A very good friend, who is mature and wise from solid life experience, recently taught what he describes to me as “a somewhat ecumenical message in my adult Sunday School class (while unpacking the Greatest Commandment).” He told his class that when true believers disagree on peripheral matters we are to remember that we are in the family of God and that our Lord prescribes a loving way to humbly engage with one another. If we engage with each other in the way our Lord taught us then we are able to both teach and learn.
One of the examples my friend used in his adult class was the subject of differing views of creation that are held by Christians. (The discussion was much wider but this issue was the one that troubled a few.) At the end of this class someone with whom my friend has ministered in their local church context for well over thirty years (he adds he felt this relationship had been at a fairly deep level) came forward to ask a question. He wanted to determine if the teacher believed in six literal, twenty-four hour creation days as he understood Genesis. The teacher answered the couple as gracefully as he could. My friend then wrote to ask me to pray for this situation. He related that this family had not been in the adult Sunday School class since that day and this was several weeks ago now. My friend wrote in a deeply moving way, saying:
“John, the whole thing has grieved me more than it should. The message of missional ecumenism is so sorely needed. There are few things more disconcerting to me at this stage of my life than to witness at close hand the battles among professing believers while the church continues to decline. How can we miss the clear and obvious fact that these two things are connected?”
Indeed, why do Christians continue with a pattern of life which says: “I will have no close relationship with a person who is wrong about understanding the Bible?” We are not even talking about the kind of dogma here that denies the historic faith of the Christian Church which is centered in Christ, not our various views about the Bible. The people in this congregation are all serving and worshipping Christ within a very conservative church. (I know this to be a fact because I have preached in this congregation more than once.) I wrote to my friend and assured him of my prayer. I asked him to get back to me when there was more to say about this couple’s response and his follow-up effort to rebuild their relationship.
My friend wrote to me again last week to tell me “the rest of the story.” He says that he encouraged the adult class to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3). He then applied this Pauline text, in his particular local setting, to all kinds of potentially divisive issues that confront true believers when they have honest differences regarding peripheral issues in Scripture. The divisive issue, in this particular context ended up being about the age of the earth. (On my Facebook wall some readers are provoked when I bring up such issues and then note that they are inherently destructive of healthy Christianity!) My friend had taught his class that there was much that God has not chosen to fully explain to us, especially about the beginning or end of time, He taught them that there are many true Christian believers with differing views regarding what Scripture says about this matter. The major principle he stressed was that we have much to teach and learn from each other and a great deal more to learn from science as we move forward. Yes, indeed.