It was a Saturday at the Abortion Mill when I was challenged to consider the concept of allies and adversaries. It had become my routine to spend some time on a Saturday preaching the Gospel and pleading with women and men not to abort their children.
This Saturday was not unlike others as people from various churches gathered to pray, preach, and bear witness to the truth. It was there, for the first time, I meet a Catholic young man who wanted to stand for the pre-born. However, he proceeded to tell me that we would not have the abortion problem had it not been for the Protestant rebellion which divided the Church’s witness in 1517 AD. I responded that the “division” of 1517 was not actually a rebellion but an act of obedience in response to an unreformed and apostate organization. As you might imagine, the debate was “on” that day outside of the Abortion Mill. We must have debated close to an hour. He brought his compelling arguments and of course, I brought mine. Neither one of us had made much progress with the other until I noticed across the parking lot that the Abortion Mill escorts were chuckling. They had been watching the entertainment that this young man and I had been providing for them. I was suddenly struck by the thought at that moment as to who could be my ally and who was my adversary.
Christians have had their challenges in this area when it comes to doctrine, theology, and ecclesiology. There are always strong opinions on these subjects and to be perfectly honest, that is to be expected. Add into the mix, however, mutual political concerns and you have a challenging path in building coalitions that can actually move those concerns forward.
Can a Protestant work with a Catholic when the issues of the culture impact them both similarly?
How much theological agreement must exist between Christians and churches in order to work together on issues and concerns that can harm everyone?
If theological purity becomes the test of relationships for maintaining our liberties then my fear is that we may be in more trouble than any of us ever imagined.
I have met Catholics who agreed that our culture is spiraling in depravity and our liberties are eroding but won’t work with me because I am a “protestant”. I have met evangelicals who won’t work with Catholics because they practice “works righteousness”. I have met cessationists who refuse to work with continuationists and complimentarians who simply will not cooperate with egalitarians. I can throw out a dozen different labels of theological differences which alienate people from one another despite the fact that everyone agrees that we are rushing towards tyranny. I am asked, “What can be done about it?” My answer is that we better learn to navigate some differences now or it may be uncomfortable sitting in the crowded catacombs that are around the corner.
Let me be clear, I have very definite doctrinal understandings. I embrace the Five Reformation Solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (Faith alone), Sola Gratia (Grace alone), Sola Christus (Christ alone), Sola Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone). I hold views that are considered highly conservative and impeccably orthodox within the protestant, theological framework. I tell you this to simply make the point that it is highly unlikely (I would say impossible) that I will ever become Catholic. However, if a statist, atheistic government seeks to strip my Catholic friends of their religious liberty then it might behoove me to help them lest I be next. That’s not a theological compromise, it is a principled conviction.
Pastor Martin Niemoller, a contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Nazi Holocaust, famously wrote:
- First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
- Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
- Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
- Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I understand that coalitions can feel like compromise. Every time the world is confronted by some tyrant in a rogue nation it frustrates me to watch the rest of the globe forge alliances and coalitions in order to defeat the adversary. I say to myself, “How can we work with them? They are not a democracy. They do not hold free-elections. They do not uphold all our liberties”. Yet, despite their imperfections and errors, the greater challenge demands some cooperation and unity from the community of nations. This isn’t a clandestine effort at one-world government any more than working with Catholics or other Christian denominations is an attempt at one-world religion. It is about facing off with a tyranny that wants to enslave us all.
It took awhile for me to work through my strong doctrinal and Scriptural convictions that I personally held in understanding how I could cooperate in cultural concerns with those who held some different theological positions. I am not saying that my four precepts are without critique to some, but for those who understand that it’s going to take more than just a narrow swath of believers to reverse the direction of our culture and restore a Judeo-Christian ethic to our nation, this list may be helpful. Please let me reiterate, these are my personal guiding principles.
1. Correctly Identifying a Friend.
The Scripture says that “Jesus was a friend of sinners” (Matt.11:19). I figure if the Savior can forge friendships with those alienated from God through sin, I can certainly consider forging friendships with those at various places and understandings in their journey with God. That doesn’t mean I am endorsing their theology or even declaring them “saved”. I am simply identifying friends who are amiable towards my faith and concerns. Jesus had a similar perspective when it was brought to His attention that there was someone casting out demons in His name but they did not happen to be in the original group of disciples. Jesus was clear when He said, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.” (Luke 9:50 NKJV) This account is recorded in three of the Gospels. I would surmise that our Lord is trying to get a precept through to us…don’t alienate those who are endeavoring to do some work for the Kingdom.
I have attended through the years a couple of different pastoral gatherings. One is strictly a prayer gathering, another one is more of a Bible study, and the last one has more to do with civic activities. I appreciate all three gatherings and their unique purposes. I can say that I have friends in every group. Our concerns with the culture are almost identical. Our theology and hermeneutic can be wide and varied. Do I really alienate these people from my concerns of the greater culture based solely on my personal theological convictions? For me the answer is no. (That is not to say there is no boundary as I will discuss below) Following this precept, I can work with numerous “friends” in bringing to pass those things which honor God.
2. Shaking off Sectarianism.
Sectarianism is the big word for someone thinking they are “better” than another. It can be more of an attitude than an actual act, but it can be easily identified. Paul saw it at the Church of Corinth when he writes them and states he has heard, “that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (I Corinthians 1:11-13 NKJV). The Corinthians were basically saying, “My church is better than your church”. That is why Paul would later call them “babies” (I Cor. 3:1).
Obviously there can be what I call a “sanctified pride” in your church or denomination. Everyone should feel good about what their church may be doing with regards to ministry. I also recognize that people may gather to form a church, fellowship, or denomination based on a common doctrine or distinctive. The problem arises when we begin to think that our church or perspective is the ONLY perspective. Bible believing Christians can land doctrinally in different places and still be well within the boundaries of orthodoxy. I can certainly labor for morality and liberty within the culture alongside them. For me, to think that somehow I have cornered the market on THE perspective of Biblical interpretation is arrogance. The Church is larger than just MY church or MY doctrinal perspective,
Some may ask, “What about Catholics? Are not our theological divides too significant to bridge?”
If we were seeking to merge our churches then I would absolutely agree that the divide is impossible to bridge. If we are attempting to maintain a liberty where both our churches can exist, then we can labor together. Personally, I do not have to agree with them doctrinally to be able to work with them politically. That is not to say that there will not be debates as to how to Biblically move our concerns forward, but it serves no purpose to alienate from my arrogance a potential ally in this era.
3. Defining the Essentials.
No one is actually sure who originated the famous quote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I can say that there is incredible wisdom in that simple thought. Paul seemed to have this in mind when he elaborated to the Ephesian Church the basis of our unity:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6 NKJV)
Again, I have never been accused of lack of convictions with regards to my personal understanding of Scripture. However, Paul seems clear that there are essentials and by inference, non-essentials when it comes to our fellowship and most certainly our laboring for cultural concerns. I mentioned earlier how Christians may have varied understandings of Scripture within orthodox theology. It might also be good to mention that for me, I do have some boundaries that can be defined as well. For example, there is much libertarian philosophy which is associated with Ayn Rand and objectivism. Due to the atheistic underpinnings of Rand, I would find it nearly impossible to work with those who espouse her political philosophy. If there is no attempt at a Biblical foundation then there is little reason for me to try to build an alliance with that group. Their premise ultimately is shaky. For me, that is an “essential”. My hope would be that all who consider themselves “Christian” would see that as an essential too.
4. Recognizing Sovereign Favor
A short time after getting involved in cultural and political concerns I found myself becoming the de facto pastoral leader of the greater Christian community of my city. Let me be clear, I wasn’t running for the position nor did I compromise my deeply held Christian positions or convictions. The favor of that season was remarkable, so much so, that one Sunday evening a Catholic neighbor walked down to my house and knocked at the door. I answered the door and she immediately put her church newsletter in my face and said, “Do you see?” I must have looked confused because she continued, “My priest made an announcement today at morning mass that you were speaking at this event and he encouraged everyone to be there. They also put your name in the newsletter promoting what you are doing”. We both laughed as we understood how remarkable that was at numerous levels. Our neighborhood joke became that I was now an “honorary priest”. The reality was that neither the Catholic Church nor Legacy Church changed a single doctrinal conviction. We became allies for our mutual concerns with regards to cultural decline.
I believe that God is Sovereign over the affairs of men and nations (Ps. 103:19, Prov. 21:1, Acts 17:26-28). There are more than a few times in Scripture where God uses a person outside the orthodox “faith” camp to help His people. Rahab the harlot was an ally to some Jewish spies when it came to an escape. Joseph was elevated by a Pharaoh to influence and save a nation. Daniel had favor through four Persian administrations. These unusual alliances demonstrate that there can be times God will link people up for His purposes. I have been amazed, for example, how many Catholic people have opened doors for me to speak at various venues that were predominantly attended by people from Christian denominations and fellowships that were nothing like my own.
I believe God is all-powerful and nothing is impossible for Him to accomplish. Sometimes that is evidenced in the paradoxical connections He providentially sets up for His people. For me, the very purpose of discernment is to spiritually navigate successfully our potential alliances and people connections. We must realize that not everyone we labor alongside will match every theological and personal conviction we maintain.
For me, this isn’t compromise…it’s strategic.
It was Benjamin Franklin who, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, said, “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” The days we are living in demand that kind of wisdom from Christians from all backgrounds. All of us are facing a tyranny that will take all of us to address. Keep your theological distinctives, hold deeply your Scriptural convictions and interpretations, but remember Franklin’s words. They may be the wisdom we need as we all move forward.