It’s been almost five years since I finished reading a book by Doug Bannister called Word and Power Churches. In his book, Bannister casts a vision for what could happen, based on personal experience, when Christians from different denominational family backgrounds find ways to come together and sharpen each other in their effectiveness. Bannister’s vision and experience shows what can happen when Christians who follow a Charismatic approach to their faith come together with evangelicals who are strong on a literal approach to the scripture. The evangelical influence strengthens the commitment of people to the Bible as the written Word of God while the Charismatic influence strengthens the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. The result of this blending is what Bannister calls an even stronger, more unified form of Christianity that exhibits strengths in all aspects of church, from evangelism and missions to discipleship and ministry.
In America in particular, we have come to take denominational divisions, and all of the doctrinal and faith practice differences that result from them, as a matter of course for Christianity. Not only does it not really bother us that we do not appear to be unified, and that we often differ with each other in such a way as to call into question the integrity and veracity of our faith, sometimes we even think we are doing kingdom work when we hold to our own position so strongly that we feel the obligation to correct someone else’s view.
I had somewhat set aside some of the things I had read in Bannister’s book, since it had been a while and those things do have a tendency to fade over time. But some recent events have convinced me that God very much desires his children to get along with each other, and that continued divisiveness in the Christian church in America may be one of the major reasons it is having trouble winning new converts here, while the Christian church is exploding in some places around the world.
Is the gap between us so wide that we can’t even think of venturing to bridge it?
None of us is perfect, and thus, none of us are capable of coming up with a flawless interpretation of scripture. Most of our differences, particularly between evangelicals, Baptists and the “Word” churches and Charismatics, Pentecostals and the “Power” churches, are the result of the way we choose to interpret scripture. We do our best with scholarship and spiritual illumination to follow scripture as it guides our faith experience, and it becomes part of our identity. That’s good. But when someone else’s view that differs somewhat from ours comes along, our security in our Christian identity is threatened. “They” must be “wrong” in order for us to feel right.
I’m not convinced that we can’t work together. Realizing that our differences are the result of human perception, and that they do not come from God is a first step. Recently, I have built a couple of relationships with people who have a background in the Charismatic denominational family. These gentlemen are very sincere in their faith, the desire of their heart is to follow God’s will and share their faith, having it seen by others. We have fellowship with each other because we all understand that Jesus died for our sins, and that his sacrifice on the cross gives us the common experiences of being forgiven of our sin, cleansed of its stain and set free from its influence. We are brothers in Christ. We have learned how to converse, and share our perspective and understanding of the scripture without thinking that the others are heretics, or less spiritual. It is not easy to set aside a judgemental attitude, but it must be done for the sake of the relationship. As it has turned out, both of these gentlemen are currently worshipping in our church, are satisfied that their spiritual gifts are a match for this particular fellowship, and desire to serve the Lord as part of our congregation. Why not?
Please hear me when I say that I do not advocate compromise. That would not be productive, and it is not necessary for believers to, in essence, give up a part of their experience to get along with other believers. Rather, what I advocate is a spirit of unity, or common ground, in the gospel, resting on the infallibility of the scripture and the illumination and empowerment of the Spirit. Compromise, expecially whe the Christian you are compromising with accepts doctrinal positions and views that cannot be supported by scripture, does not produce unity. Common ground ministry does.
We are entering an era in American church history when the unity of those who practice Christian faith is becoming essential to their credibility.