Working as a chaplain at a Christian based homeless shelter indeed has its challenges; conversely it is also incredibly rewarding. One the greatest challenges for me at times has to do with that simple little word “ecumenical”. One might think that ministering to people with completely different faith backgrounds would be more challenging. I disagree. Being ecumenical is a far greater challenge. 2000 years of the development of Christian thought has resulted in so many streams within the realm Christian theology, philosophy and praxis that is it virtually impossible to keep up. Add to this the ability for anyone to make information readily available on the internet and the resulting theological ideologies that spring up are almost endless. I have personally found that rubbing shoulders with clients on a regular basis has been one of the most productive ways of keeping my brain functional and sort of up to date on a lot of theological stuff (who would have thought it would happen in a homeless shelter?). In most cases the people I deal with are not well versed in their various streams of theology even though they hold to these ideas tightly- one might say even dogmatically. In addition from my perspective much of what they say is easily contradictory to the scripture anyway. For a moment let me take it beyond the bounds of what I deal with on a regular basis- beyond those that have some strange ideas but don’t have a good grounding in what they believe. I am now talking about those who have done some study and might have a different slant on something then we do. For example there are the followers of Calvin and the followers of Arminius. Or how about in eschatology (the study of the last things)? We have those who are Dispensational Premill, Historic Premill, and those who are preterists and all the landscapes in between. We have those who are gentile Christians and those who are Messianic believers. BTW, if I have mislabeled anyone here, I apologize that is most certainly not my intent. The point is that there is very wide spectrum of well thought out (for the most part) belief systems. What scares me is that we allow these things to operate as the proverbial bee in the bonnet or that stray hair in the collar of a shirt that just itches to highest level of annoyance. Worse than just being an annoyance they become things that divide us. As I was thinking about this today I was reminded of a church that had this very problem and some of the opening words of the apostle Paul when he began to address them on it:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Cor 1:10- 17 NASB)
What is most striking about this text as I read it is the word “agree” in vs. 10. This is of course the NASB translation of the Greek phrase “το αυτο λεγητε”. Having learned Biblical Greek I spent some time looking at vs. 10 and trying to understand why and how it has been translated this way. As I am a person who gets frustrated with not being able to figure something out, I began to dig into it a little and discovered that there is some very strong evidence to suggest that this phrase was a commonly used in Greek political life to communicate the idea of not allowing a factional system to develop, rather people were to “be at peace” with one another. Robertson & Plummer’s commentary on 1 Corinthians cites Aristotle’s usage of this very Greek phrase in this manner and subsequently contends that:
“St. Paul is urging, not unison but harmony” (Robertson & Plummer, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the 1st Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians)
Another commentator, J. B. Lightfoot cites other examples of the same type of usage of the phrase. Paul also uses the word σχισματα (divisions or schisms) and κατηρτισμένοι (to mend) which add to the idea that he was exhorting them to live in harmony if not unity on all things. Albert Barnes seemingly in agreement with what has already been presented here says this:
To “speak the same thing” stands opposed to speaking different and conflicting things, or to controversy; and although perfect uniformity of opinion cannot be expected among men on the subject of religion any more than on other subjects, yet, on the great and fundamental doctrines of Christianity, Christians may be agreed; on all points in which they differ, they may evince a good spirit; and on all subjects they may express their sentiments in the language of the Bible, and thus “speak the same thing.” (Albert Barnes- Barnes Notes on the New Testament)
THE NON- NEGOTIABLES
This brings me to the crux of what I want to communicate today. A number of years back when I was attending Tyndale University College and Seminary, myself and two classmates would get together weekly to talk about our classes and about theology. Let me say this: it was an interesting mix of backgrounds. Kevin was the baptist contingent and Aaron was a Methodist. Then there was me, I was the one that at times I think the other two thought of as the lunatic fringe (kidding Kevin & Aaron). For my part I was a member of a Vineyard church and they may have labelled me as a little bit more charismatic. What was beautiful was that even though we differed greatly on things like predestination, prevenient grace and eschatology (amongst other things) we always had wonderful conversations and joked about what we thought was heretical about the other two. As I look back on those times it was probably the most significant part of my whole education at Tyndale and it wasn’t even happening in realm of academia. It was so significant because even though there were great walls of doctrine that could have separated us, we were able to build bridges over the wall to have true fellowship. It was during this time that Kevin shared a concept with Aaron and I that I have held onto. I don’t remember what he called it, and I have since then begun to call it “The Non-negotiables”. Kevin shared with us that there were essentially 3 things that had to be common amongst us in order for there to be true Christian fellowship. They are as follows: Christ’s divinity, the authority of scripture and the atonement. I have recently added one more to this list that has less to do with theology and more to do with actual observation of a person. I have come to understand that many times people claim the 3 previously mentioned beliefs but show no fruit in their lives. So I have added a 4th non-negotiable which I simple call “fruit”. I want to finish by quickly looking at each of these and then leaving us with a challenge.
1. THE DIVINITY OF JESUS
Let me just state it plainly: If Jesus is not the divinely eternal God then our entire faith really amounts to nothing. The church becomes nothing more than another social club with some opportunities for helping out the lonely and needy. So then why would I ever even go to church? There are plenty of clubs which I could join that would be far more convenient. However the idea of whether or not Jesus is divine is imperative to the gospel message. Holding to this idea matters- and for many reasons. If a person doesn’t believe this then the gospel is ultimately powerless. If Jesus was not divine then his death means nothing and his resurrection is impossible and the ascension is nothing more than a myth. Jesus words might remain as they are well documented, but if He isn’t divine then the stories of the miracles are fabrications. However if Jesus is divine then the our faith is not empty or powerless. If He is who He claimed to be, then the church is more than just a social club. The power and effectiveness of the church to transform the earth is rooted in the fact that the God of universe is the one who brings about salvation and upholds all things (See Col 2:9- 13, Heb 1:1- 4, John 1:14). Jesus then is the energizing force that empowers the church to transform the world.
2. THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
I get so frustrated with the attacks on the validity and accuracy of scripture. The devil knows that people are easily swayed by testimony that tears down the validity of anything. On a regular basis I am told that “the scriptures cannot be trusted because they were written by men with an agenda” or “the scriptures have been changed and corrupted through the years- so I can’t trust them”. Unfortunately they arguments are particularly problematic. The canon of scripture which we have today has been proven over and over again to be very accurate. The reality is that the word of God will not pass away. The reality is that He has been intimately involved in the preservation of His word through out the ages. People go and do some research into the claims of those that declare that the word of God is untrustworthy. Their intent was to discredit. Now go and research all the places that scripture has been authenticated and proven accurate through out the years. The evidence to suggest that the word of God is trustworthy is actually more deafening then you might think. Here is my point though. Like the idea of the divinity of Jesus if scripture cannot be trusted then all that Christianity actually stands for is moot, untenable and ultimately untrustworthy and I go back to my question: “why would I ever go to church.” It is my contention here that if a person claiming to be a believer is arguing against the complete authority scripture then it all becomes suspect. Again our interpretations may be different- and they can be very wrong, but the words of the bible have been translated with incredibly attention to detail for 2000 years and more. The authority of this book is non-negotiable. How can we call ourselves followers of Jesus in the strictest sense if God has not preserved His book throughout the years?
3. THE ATONEMENT
There are many approaches and theological systems that have developed around the issue of the atonement and of course I don’t have the time to get into them here. From substitutionary atonement to ransom theory and from the moral influence theory to the recapitulation theory, ideas about atonement and how it was accomplished are varied. I love debating these ideas with friends and colleagues but at the end of the day I think there is a radical middle ground that we simply haven’t been able to take hold of that will answer the all the questions completely. That being said, here is the non-negotiable: Who covered your sin? Do you believe that only Jesus could deal with your sin problem by the shedding of His blood? If the answer is yes then there is a lot of space for christian fellowship and both parties are remaining true to the teaching of scripture even if we are struggling to agree on all of technical details. BTW no one has the skinny on all of those details but the Lord. The gospel is rooted in the idea that the sin of man was not something that he could cover himself. Only blood sacrifice would do the trick and truly only the blood of Jesus could make that atonement.
Let me just state for the record that what I have shared thus far is where I am currently comfortable. I have over the years found that God continues to take my comfort away (put another way He keeps destroying my boxes). What if people claim to believe all of the non-negotiable elements previously listed but their live do display any real evidence of true belief- what then? This is why I think I have to consider “spiritual fruit” in the mix. Here is how I think it works. A person who has truly encountered Jesus (the divine Son of God) and has trusted that Jesus spilled blood effectually covered their sin (the atonement) is a person that will take seriously the words and teaching of Jesus in the scriptures and will live in a way that looks to obediently follow those commands (the authority of scripture).
SO WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER STUFF
Let me finish with this: If we have the non-negotiable stuff in common with another person then any other things we agree on are bonus. The non-negotiable stuff gives us incredible common ground and actually allows us to worship together and build community and work together towards the goal of seeing people come to a saving knowledge of our Lord. Unfortunately the rest of it (though still very important) has essentially built walls between us, split church and families, caused pain and hurt and sometimes in those rare but really dangerous “witch hunts” has even caused death. Sometimes I am not surprised at all that people would rather join a social club than the church the walls are to high to climb and getting other together to build bridges… well people don’t want to do that. So here is the challenge are you building bridges or hiding behind walls? Are you allowing the non-negotiable stuff to encourage christian community and build bridges over small theological differences or are excommunicating and ostracizing others because you have made things that we don’t have the skinny on the most important elements of your faith? Blessings