- February 8, 2023
Note: This article is the fourth installment in a series called “Missional Strategy: Why we do what we do the way we do it.” Previous articles are always available at http://www.webbweekly.com. I ended my last article by giving you some homework. I asked you to have some conversations regarding Christian unity. I posed the question
Note: This article is the fourth installment in a series called “Missional Strategy: Why we do what we do the way we do it.” Previous articles are always available at http://www.webbweekly.com.
I ended my last article by giving you some homework. I asked you to have some conversations regarding Christian unity. I posed the question this way, “What ways-of-doing-things can we employ in our local mission field to increase Christian unity as we seek to be effective channels of God’s saving and transforming grace?” I hope you had some good conversations. Here’s my two cents.
I’ve been a full-time vocational pastor for 37 years. I have served three congregations in three different communities. In each one, the local pastors tried to increase Christian unity by doing projects together and holding interfaith worship services. I would like to report that those efforts resulted in new and long-lasting forms of Christian unity, but I’m not sure they did. There are likely several reasons, but I think what I’m about to share could be a possible root of the problem.
Living in a time of blessing and protection allows us Christians the luxury of elevating our preferences (sometimes referred to as convictions) above their level of communal importance. We are right to feel strongly about those preferences as we serve our Lord and seek to please Him, but our desire to project them onto other believers, who may not share the same convictions, is what divides us. Those preferences include the vast majority of things we Christians disagree about:
– Forms and styles of worship. (Traditional/contemporary, liturgical/spontaneous, pipe organ/ guitars, etc.)
– Church organizational structure. (Denominational/independent, house churches/mega-churches, etc.)
– Moral, social, economic, and political issues. (Abortion, LGBTQ, materialism, environmentalism, capitalism, communism, poverty, wealth, homelessness, etc.)
– Biblical versions (KJV, RSV, NIV, NASB, MSG) and Biblical interpretations. (Dress, food, drink, modesty, women in leadership, the gifts of the Spirit, etc.)
These are just some of the preferences that Christians elevate. I assure you if following Jesus resulted in severe persecution — arrests, torture, the confiscation of property and children, execution — we wouldn’t waste one moment disagreeing on the vast majority of preferences that divide us. Instead, we would be quietly huddled together in someone’s basement, just being grateful to be in the presence of Jesus Christ and fellow believers — regardless of their preferences. Seriously, we wouldn’t give a rip about all the silly stuff we allow to divide us.
Let me illustrate it this way. As a leader, I often find myself traveling with a van full of people who need to agree on a place to eat. Without fail, some passengers will express their preferences regarding restaurants, menus, and the timing of the stop. When I finally decide and pull into a restaurant, the pouting and complaining begins. You know what their problem is? They aren’t hungry enough.
I’ve discovered something. If you drive by a couple of exits and allow your passengers to get truly hungry, they won’t care where you stop — as long as there’s food. When you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything. If you don’t believe me, then you’ve never been truly hungry.
We Christians are just too fat and happy, so we want everything just the way we want it, right down to the minutia. That’s precisely the reason we are splintered into so many pieces. We know God wants unity — but we want what we want more than what He wants. We worship our appetites, not God. It’s a hard confession to make, but until we’re willing, to be honest about it and make some changes, disunity will continue to be the Church’s biggest missional obstacle.
This isn’t a new challenge for Christians. Paul had to address the preference problem when he wrote to the church in Rome. You can read what he had to say in Romans 14. Take a moment right now to read that chapter. Seriously, read it now. The Church has got to deal with its preference problem, and that won’t happen until we’re willing to face it head-on.
One more thought: there is a difference between a preference and a principle. For too many of us Christians, we confuse the two and get our priorities out of order. So, let’s be clear, a principle is a fundamental truth that serves as the foundation of our faith and unity. A preference is a greater liking for one thing over another.
You like hymns; another believer likes contemporary songs. That’s preference. You like exegetical preaching; another likes topical. That’s preference. You like to worship at 9 a.m.; another likes it at 11 a.m. You like pews; another likes padded chairs. You like pipe organs; another likes guitars. You like the King James Version; another likes the New International Version. You like liturgy; another likes spontaneity. These things, and a whole lot more, are all preferences.
Principles, on the other hand, are foundational. The Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed are generally accepted as providing the foundational truths of Christianity. The principles address the nature and sovereignty of God, the nature and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and the nature and empowering work of the Holy Spirit. That’s it. The Creeds remind us that the principles that unite us are far more powerful than the myriad of preferences that divide us.
There is one preference, that is a principle. It is found in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value (prefer) others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests (preferences) but each of you to the interests (preferences) of the others.”
Can you imagine what would happen if we Christians actually valued each other more than we value ourselves? It would be miraculously unifying. Until we learn this simple principle, the divided Church will continue to be its own biggest missional problem.