By Kyle Henderson
The pool of churches which can and will work together is getting smaller. It looks like the pools will eventually shrink to puddles and then dry up completely.
When I was a kid we loved to play in the creek behind our house. The tadpoles would swim away from us as we waded in the stream. When the water would begin to dry up, they would mound up in a squirming balls. We would go to work digging channels in the mud trying to link the water together and get them all to the deepest spot, but they seemed intent on staying in their own private Idaho. I hated to see them writhing in an ever desiccating mud bath.
I sometimes feel like one of those tadpoles. I feel like God has a big agenda, some deep water, but we keep wriggling into our own backwater and miss the current all together.
A friend asked me recently, “If one of y’all’s churches ordained a homosexual deacon, would you kick them out?” By “y’all” he meant the Baptist group to which I belong. The simple answer was, “Yes, that is what would happen.” Since then, I have been rolling that question around wondering, what are my boundaries of cooperation? Why is it I can joyfully attend a Christian conference with no knowledge of the people sitting around me, but when I know that I disagree with a church, then I can’t sit with them anymore?
For 18 years I have worked in the same community trying to build an interracial, interdenominational coalition to tackle some of the big problems in our area. It has been a difficult struggle. The former ministerial alliance dissolved over doctrinal issues just over 20 years ago and lots of feelings got hurt and lots of churches abandoned the idea of working together. All the king’s horses have not been able to put it back together again. Having watched the damage that Christian disunity has caused, having seen the many missed opportunities, I’m ready to saying it’s better to err on the side of working together than on the side of doctrinal purity.
Isn’t that what Paul was after in Romans 14? Would he say the same thing to us today? If we could get Paul to show up at a round table meeting and give us a value judgment between “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1) and expulsion-worthy sin (1 Cor. 5:2) which would he choose and why?
The talk I hear from people inside the church is that purity is more important than unity because people outside the church need to know what we stand for, and we don’t need to compromise even if the culture is shifting. The talk I hear from people outside the church is they don’t need to listen to us, because we have had 2,000 years to get our stuff together and have failed. I feel like we have failed them. Jesus’ comment seems a bit naïve: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). He just does not understand that our excluding others is all about love. We just want to love him.
I believe the Pauline principle for us today might be stated this way: Large groups need less agreement, small groups need more agreement. Paul never foresaw a time when he would cut off the Corinthian church; they were part of the team and on the same mission. They were part of the church, they were co-laborers in the cause of Christ. He clearly saw that the Corinthian church itself was threatened by immorality, but that was a local church issue.
We should try a new organizing structure. One, declare what we generally believe and what we are going to do. Two, let churches and individuals be responsible to either affirm or deny that they are in agreement or disagreement. Three, welcome anyone who will help us get on with the work whether they agree with us or not.
The two greatest moments in our community that have helped heal the rifts of separation were The Passion of the Christ and Hurricane Katrina. After seeing the movie, a group of pastors got together to talk about a response. We rented 20,000 feet in a strip mall next to the theater and built a meditative space that included information, prayer stations, counseling, discussion pits and a coffee shop (we don’t have a Starbucks in our town). For six weeks we met during every showing of the movie, stood outside the doors and invited every person who saw the move to come be with us to unpack the emotion of the event. We had 46 churches participate. The range of churches was extreme. We still hear about it in our town. The cross was enough to unify us.
During Katrina we were contacted about 1 p.m. on Saturday and told that a group of evacuees would be arriving in our town in about an hour. Every hotel room was booked. We sent word to the other churches, building on Café Collation, and when the group arrived we had over 400 beds ready. The four different churches housing our new friends were joined by churches from all over our community. The need was enough to unify us.
These two things remain: the cross and human need. If you are going to kick me, don’t kick me out; kick me into gear.