Loving the church which Jesus loves: reflections on church unity
Why should we be concerned about Christian unity?
Christian unity is very important because it expresses visibly what we are ‘in Christ’ and also our relationship with all other Christians. It is essentially spiritual not organisational, created not by us, but by God. It is a wonderful privilege and a profound reality. When a new Christian meets another Christian they always respond with joy; they have met a brother or sister who loves the same Lord as they do. This joy transcends concerns about the kind of church the other Christian belongs to. It is a foretaste of heaven.
We should be concerned about it because it matters very much to our Lord. The unity of His people was on His heart as He prepared to go to the cross. He prayed for those who would believe in Him through the ministry of the apostles, ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world might believe that you have sent me.’ He knew the potential for divisions between His people. Such disunity is a great scandal and one of the greatest hindrances to the success of the gospel in the world.
Why do evangelicals have a reputation for being negative about Christian unity?
This is a challenge to us! We have rightly reacted against the approach to Christian unity adopted by the World Council of Churches. The WCC has rejected the authority of the Bible and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through Him. Many of the leaders of the main denominations in Wales do not, in practice, accept the authority of the Bible or believe that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. For many years the Bible has not really been preached from the pulpit, nor has the gospel been clearly proclaimed. We can see the direct consequence of this in the massive, and seemingly terminal, decline in these denominations.
Why did you leave the denomination in which you had grown up and been ordained?
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church of Wales and was ordained as a minister of that denomination in 1973. It soon became clear to me that the views of evangelicals were being deliberately sidelined. In summer 1974 I was a leader on a denominational youth holiday fellowship in Aberystwyth. To my delight one of the young people came to faith that week, yet it was made obvious that the other leaders did not share my delight. That summer I also attended the International Conference on World Evangelisation at Lausanne and caught a vision for the task of world evangelisation. As I prayed about all these things I came to the conclusion that I wanted to fulfil a ministry which was based on the Bible and had a passion to take the gospel to the world, beginning in Wales. At the end of 1974 my family and I quietly left the denomination and began seeking to plant a new gospel church in Deeside. It may have seemed like a negative step, but it was taken, with real sadness, for very positive reasons.
What has been your own experience of evangelical Christian unity?
When I left the denomination I assumed that evangelicals would be suspicious of me and would want to ‘check me out’ to make sure I was ‘sound’. I feared that I might not pass the test! My actual experience was very different. Soon after I resigned, when I and my family faced a very uncertain future, with no job and no home, I received a letter from Roland Lamb, the General Secretary of the British Evangelical Council (now Affinity). He assured me of the love and fellowship of the BEC and enclosed a cheque for £50 as a practical expression of their love. The leaders of the Evangelical Movement of Wales were very encouraging, especially Elwyn Davies. Evangelical ministers were very friendly, both in North-East Wales and in the South, including Graham Harrison and Vernon Higham. When the church in Deeside was established it was a natural step for us to join the EMW and BEC. It is so important today that we are warm and approachable to those who are ministering in denominational churches.
Do you think independent evangelical churches can express unity with evangelical denominational churches? If so, how?
The great divide in time and eternity is between those who are ‘in Christ’ and those who are not. Evangelical Christians are one in the Lord, whether they are in independent churches or denominational churches. It is important for us to make this clear to evangelical denominational churches. The major denominations in Wales are in serious decline. Between 1990 and 2010 church attendance reduced from 300,000 (10% of the population) to 150,000 (5% of the population). Not all independent churches were exempt from this decline, but the evangelical churches in the denominations held up better than non-evangelical churches. The key issue today is not secession but the future of the gospel. We need to work together with all gospel churches. The AECW has recently launched an initiative called ‘Gospel Churches for Wales’, which is committed both to planting new churches and to strengthening existing churches, including evangelical denominational churches. We would welcome discussions with them as to how this might be done and it is important for those of us who are in independent evangelical churches to take the initiative in this.
What can we do practically as churches and Christians to promote Christian unity?
You could begin to pray for churches around the UK by using the monthly Prayer Calendar produced by Affinity (www.affinity.org.uk). As a local church you could contact your nearest gospel church/es and ask if there are any matters for which they would appreciate prayer. This could lead to occasional joint prayer meetings, pulpit exchanges, joint young people’s meetings and evangelistic missions. If you do not already belong to a fellowship of churches you could consider joining one. You could encourage your pastor and the members of your church to attend conferences where they will meet pastors and Christians from other churches. Building relationships and trust is the essential basis for co-operation in gospel witness.
Have you seen any encouraging examples of Christian unity around the world?
In September 2004 I arranged for the leaders of the Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea (ECPNG) to meet with the leaders of the Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI). The immediate sense of unity and fellowship was profound and tangible. They said it was like twin brothers meeting for the first time! For many years Papua and PNG have been divided by the border which splits the island into two parts. Papua belongs to the Republic of Indonesia which is 80% Muslim. However, 57% of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Papua profess to be Christian and most belong to GIDI churches. More than 97% of the 5.5 million inhabitants of PNG profess to be Christian and many belong to ECPNG churches. One of the outcomes of the meeting is that a partnership has been established between ECPNG and GIDI to work together to evangelise Muslim people in Indonesia. Otto Kobak, from GIDI, affirmed, ‘The churches had been two, but are now becoming one.’ He asked ‘How can we, as twin brothers, work together to shine the light of Jesus Christ? How can we be a blessing … not only to Indonesia but everywhere? It might seem impossible, but together we can.’ This is a challenge to us! Do we have the same vision? It shows the importance of meeting together if Christian unity is to be fostered and developed with an increased confidence in God and a passion to take the gospel to the world.
Questions were answered by Peter Milsom, the director of Affinity and chairman of AECW.