When we first moved to Bearwood, I had the opportunity to link up with other pastors for fellowship but there were a couple of groups operating, so which one was I meant to choose? There was a Black Country Group and a Birmingham group. Initially it seemed to make snse to join with the Black Country guys. Smethwick is kind of in the Black Country and not officially Birmingham. However I began to realise that things weren’t quite so straight forward. Actually, whether it was about practical things like public transport or just where people’s focus was, I realised my affinity was more with those linking up in Birmingham. The primary cause of this was that the M5 runs right through the Western border of our patch and it creates a natural boundary.
I’ve been thinking again about boundaries recently. As I mentioned in another post, I recently heard a sermon which talked about the importance of proper boundaries in terms of our morality. It reminded me about a debate I was part of within our network of churches whilst pastoring up here. A group of people had been gathered together to discuss the way forward for our network and some form of refresh and relaunch was envisaged.
However, we kept going round in circles about what it was that held us together. Our roots were mainly in the Brethren but was that enough to keep us together. We talked about common beliefs and practices. Was there a set of shared values? Shouldn’t we have an agreed statement of faith? What were the essentials that united us?
Some did not want us to go down that road. Wasn’t it enough simply to united by our love for Jesus and The Gospel? It all sounded good in theory. Couldn’t we escape past divisions? It was suggested that there were two approaches to unity. One looked to set out the borders and boundaries, to frame who was in and who was out with hard edges. The other didn’t worry about boundaries but looked at what the central focus was that held us together.
You can probably see the flaws in that. If we were genuinely seeking to be purists, happy that love of Jesus was quite enough to keep us together, then we did not in fact have anything distinctive that did hold us together. Why should these churches join up with each other in this formal network and not with a different set of churches? Furthermore, whilst we claimed not to want to set up boundaries, in fact we did have them. Our network was for churches that valued plural leadership, weekly communion and autonomous congregations. I think we also had agreed that we were baptistic. So there were things we considered to be essential to unity but how did we reach that decision? How did we justify those priorities. After all, I am very much united with some of my local Anglican friends. They may have bishops and tend to baptise babies but they do love Jesus. Similarly, my Baptist friends love Jesus too. They bring the added benefit of not wanting to baptise babies and also having autonomous church government. Unfortunately they also don’t take communion anywhere near as often as I would prefer.
Yes, we do set up boundaries and yes boundaries do matter. You can’t survive for long with just boundaries and no centre, all that happens is that everyone scatters out within the permitted field of play, constantly pushing at their boundary of choice until it gives. Nor can you have a centre without a boundary. The boundary isn’t there just to tell me to stop going any further but to turn me around and re-orientate me towards the centre. It functions like that M5 border on our patch. You see, there comes a point when someone moves far enough away from the centre that you cannot be certain that you are operating within the same gravitational pull as them. Are you really focused on the same centre point or are you just in reasonable proximity to each other.
Let me give you two examples.
Boundary 1 – The Trinity: WE can all claim to love Jesus but if in fact the Jesus I believe in is just a mode of appearance giving us a glimpse into the secret and unknowable nature of God but nothing more then am I focused on the same Jesus as you. But if I on the other hand fail to recognise Jesus as fully God, one with the Father then I also am worshipping a different Jesus.
Boundary 2 – Grace. Reformed Evangelicals insist that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. There have throughout the centuries been various attacks on this. People have attempted to diminish the truth that Christ bore the penalty for sin making him nothing more than a good example. Others have diluted grace putting the focus on our efforts. This can work itself out in an undermining of assurance and security because if my salvation isn’t all of God,t hen there is at least a 50-50 chance that I could mess it up. So if we are not careful we start to focus on another Gospel.
And these changes can be oh so subtle. The centre of gravity shifts just a little. It’s not that we are obviously facing in different directions but our focus is on slightly different centre points and we’ve lost our unity.
So good fellowship and unity between churches and Christians needs both a centre point and boundaries. We need a clear statement of faith to set out the boundaries and we need a clear vision of our shared purpose and shared faith in Christ and the Gospel.