Last Saturday I headed to the Land of My Fathers with one of our deacons for the Evangelical Movement of Wales' Church Leaders’ Day. The conference was entitled Together for the Gospel? The programme included two keynote addresses and a wide variety of seminars. To kick of my report on proceedings here is a flavour of Stephen Clark's address on United Churches for the Gospel?
The speaker bemoaned our tendency to define ourselves by our distinctives not the gospel. He shared something of what has been happening in Bridgend, where he is Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church. The woman who anointed the head of our Lord was commended by Jesus because she did what she could. Similarly, the situation with regard to evangelical church unity in Bridgend may not be perfect, but the churches have done what they could to unite together for the gospel. The town of 150,000 people has seven gospel churches, all affiliated to Affinity. Together they have held missions and organised special events such as a Bible ministry weekend, pastors meetings, pulpit exchanges, school assembly coordination, resource sharing etc. The churches are FIEC, Apostolic, Gospel Hall, Charismatic, Independent, Independent Baptist, and Freeschool Court, which is Reformed in its basis of faith. All these churches hold to an agreed statement on ecumenism.
Clark spelt out the biblical teaching that justifies inter-church fellowship between evangelical congregations that may not agree on certain distinctive beliefs and practices. If we were around in the 1st century, would our churches have remained in fellowship with the church at Corinth? That church was far from perfect, but still a true church, 1 Corinthians 1:2. In Matthew 25 Christ’s sheep are separated from the goats because of what the sheep did for the least of his disciples. We must love all of God’s the elect people, even Arminians. If we believe God only blesses Calvinists we are in effect Arminians ourselves.
We are not same situation as the New Testament. Now there are various churches in an area. A distinction must be made between primary and secondary truths, 1 Corinthians 3:11, 15:1-4, John 3 - the new birth, Matthew 28 – the Trinity, 2 Timothy 3:16 - the authority of Scripture, Galatians 1 – justification by faith alone. We cannot have fellowship with those who deny the gospel, 2 John 10. The exclusivism of the gospel maintained so that the inclusivism may be maintained. All may be saved, but only through Christ. The evangelical fellowship of churches in Bridgend are not part of Churches Together. Cultural preferences cannot affect fellowship. We must not add to the gospel.
Some theological principles also need to be taken into consideration. We must proclaim whole counsel of God and maintain unity with the people of God. The Bible reveals a hierarchy of principles 2 Chronicles 30 and Leviticus 10 are cases in point. It would be ideal if all evangelical churches were also Reformed, but that is not the case. The principle of gospel unity must override differences on doctrinal distinctives that are not essential to the faith.
Historical examples of evangelical unity were given. George Whitefield had a high regard for John and Charles Wesley. Note also C. H. Spurgeon on John Wesley:
You know, brethren, that there is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer, I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But, my dear friends, far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none within her walls but Calvinistic Christians, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him, that while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself, I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one of whom the world was not worthy. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ into their hearts, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist out of heaven.
Is the Evangelical Movement of Wales really a “movement” that is going somewhere, or is it stuck? Separation from error is still important, but Ruth Palgrave’s booklet on Affinity, They Have Forgotten is a case of “monstrous special pleading” to which Clark plans to respond with a booklet of his own.
Evangelical churches should work together for conversions, mutual challenge and fellowship, Psalm 133.
I pretty much agree with the principles, but I'm not sure how exactly Clark's model would work in a small town like Westbury, where we are the only church not in Churches Together. We are members of the FIEC. That involves us in a wider evangelical grouping. We also meet with the local Grace Baptist fellowship of churches, where there would be more agreement on theological distinctives. Under the FIEC banner seven local churches meet in a 'cluster group' in order to deepen fellowship and encourage each other in mission. There is some variety of theological emphasis and differing approaches to Sunday worship in the churches, but we don't allow such matters to get in the way of our partnership in the gospel. Several local Grace and FIEC churches have been doing open air preaching work together. Maybe that's the way ahead for an area like our own with several small towns and villages rather than in a large-ish town situation like Bridgend. We can be 'United Churches for the Gospel' on an inter-town and village basis.