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What Unites Church Unite?

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Imagine…

That was the invitation given to those Christians, representing some 230 churches from across Melbourne, who gathered together at the Exhibition Centre for Church Unite. Prior to the evening I knew very little about the event, apart from the fact that it’s organised by four of Melbourne’s largest charismatic churches. The event organisers state: ‘Church Unite is an opportunity to gather together to celebrate our love for Jesus and the city of Melbourne’. But in a world so confused about the person and work of Christ, which Jesus were we celebrating?’ What has he done? What hope does he offer the citizens of our broken city? How must we respond? 

So my question is, what is it that actually unites Church Unite?

The clearest answer to that question came as we were led to think first about real stories of pain, hurt and abuse, and then consider how those issues might be addressed. But the request to put aside ‘politics and policy’ might just as well have been a request to put aside ‘religion.’ For, as the ABC’s Q&A clearly demonstrates, you can care about aboriginal reconciliation, domestic abuse, and refugees, and not follow Jesus.

So here’s my point… of course, all Christians ought to be concerned about these issues, but are they what unites the Christian church?

As New Testament scholar, Hermon Ridderbos, rightly points out:

“However much worldly government might want to serve justice, peace, liberation, it cannot remove the sin of the world, because it has no power over the hearts of human beings. Accordingly, the place and the calling of the Christian community in the world are determined by its differentness. As citizens not only of this world but also of Jesus’ kingdom, Christians are concerned with the struggle for justice and righteousness, even in the political and social senses of those words, and that not only for the benefit of the church but also for the wellbeing of the world. But the meaning of their existence as the church in the world does not lie there. The primary focus of their attention and message is otherwise. It is not found in what unites it with ‘the world’ but in what distinguishes it from the world.”

The good news of Christianity alone answers the root problem that troubles everyone, and which lies behind all the big issues facing our city and nation. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. And we have this good news in our possession… The Church is the only institution with the mandate to preach the gospel. So why was this news sidelined rather than celebrated throughout the evening? Is substituting it with other messages, even noble ones, really the best way to celebrate and show our love for Jesus and the city of Melbourne? Are we fearful to answer the central questions lest it reveal cracks in the very foundation on which we’re meant to stand?

What’s more, at the risk of stating the obvious, Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave his church a specific and distinct mission (Matthew 28: 16-20; Mark 13: 10, 14: 9; Luke 24: 44-49; Acts 1: 8). Sometimes I wonder, though, if we know what he was doing:

“Why do the Gospels focus so squarely on the death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection? Why do the Law and the Prophets point so relentlessly toward the death of the Messiah? And for that matter, why do the apostles say such counterintuitive and dangerous things as “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2: 2)? The answer to that question… lies in understanding one question that stands at the very heart of the Bible’s story: How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?” – Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert

Of course, if we’re asking a different question - if we believe the problem is otherwise - our focus and response will be different. Not really believing that the great problem of the human race is that we’re sinful rebels who are living under the wrath of a holy God might explain why the messages we heard at the Exhibition Centre were very different in focus from Jesus’ all important last words.

To be clear, the Bible calls all Christians to show compassions for the down and out, those most needy in our society. But we must realise that even if we work together and make the world’s most livable city even more livable for more people, those people will not have abundant and eternal life that Jesus came to offer… unless they hear from our lips the gospel of Jesus, turn from their sin and believe.

If we can remember that there is something worse than injustice, theft, and violence - and there is something better and more beautiful than a Melbourne free of these things, it will keep us focused on the gospel and our God given mission.

If Church Unite is to gather together in a distinctly Christian unity, it must be centred on the gospel of Jesus and the unique mission he’s given the church. Furthermore, at the foundation of this unity must lie a body of truth that is ours in the faith (Jude 3). A specific, definite core that is adequate to reconcile us to God, unite us to Christ and make us one in him. Simply sounding the mantra ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’, seems inadequate, even dangerous, when we ignore those essentials and leave them undefined. As the old adage goes ‘The first generation preaches the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, the third generation neglects the gospel, and the forth generation denies the gospel’.

Defining this core may prove challenging, but it is, nevertheless, necessary if there is to be true Christian unity. Such a core will surely include that God is our holy creator and righteous judge (Revelation 4: 11; Psalm 7: 11), against whom we have all rebelled and sinned (Romans 3: 23). Despite the fact that we deserve eternal death apart from God in hell (Romans 6: 23), in love God sent his only Son into the world in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3: 17). Fully God and fully man (Philippians 2: 5-11), Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience and died as a substitute on a cross, where he boar the wrath of God and paid the penalty our sins deserve (Isaiah 53: 4-6; Galatians 3: 13; 1 Peter 2: 24). But he was raised bodily from the dead for our justification, proving that he was and is God’s eternal Son (Romans 4: 25; 1: 4). He will come again to judge the living and the dead (Matthew 25: 31-32; 2 Timothy 4: 1), but now calls all people to repent of their sins and believe in him (Mark 1: 14-15). His perfect righteousness can be ours, the penalty for our sins can be accounted to him, but only if we heed his call, turn from our sin and place our faith in him alone for salvation (2 Corinthians 5: 21; Romans 3: 21-22, 5: 1).

Imagine…

Christians united, standing together as one, just as the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father (John 17: 20-21)

Imagine…

The people of God in the world but not of the world, working honestly, upholding justice, helping the weak, loving their neighbour, doing good, being salt and light. An army of disciples sanctified in the truth and sent to bear witness to Christ (John 17: 17-18).

Can you picture them?

Imagine…

Special thanks to Dale Stephenson, one of the organisers of Church Unite, for listening to these concerns and responding graciously.

Quotes taken from Hermon N. Ridderbos, The Gospel according to John, A theological Commentary, (trans John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p595; Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, (Illinois: Crossway, 2011) p68-69.

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