Gospel churches working together
In Bridgend there are several evangelical churches that for the last few years have been forging a strong partnership. This does not sound unusual until you understand this is neither a lowest-common-denominator ecumenical movement, nor a group of very similar churches, but churches that differ a great deal on important secondary issues yet are committed to gospel proclamation, personal holiness, a confessional faith and the supreme authority of the Bible. The churches include Baptists, Apostolic, open Brethren, an FIEC Mission Hall, an evangelical Charismatic church and one church in the AECW.
As I am a Reformed Welshman (theologically – not as in processed meat), I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Unity In Truth a couple of times while on the committee of a university CU, and found it invaluable as a guide to the breadth and limits of true biblical unity, and what I have discovered in Bridgend, though modest, is the closest thing to his vision that I have ever experienced.
This partnership has several strengths which, taken together, are I believe unusual in Wales:
- It is church based, and therefore involves people of all ages, with proper accountability and leadership. This also means that while the emphasis of our joint ventures is on evangelism it is not exclusively so, but on making strong, mature disciples.
- It is as broad as Bible-centred evangelicalism, which means that we tend to cancel out each other’s idiosyncrasies and focus on the vital things that unite us: the gospel, prayer and holiness.
- It has clear boundaries. Although not all the churches are members of Affinity, they all subscribe to Affinity’s doctrinal basis and statement on evangelical ecumenism, which together help to define the goal and limits of the group’s membership.
- It takes the autonomy of individual congregations seriously, and does not bind the member churches to participate in all joint ventures, or attempt to interfere in the way a church is led.
The relationship began long before I arrived in Bridgend (so if I sound enthusiastic, I can not take credit) with a joint carol service in the local leisure centre that was bigger and able to raise a higher profile than any one church could have managed alone. The churches started meeting together quarterly for prayer, and more joint projects followed; carol services, a mission, a combined youth group called the Word once a term, schools work and, recently, a weekend conference of Bible teaching. Several times teenagers at the Word said that they had been encouraged by meeting someone from their school there who they had not realised went to church, or by being reunited with a Christian friend they had lost touch with. A pastor from another local church told me how encouraged his youth group had been to realise that there were so many other teenagers going to churches locally, and to discover that many of them were serious about living for Christ.
The pastors of the seven churches meet about ten times a year to share matters for prayer and plan up-coming events. It is deliberately not delegated to representatives as these meetings form friendships among the leaders that contribute a great deal to strengthening the unity and mutual understanding between the churches. They are very warm meetings, colleagues catching up with how the work is going in other parts of the town, encouraging each other and joking about our differences.
These close friendships also present a variety of unexpected benefits. When I started this article, I was on a fortnight’s paternity leave and thought it a little ironic to be writing about close cooperation having just dodged the latest pastors’ meeting, but that week alone three pastoral situations arose that were solved (or at least greatly improved) by a quick phone call to a pastor from one of the other local churches. For example, a man from my church rang me late one night; a woman had just walked into his amateur photography class, incoherent and in distress, very anxious that she had nowhere to sleep that night (which was extremely cold). Several members of one of the churches, The Vine, are involved in an outreach to the homeless, so after a couple of phone calls and about twenty minutes, she was booked into a night shelter run by Christians who would make sure she received the appropriate care in the morning. Occasionally I get asked technical moral questions about, for example, tax law, family law or drug addiction. Pastors and elders of the other churches have been extremely helpful in sharing their expertise (I have no idea what they get out of their relationship with me, but I certainly appreciate it), and this has helped me to better advise members in my own church.
Dealing with disagreements
There are many things that we disagree on, and many of them are not at all fringe issues: the role of God’s election in salvation, the end times, spiritual gifts, the office of Apostle, normal expectations of health and prosperity in the Christian life, and all this is before we get into the thorny areas of music and style. I have debated some of these at length with Christian friends over a mug of coffee, and I trust we have sharpened and informed each other’s thinking, and grown in brotherly love. Some of these disagreements make me uncomfortable, and I believe that error on any of these doctrines has some kind of pastoral impact, but it would be extremely foolish to believe that I have nothing to learn from godly pastors who listen to God’s word because on some points we come to different conclusions. In the Doctor’s words we must…
…put into the centre what [the Bible] puts into the centre. Stand on those unflinchingly, without the slightest suspicion of accommodation or modification. Stand on them even unto death, but be very careful about anything else you stand on, lest you become guilty of the sin of schism and offend a dear brother for whom Christ died. If you think he is mistaken, patiently, quietly, prayerfully, try to instruct him and to help him. And as you value your own conscience and always try to obey it, remember that he has got a conscience also and you must not cause him to offend it. Let us love one another. Let us bear with one another but hold the centralities, the first things, boldly, courageously and unflinchingly together.
So uniting with Christians and churches with whom we disagree on important secondary matters does not mean that we ignore those matters, or consider them unimportant, but it is a desire as gospel churches to say together the most important message the world can hear. It is an attempt to love Christ’s Church the way He does, with all our areas in need of serious work. It is prizing her unity the way the Bible does – not uniting with all who claim to be Christ’s, but with those whose hope is solely in the Christ who saves and unites her to His Father through the Spirit He gives her. She is a work in progress that we have no right to give up on, because she is infinitely precious to Him, and because she will one day be utterly perfect.
John Orchard is the pastor of Grace Church, Bridgend.
 Lloyd-Jones, Unity in Truth, p.122