Looking out my study window across the parking lot, I enjoy a lovely view of a church building. No, not the church I serve as pastor, but a small Lutheran church next door. I had met the former pastor once or twice in the nearly six years we’ve been in Dallas, but there‘s a new one now, and I haven’t mer him yet. We invited their congregation to an all-church picnic and Texas barbecue we hosted, but no one came. We live side by side, coexist politely I but show no evidence to each other or to the world that we serve the same Master. I’ve come under the increasing conviction that we are wrong and must repent before the Lord.
I tell you this to lay open my soul. The lack of Christian fellowship between churches separated by 20 feet of asphalt and a couple of parking lots is inexcusable, particularly when we stand together as heirs of the Reformation. Of course there are differences, but none so great as between the church and the world! John Calvin himself observed, when comparing the differences between the Reformation and the Catholic church (which church, as you well know, he spared no rhetoric in denouncing), that there is no gulf separating us so great as that “great void” dividing believers from unbelievers and pagans. Charles Colson, a modern torchbearer for the Lord, went to Western Romania and interviewed Reformed church pastor Laszlo Tokes about the 1989 revolution that toppled Ceaucescu and the communists. He was amazed to hear Tokes speak of the ecumenical spirit that united Catholics, Baptist, Orthodox believers and the Reformed in the city of Timisoara, which spirit (or should I say Spirit?) empowered the revolution. Listen to Colson’s conclusion:
“When the church is the church, as the believers of Timisoara show us, the people of God moved by the Spirit of God do the work of God and evil cannot stand against them” (The Body. p. 63). It is that spirit of obedient faith, compelled to follow Christ and do the works of Christ, that requires us to labor alongside those who love the same Lord Jesus Christ.
While literally dozens of practical ideas could be suggested that might stimulate you into Biblically appropriate ecumenical efforts, I offer only a few. My purpose is simple: to cause you to examine whether or not you have failed to honor Christ’s will in this matter, and to prod you into taking steps of new obedience. You will be able, no doubt, to add greatly to the list if you are serious about Biblical ecumenicity. But here goes:
1. Work together in Crisis Pregnancy work and Christian Adoption Agencies. Have you noticed a new spirit of evangelical zeal in Catholics in your area? We certainly have in Dallas. Praise God for it. It enables them to join with us and with various churches of fundamentalistic theologies to labor in support of the care of the unborn in a regional Crisis Pregnancy Center and Clinic. The evil against which we stand seems to be so great that it galvanizes our unity in opposition to the evil and on be half of Biblical Truth. Amazingly, while we work together our differences aren’t ignored, but rather discussed openly and frankly. Sometimes we find that we have caricatured one another more than we have understood one another. Often I find great appreciation in my Catholic and Fundamentalist friends for the Reformed faith, its zeal, its heritage, and especially its breadth and depth of vision and worldview (so long as I don’t call it Calvinism. That word, in Dallas, is the death-rattle to any hope of gaining a hearing).
2. Work together on Biblically-pressing political or community issues. Likewise, as citizens of the land, I have observed a great willingness by Christians of various confessions to cooperate on the local level in efforts aimed at bearing witness to Biblical values in a society that is choking on its own immorality. Anti-pornography campaigns, efforts to teach abstinence to children rather than ham/ing out condoms to them, legislative lobbying efforts on issues of interest to Christian people—all of these are areas where Christian men and women of varying viewpoints can come together in Christian service.
3. Work together to start or improve existing Christian schools. The Christian educational heritage many of us have enjoyed is absolutely remarkable and wonderfully rich. But in many places like Dallas, the young families in the church find themselves at the point their great–grandparents found themselves a hundred years ago. We must establish Christian schools. We must do so for the right reasons, and not merely to escape the corruption of the public school. (For your information, we have a committee now laying the groundwork for that very purpose—a new Christian school. Pray for us!) But we cannot do it as a sectarian endeavor, open and accessible only to children of the local congregation. For one thing, the tuition of such a school would price it out of reach of most everyone in the school. (There is such a school down the road. Excellent quality of education, wonderful facilities, limits on enrollment—and tuition of $6,000–$8,000 per year per student, and no sliding scale. Makes it cost prohibitive.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful, instead, if a good quality Christian school, with solid and unchanging perspectives written into the constitution, were to open its doors to all Christian parents who would agree to have their children nurtured and trained on the stated basis of this educational confession? There’s no doubt that Reformed people would lead the way in curricular matters, given the wonderful heritage we’ve inherited. Likewise, there‘s no doubt that problems would arise, requiring wisdom, grace and diligence to overcome. But let’s not allow our fears to paralyze our vision or freeze us into inactivity.
4. In wondrous and various ways. How about joint Reformation Day services and celebrations with other heirs of the Reformation in your neighborhood? Or jointly sponsored Speakers’ Forums or Lecture Series that feature solid Biblical teaching of value to Christian churches and individual believers of various confessions? (R.C. Sproul was in Dallas a year or so ago. He spoke at a Baptist church that has shown no real affection for Calvinism. Yet thousands gathered to hear a Calvinist speak on depravity, grace, sovereignty of God and foundational truths. It was wonderful. You can do the same, perhaps on a smaller level, but with no less zeal, and with no compromise of the truth of Christ.) Or join together in ministries to your community that no one church could accomplish or afford? or…
Lest you misunderstand my point, allow me to reiterate it. I am not pleading for unity at all costs, for the watering down of truth, for the minimizing of error within the Body of Christ. I am however, pleading for a gracious spirit, for a humble approach to brothers and sisters with whom, frankly, we may have serious disagreements, and for a willingness to labor together in the glorious work of the Lord Jesus. Facing our differences honestly will not prohibit us from recognizing, honoring and even celebrating our fundamental oneness in Christ. And that oneness lies at the heart of the loving response Christ asks of His bride. Remember Jesus’ prayer:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their (the apostolic) message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (Jn. 17:20–23).
Dr. Sittema is pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.