Working Out Which Pudding You’re Putting The Egg In
Being part of the family of churches known as Newfrontiers, I have grown used over the years to accusations of ‘exclusivity’. Often this comes from those who are hostile towards one or other of the values we hold, and/or those who feel threatened by our clear sense of purpose and optimism about the mission of the local church. It is somewhat ironic that anyone else should care about us anyway, when we are a very small group of churches – certainly compared with many of the established denominations. Personally, I have worked hard at trying to form relationships with other local evangelical churches, of whatever denominational stripe. Despite our differences, I really do believe there is an organic unity between all Christians. We are together united in Christ, by the Spirit, on the basis of the gospel. We are united in Christ now! The reality of this unity means we can worry too much about our structural disunity. I’d rather worry about this less and celebrate our union in Christ more. I also know that the present structural disunity of the church will be abolished at the last day, when we all stand before the throne of God and experience our union with him, and each other, in all its power. On that day the invisible will be made visible – hallelujah! But, here and now, what does it mean to share mission?
If I enjoy a closer relationship with a family member who lives hundreds of miles away than I do with someone who lives at the other end of my street it is unlikely that would be taken as evidence of being non-relational. I think most of us would recognise that is simply how relationships work – some relationships are so deep that distance is not the governing factor. Which doesn’t mean I ignore my neighbour, but does mean my relationship with him is never likely to be as close as it is with my geographically distant family member. This is how things work within church networks too. For example, both Andrew and I have recently visited churches in Istanbul and Belfast – not exactly local to either of us, but where we had relational connection through Newfrontiers. The reality is, the depth of relationship does frame the extent of co-operation in mission, and geographical proximity isn’t normally the key determinative factor in this. Mission is a key factor in holding a movement of churches together, but mission flows most naturally out of relationship.
How about shared theology being the glue that holds a movement together then? At root, the issue Andrew is addressing is one of authority, and, as he has previously pointed out, how we view hermeneutics is perhaps the key issue for the church in our generation. Do we regard the Bible as authoritative? And if so, in what sense? All evangelicals would agree that the Bible is our final authority, but the hermeneutical grid through which Scripture is read is increasingly diverse. So the question we are really dealing with is what authority we claim for our hermeneutics? Practically, where does authority lie in a church? How is it defined? And how defended? And what do our answers to these questions say about the extent to which we will hold together?
One answer is to be a confessional church. Andrew cites Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative approvingly, and this is a book I, too, have benefitted from. There is a lot to be said in favour of the confessional approach – a clearly articulated doctrinal statement, preferably validated not only by its content but by the patina of long historical use, has a lot going for it as a basis for church government. In moments of dispute such a confession stands as the interpretive framework through which the instructions of Scripture are understood. The confession is the authority through which the ultimate authority of Scripture is read. Such a Confession can indeed be a means of holding a network of churches together, and is clearly something Andrew wants to explore further. As someone who has a copy of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith on my desk, I would encourage Andrew in this. Confessionalism has a lot going for it, but every model has a weakness, however, and perhaps the weakness of confessionalism is that it can tend towards formalism and dryness.
A second answer given is the congregational system of church government. Congregational churches vest authority in the congregation, which, in practical terms, means the members meeting, where votes are cast and decisions made. Where there is dispute, the authority to resolve the argument rests with the congregational vote. A recent book, which helpfully sets out the arguments for this model, is Mark Dever’s The Church. Just as Trueman has helped me towards a deeper appreciation of confessions, Dever has helped me towards a clearer grasp of the significance of church membership and the authority a congregation holds. Sadly, this model is not so well suited to ‘holding a network of churches together’ as what it emphasises over all other values is congregational autonomy. This means that congregational churches tend to associate more on the basis of their shared congregationalism than on the basis of mission or theology. Congregationalism has its strengths, but its weakness is the tendency towards narrowness and parochialism, with the members meeting descending to the level where even the decision to buy some new tea towels becomes a major item of debate – and division.
A third answer is to see authority as residing with apostolic ministry, and this is the model on which Newfrontiers was founded. Under this model, theological positions have been more assumed than precisely articulated, and churches have tended to adhere to the general theological ‘shape’ of the apostle. Where there is dispute, the authority to resolve the argument rests with the apostolic leader. This has meant that the need to write down theological positions has not been pressing, and explains why there was a disconnect when Piper came to town. Those who have recognised the apostle as authoritative have also known (in Andrew’s phrase) “There are certain things that I could believe, say or write which would, despite my extensive friendships with other Newfrontiers leaders, make it impossible for them to continue working with me on training courses, conferences and so on”; and we have known pretty much where the lines lay on those issues. The reason this is now not quite so clear is because Newfrontiers has evolved into a number of interlinked families, without the same clear centre of gravity that previously held the family together. The apostolic model also has its problems. Can it tend towards authoritarianism? Yes it can. Can it end in spiritual abuse with ‘apostles’ wielding an authority over churches and individuals that is inappropriate? Certainly.
For each of these models, the way that authority is understood and expressed impacts upon shared theology, mission and relationships. The fact that each system can end up in a very unhealthy place is, in itself, not evidence that the models are sub-biblical; rather, it simply illustrates the power of sin and the human tendency to screw things up! Of these three models, I would argue for the apostolic one, because it is the relational one. In the end, the church network is held together because of relationship with the father of the apostolic family, and holds together only for as long as that relationship continues.
Despite the attractions of confessionalism and congregationalism, and the extent to which I seek to incorporate aspects of these models in the life of my own church, I would still want to argue the case for the big egg of relationship, built on the basis of apostolic authority. And I would respond to Andrew’s question, “Surely, if faced with the choice between getting to know the church up the road and working with them, and ignoring them in favour of working with a church hundreds of miles away we’ve known for years, the more relational thing to do is to build a relationship with the guys up the road. Isn’t it?” with a “Not necessarily!” Of course, the reality is not as stark as Andrew makes it sound anyway – I do want to work with the church up the road too, but where I am going to work most naturally and most fruitfully is where I am in heart and soul relationship.
I don’t want to forget the sugar and flour, but I do want to be the guy who keeps emphasising the eggs. A soufflé is a wonderful pudding, and it is nothing without plenty of egg.