiological agreement.
Finally, we must cooperate, where possible, to reach our city for Christ. There is a limit to how far this partnership can go. We will never cooperate with our Missouri Synod friends to plant a church, or even with our Assembly of God brethren. But we can pray together, do certain ministries together, and actively join together to do the work of Christ. InCedar Rapids, we had citywide prayer services, training conferences and times of fellowship. I felt as if I was part of something bigger than myself or my church. I was part of the church of Jesus Christ in Cedar Rapids. What a blessing that was.
That is how it is meant to be. There is something greater than Southern Hills Baptist Church going on in Sioux City. The church of Jesus Christ in Siouxland is meeting in different places, worshiping in different styles, using different strategies and methods and governing itself in different ways. But every local church that is faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ is part of that great community, the neighborhood of faith. Despite our different doctrines and practices we are part of something bigger than ourselves – the Body of Christ.
It is crucial that our churches stop criticizing and denigrating each other. Every Sunday morning in America, there are people sitting at home who used to attend church. But the churches they attended became places of hostility. The oasis of love God intended has become a battlefield. Churches have chosen to compete with one another instead of cooperating. Our cities are littered with the spiritual wreckage – the broken lives of people who once were active in church. The division within churches and disunity between them grieves the heart of God, destroys our credibility in the community and hinders evangelism. We cannot continue with business as usual. Again, that is not a call to abandon doctrine or the pursuit of truth, but it is a warning that we should not let that pursuit bring us to the point of damaging our disagreeing siblings in Christ.
A Picture of Christian Acres
So, the Christian neighborhood is surrounded by a brick wall that protects us from the wolves, the spiritual predators. Inside that wall, we live in unity. Each of us has our own home, separated by picket fences, but we work hard to build a unified community inside the brick wall. We do not ignore our differences or naively pretend that doctrine doesn’t matter. But we seek to be good neighbors and walk together in unity. I may not worship at Morningside Assembly, or Central Baptist, or Redeemer Lutheran, but I can still recognize them as my Christian neighbors and love them with the love of Christ.