Is unity possible between church traditions?

This is the second part of my response to Moses’ guest article on denominations. A key part of Moses’ argument seems to be that an appeal to “Evangelical Unity” does not work because that pushes us down to the lowest common denominator and that people may have more in common with their non-evangelical colleagues within their denominations.

I want to respond to this by sharing some of my own experience.  I grew up in an independent Evangelical Methodist mission hall. I attended a large evangelical Anglican church at University and only actually found my way into an FIEC context church after University.  I trained at Oak Hill Theological College alongside Anglican ordinands and I currently pastor a church with Brethren roots.  My wife, meanwhile, became a Christian in the Anglican parish church where we got married. So I feel a little qualified to comment on how the cross denominational fellowship and partnership works.

In fact, it was to the Brethren rooted neighbouring church that our nearby Congregationalists turned to for help with revitalisation recently, despite there being some differences that we had to work through including that

  • Congregationalists are traditionally paedo-baptist
  • Culturally the focus is much more on the single ordained minister than on a plurality of elders.

In fact, a surface level view of those issues would push us away from working together, just as I suspect it would leave one asking how a strict Baptist like Steve Kneale could help support a paedo-Baptist to church plant in Rochdale.

However, it was a deeper luck at what our polities and our theologies entailed which enabled us to work together.  This means that the Baptist pastor who agreed to lead the re-plant needed to take time to understand the paedo-Baptist position of his congregationalist partners whilst they needed to look again at the missional context they were partnering in.  At the same time, our understanding of the involvement of the church membership in decision making and the autonomy of the local church enabled us to work well with our near neighbours and to help find the right team for them.

Whilst there can be a temptation to keep things shallow and go for the lowest common denominator when seeking unity, I think that is to significantly underestimate the depth and richness that there is to Evangelical and Reformed thinking. How do I know this? Well, it is because I trained at a Theological College alongside Anglicans where in four years of intensive and detailed study there were few differences and certainly little sign of major fault-lines.  The litmus test then is how those Anglican brothers would have faired if training in another context alongside non-reformed and even non-evangelical students and being taught by non-evangelical lecturers. 

What made that possible? Well whilst the source documents might have been different, WCF and 1689 as opposed to 39 Articles, our shared Reformed outlook meant that we read those source documents in a similarly way. We read all of them as “reformed.”  That’s the point.  The old argument that the founding documents of the Church of England are Reformed become of little use when its members and leaders simply don’t read them that way.  Theoretical, paper agreement simply does not compare with actual agreement.

Furthermore, Moses’ example of baptism serves to further highlight the problem with a denominational focus rather than to justify it.  You see, this looks to me like a way of formulating the problem so as to put the focus on the wrong questions.  Indeed the description of our unity as based on the lowest common denominators feels to me a little pejorative. I am looking for unity on the basis that we agree on the following

  • The Trinity
  • The authority and sufficiency of Scripture
  • The physical reality of Christ, birth, life, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension and return
  • Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross
  • Justification by Faith.

I don’t think of those as the lowest common denominators but as the highest and I don’t think of them as shallow but rich and deep.

Once we accept that there is unity and diversity together then we choose what it is we will unite on. Evangelical unity is on the core essentials of the Gospel.  The alternative to this is that we unite on a liturgy, mode and timing of Baptism, what we call our ministers and what they wear, doing social good and those kind of things.

We recognise such things as second order for a reason. It is because the first order matters affect our understanding of second order ones.  I have met people who have been baptised in their teens or as adults by immersion but I have less in common with them than with a reformed paedo-baptist. Why? Because their understanding  of baptism was that it was a rite of passage. It had nothing to do with the Gospel. I’ve also met people who practice immersion for adults but their theology commits them to a form of baptismal regeneration. Even when I disagree with an evangelical/reformed paedobaptist, our shared understanding of the Gospel gives us the framework and language to discuss our disagreements.

So, my argument remains that there should be a stronger sense of unity and therefore a prioritisation of that unity between evangelicals across denominations than between evangelicals and non-evangelicals within denominations.

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