One Church

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”  John 17:20-23

Jesus longs for His children to work together for His glory and His Kingdom. Tragically, Christian history documents one division after another and relatively few moments of unified collaboration. For every rupture there were many reasons, all considered essential in the moment. And sadly, more effort has gone into maintaining those divisions than in working to forge real Biblical unity. Thankfully, as the gospel advances to the ends of the earth, partnership overseas is becoming the norm and even in the U.S. there are more and more examples of the power of koinonia in cities and regions. 

For the Church of Tampa Bay to move forward on unified mission we must recognize and wrestle with the challenges to unity. Historic cultural divisions remain well established and we need forums to know, love and serve each other across the lines of black and brown and white. Racial dialogue, reconciliation and partnership gives us a model to use as we seek to understand one another and work together theologically as well. Consider this diagram.

The Evangelical Movement in the U.S. includes both Bible-teaching, hymn-book holding conservatives and hand-raising, tongues-speaking Pentecostals. We are united in our commitment to Jesus as Lord based on the authority of Scripture and centered on the core doctrines of the Trinity and the Gospel. 

But almost as soon as you articulate our key areas of agreement you start to slide to the next circle of distinction and even to the outer areas of disagreement. 

The black lines on the edges show the boundaries of orthodoxy. If you cross certain lines you are no longer evangelical – no longer upholding the truth of Scripture and the historically central doctrines of Christianity. For example, prayer is not magic – compelling God to do our bidding through specific rituals. Yet neither is prayer resignation to an impersonal fate at the hands of an uncaring (or absent) deity. (See D.A. Carson’s Praying with Paul). Prayer is an exercise of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, trusting in His Sovereign will and calling upon His Almighty power. Even with agreement on these boundaries and on that center for prayer, we quickly see why prayer is divisive both privately and publicly. 

Our theological and practical convictions present challenges to collaboration. What a Pentecostal considers the basic exercise of faith (i.e. personal tongues) a Reformed cessationist sees as hyper-spiritualized emotionalism; and what a cessationist understands as wisdom (i.e. avoiding tongues) a Pentecostal assesses as immaturity or outright rebellion.

Evangelical leaders know these tensions and seek to focus on Jesus in the center, training our people to be non-judgmental and supportive of those with views and practices unlike our own. In my tradition (the EFCA) we call this “the significance of silence,” specifically in relation to the historic debate between Calvinists (more emphasis on God’s sovereignty) and Arminians (more emphasis on human freedom / responsibility). We remain deliberately silent on such secondary issues, choosing to major on the majors and promote gospel collaboration. 

In order to move forward as a unifying influence in Tampa Bay we need to fully appreciate the challenges to collaboration. Planning a unified worship service (for example) that is neither Pentecostal nor “thoroughly Reformed” requires the right mix of leaders and intentional effort to understand one another and work together in ways that honor the values of the other. If an event is perceived as Pentecostal, many conservatives will not come. Similarly, if an event is seen as anti-charismatic, many Pentecostals will not come.

I present this diagram and this post as an appeal to keep our public meetings and events in the middle circle of agreement, deliberately avoiding areas of distinction that alienate those on the other side. For example, when Pentecostals “declare and decree” in public prayer many conservatives disqualify the whole event. A comparable misstep in the other direction would be a conservative preaching that all miraculous “sign gifts” have ceased. We want to be a “Word and Power” movement (see Doug Bannister’s book) – uniting the wisdom of conservative evangelicalism with the passion of the Pentecostal approach. The truth is: we need each other; with all the creativity and diversity of the body of Christ. May Jesus be glorified in us as we worship and serve Him to build up the One Church of Tampa Bay!

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