By C. Robert Wetzel
I can think of several examples where cooperation with other groups enhanced Christian witness. And my relationship with Lesslie Newbigin taught me principles that can guide all of us.
Members of Christian churches and churches of Christ are heirs to a movement that attempted to hold in balance two ideals that could sometimes seem contradictory. On the one hand, there was a commitment to restore New Testament Christianity. Restoration would, in turn, be the means upon which Christians could unite. Hence, we wanted to be “Christians only.” But on the other hand, there was a desire to avoid sectarian actions that seem to say we think we’re the only Christians.
Each congregation would have to determine how to maintain its witness to the distinctive insights of the Restoration Movement while, at the same time, sharing with other churches in opportunities of common witness. As a rule, this posed no problem when it came to ordinary benevolent services.
One church I served was in a community located on a major rail line. The town received more than its share of indigent travelers who, when they got off a boxcar, headed for the nearest church building seeking food, shelter, and most likely, money.
The churches had an understanding with a local benevolent agency that those seeking assistance would be sent to the director of the agency. He was experienced in dealing with these “travelers,” and thus was in a better position to discern genuine need from simple panhandling. And his office was in the local police station! The churches, in turn, contributed to this agency. It was not a perfect system, but it demonstrated how local churches could cooperate in the name of Christ to serve needy people in an efficient and discreet way.
For many years, churches in Johnson City, Tennessee, participated in what was called the “preaching mission.” An evangelist of considerable reputation would be brought in to preach for several nights at the auditorium of East Tennessee State University. By and large, local Christian churches readily participated in these nightly services, but not all. The evangelists preached Christ and avoided denominational differences.
“We’re All Wrong”
One event in particular impressed me during our time in England. Churches of various denominations in the city of Birmingham joined together to sponsor Anglican evangelist David Watson for a meeting at the Town Hall. It was an extraordinary reminder to a decidedly secular culture that there were still Evangelical churches in the community. And it was a source of encouragement to the many small, struggling congregations to find themselves with a thousand or more fellow believers in a public assembly.
That night we were not Pentecostals, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, etc. We were simply Christians. Watson put it well when he began his message by saying, “I know that when we come together like this from our various denominational backgrounds, it is always tempting to ask who is right and who is wrong. But remember, when we kneel before the cross of Christ, we are all wrong.”
During my time as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, I sometimes found myself with the presidents of other seminaries at our annual accreditation meetings. The presidents represented seminaries from Catholic, Evangelical, and liberal Protestant denominations, in about equal number.
During one plenary session, I happened to be sitting near a couple of Catholic priests, both seminary presidents. We were surprised when a motion was introduced that would have made continuing accreditation contingent upon acceptance of a particularly liberal affirmation of homosexuality. It was a resolution that would have been gladly received by the liberal Protestant seminaries. But when the vote was taken, there was an unspoken coalition of Catholic and Evangelical votes that defeated the motion. The Catholic presidents and I exchanged smiles of satisfaction.
There may have been a time in the history of the Restoration Movement when we might have believed it possible to bring about universal Christian unity on a core of restored New Testament doctrines. But today denominationalism is as entrenched as ever. Thus we continue to find ways to cooperate with fellow Christians while continuing to affirm those distinctive New Testament teachings that have characterized the Restoration Movement.
“Telling the Story”
The question of cooperation becomes more difficult when we consider so-called “world religions” such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and others. And I would include secularism as one of the modern world religions. This is a question the church has struggled with throughout its history. We see the apostle Paul in his sermon in Athens attempting to connect with his Greek audience by quoting a Greek philosopher and a Greek poet as he tries to introduce them to God’s revelation in Christ. Later, in his letter to the Romans, Paul recognizes that, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Romans 2:14, 15).
I wrote this article at the request of Christian Standard’s editors. I was specifically directed to a section in Lesslie Newbigin’s book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. One of the many unexpected blessings of working with the British churches of Christ during the 1980s was to have the opportunity to meet and work with Newbigin at the Selly Oak Colleges.
The Churches of Christ College, Springdale, was a member of the Federation of Selly Oak Colleges. One of the many interesting units of this federation was the department of missions. Hence, Selly Oak was a natural setting for the Newbigins’ retirement when they returned from their 40-year mission ministry in India. Shortly after arriving, he wrote The Other Side of 1984 that spawned a study group composed of various Selly Oak teachers and scholars. It was this study group that eventually gave birth to the Gospel and Our Culture Network. This movement was to be shaped in large part by Newbigin’s later book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
Newbigin’s 40 years in India had given him ample occasion to reflect on how he, as a Christian, should relate to Hinduism and other religions.
• His approach was first to “look for, and welcome all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not know Jesus as Lord.” This certainly seems compatible with Paul’s approach at Athens.
• The second approach is to “be eager to cooperate with people of all faiths and ideologies in all projects which are in line with the Christian understanding of God’s purpose in history.”
• Third, “It is precisely in this kind of shared commitment to the business of the world that the context for true dialogue is provided.”
• Fourth, “Therefore, the essential contribution of the Christian to the dialogue will simply be telling the story, the story of Jesus, the story of the Bible.”1 After all, it is the story of Jesus that is the power of God for salvation.
There undoubtedly are ways Christians can cooperate with non-Christians, be those non-Christian Western secularists or members of one of the so-called world religions. Two categories of cooperation of particular importance would be social justice and benevolence. When one considers the horrors of child abuse by those involved in the international sex trade, I thank God for those orphanages our churches have established around the world, from the Kulpahar Kids Home in India to our local East Tennessee Children’s Home. We would certainly encourage and support any governmental legislation attempting to deal with this problem, be the advocates secular humanists or Christian legislators. Also, I would be thankful for any attempts by Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists to rescue these abused children.
Furthermore, when Christian relief workers are trying to feed people who are victims of some natural disaster, I doubt they would reject food supplies from non-Christian benevolent agencies. In fact, they might find themselves working side-by-side with people of other faiths or no faith. Given the reputation of Christians for aiding in times of disaster, they would have the opportunity to witness both in action and word to their faith.
I think of the PBS program that followed two of our campus ministries to Mexico. The young people were once again using their spring break to build a home for a poor family. Joining them on more than one occasion was a non-Christian man who, when asked by the PBS interviewer why he kept coming with these young Christians, responded, “I want to find out what they have that I do not have.”
I am fully aware that every opportunity to cooperate may bring its own set of challenges and peculiarities that must be weighed in the light of our primary commitment to Christ and his church. Furthermore, history provides many examples of how the church allowed itself to be used by un-Christian forces with whom it thought it was making a mutually advantageous arrangement. But here we must simply call upon Christian discernment as well as compassion.
1Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 180-182.
C. Robert Wetzel is retired chancellor of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, and adjunct professor of humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee.