In 1998 Billy Graham held a four day long, five event Mission in Ottawa. Back in those days, our church was called St. Alban’s, and we were one of the sponsoring churches. The Billy Graham Mission was very powerful, and I was glad that we could join with many other churches in this highly public act of lifting Jesus high.
A couple of weeks after the Mission, I was visiting someone in the hospital. After the visit, before heading to my next responsibility, I visited the bathroom, and as I was doing my business, I set my Bible down on the counter. Another man was in the washroom and saw my Bible.
As I was washing my hands, he asked me about the Bible and why I had it with me. I told him that I was a Christian, and a Pastor, and when I asked him about himself, he said that he too was a Christian. I asked him if he had attended the Billy Graham Mission and if his church had supported the Mission. His response was stunning. He said, “No, Billy Graham is not a Christian, and what he is doing is not Christian, so we had nothing to do with the Mission.”
In Canada today, you are probably more familiar with churches being so “open” and “broad” that it is not clear that they are Christian, but you can also lose touch with the gospel and the Body of Christ by being too narrow.
What about us? How do we work with others in the city, the Province, the nation, and the world? Can we work with other Christians? Can we work with very secular groups or with other religious groups? What are the boundaries? This is a big topic, but here are a handful of points to help your thinking.
First, you should distinguish between allies and co-belligerents
It was a very wise Christian by the name of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) who first proposed this distinction about 50 years ago. He proposed the distinction precisely to help Christians think through questions like this. “Allies” usually have substantial commonalities, and work together in many areas. Churches should consider working with other churches as allies when we share key core beliefs. However, a co-belligerent can differ with you on countless important matters, but you can work together to fight one common enemy. I think this distinction is helpful, some other points must also be considered.
Second, you need to guard against the political and/or cultural captivity of the church
There have always been very powerful currents trying to suck the gospel-shaped church away from the gospel and into some political and/or cultural preoccupation. This is very true today as well. You look at the past, and see gospel churches that supported racism and segregation, and you say to yourself, how could they have been so blind? But on both the right and the left today there are also powerful forces seducing Christians.
In Canada today, the most powerful currents are all “progressive” and “left” – but that only makes it easier for your church to react against that pressure by embracing the minority “anti-progressive” secular movements. So, the distinction between being an ally or a co-belligerent has to be made in the context of guarding against you and your church being taken captive by cultural and/or political movements.
Third, you need to guard against a unity that undermines the gospel
This is an important nuance on the previous point. Your church’s unity should be around the person and work of Christ. It should be around the truth of God’s word written, and the need to live a gospel shaped, biblically formed, Holy Spirit empowered life to the glory of the Triune God.
This commitment is not “Manichaean,” in other words, something purely spiritual that does not interact with the world. In a sense, if you ever went on trial for being a Christian, there should be enough “public” evidence to convict you and your church of being Christian. So we do not unite as a church around being pro or anti vaccine, pro or anti masks, pro or anti a political party – I hope you get the idea. To be united around things like this is a unity that erases and undermines the gospel.
Fourth, for the sake of the Gospel, you should enter into gospel centred alliances
The mission field is too big and your church is too small to go it alone. The city and the whole world are too big for your church to go it alone. In fact, to go it alone makes the gospel unreal to the watching world. Listen to Jesus, (John 17:20-23 NIV): “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and You in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.”
So it is good that we are in denominations. It is good that churches can be allies through groups like The Gospel Coalition Canada or OneWay Ministries. It is good to have deep connections with world mission agencies and with local outreaches around prayer, teaching, evangelism and apologetics. You cannot connect with everything, but you can prayerfully make good alliances for the sake of the gospel.
Fifth, for the good of the city, you can work as a co-belligerent
In at least two cases in the U. S., churches and synagogues came together to challenge state lockdown orders that were clearly discriminatory against both churches and synagogues. In recent years there has been a rise in anti-Semitism, and this is something that we can and should oppose alongside our Jewish friends. Pro-life issues, family issues, poverty issues, free speech issues – I could go on. There are many issues facing the city that touch on your need to be concerned for biblically defined justice and biblically shaped compassion. To work with a secular anti-poverty group to address particular needs is something we can, and should be open to doing – but as co-belligerents, not as allies.