“One danger to our unity and our coalitions may be the tendency to think in pragmatic rather than principled terms about our cooperation. I need to be principled.”
I wrote that a little while back, reflecting on a number of important developments in the Evangelical world at the time. I’ve noodled on that thought off and on over the months. I’m still baking some thoughts, but here’s what’s rising thus far. This is not a well-rounded doctrine of cooperation/separation. I’m simply saying, “These are the kinds of people I want to cooperate with.” Much more could be said in a fully developed biblical position on cooperation. But for now, here are my five principles for cooperation:
The Absolute Centrality, Necessity, and Supremacy of Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, Buried, Resurrected, Reigning and Coming for His Eternally Elected, Saved, Sanctified, and Glorified People.
We’re simply speaking of the Gospel here. It’s absolute because there is zero cooperation with those who intentionally deny, distort, or denigrate this message. Central because nothing else has sufficient convening power to hold us together. Necessary because without it we are not a people and haven’t the resources for maintaining any unity. Supreme because all of life must be lived under this over-arching narrative, beneath the sovereign hand of this Lord, and with the hope of being His forever. In this short life I have–already shortened by more than four decades of living–I want to invest with people and groups who hold the message of our Savior more dear than life itself.
Apart from Jesus Christ offered in the gospel all of life disintegrates. Apart from Jesus Christ offered in the gospel all cooperation and coalition-building and network-making likewise disintegrates into lesser interests, petty politics, power plays, and personality cult. These are clear and present dangers against which the people of God must have principled opposition. But not just principled opposition; we must also have principled advocacy for something positive, greater, better. Men may be against things and never together for things. The easiest thing in the world to do is simply oppose something. All opposition requires is negation. But to be for something requires risk, disclosure, sacrifice, integrity, and perseverance. What better or greater thing to be for than the Good News of our Sovereign, Saving, Satisfying Lord Jesus? I want to cooperate with men who feel that way.
An Unshakable, Unwavering, Unflinching, Relentless Dependence Upon the Fully Inspired, Inerrant, Authoritative, Necessary, and Sufficient word of God.
I don’t need the Bible to appear “credible” or “reliable” to a scoffing academy or a sin-deranged culture. Not in the first instance. We can get to defending the Bible against “the cultured despisers.” No, in the first instance, I need the people I’m locking arms with to have an unshakable, unwavering, unflinching, relentless dependence upon and faith in the word of God. What other ground can we build on? What other basis of authority and unity is sufficient? Not tradition for there are multiple traditions even within our own denominations and ecclesial bodies. Not policy or politics. Not preference or platform.
We need something beyond us, something over us, something more permanent and enduring than ourselves. We need a divine word from the only God–a word “forever… firmly fixed in heaven” (Ps. 119:89). That’s found only in one place–the holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament. As Jesus put it, “Not one jot or tittle shall pass away” until He fulfills it–down to the jot and tittle. I want to cooperate with men who don’t blink when they hear the Savior put such trust in God’s word, because taking their cue from the Savior they too put their trust in the Bible.
The Utter Urgency, Beauty, and Priority of Thinking, Feeling, and Living as One New Humanity or Spiritual Ethnicity in Christ.
To put it plainly, I want to labor, strive, build, risk, sacrifice, rejoice, mourn, and serve with those Christians who put our identity in Christ before any lesser identity. All other identities–which we surely, necessarily, and joyfully embrace–are still lesser identities when compared with that new personhood we receive from and in the Savior. Doctor? Lesser. Preacher? Lesser. Rich or poor? Lesser. Immigrant or national? Lesser. This natural ethnic group or that? Important. Intentional. Beautiful. Lesser.
I want to live and labor with those who know, count, and embrace the cost of living out this radical new existence, where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). But I want to also labor with those who feel, embrace and rejoice in the beauty and intentionality of the vision in Rev. 5:9-10–“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Neither Jew nor Greek… one in Christ Jesus… and yet every tribe and language and people and nation in praise to God… a kingdom of priests serving God. Forgetting ourselves while being ourselves while consumed with Jesus. ”For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and the regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death the hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16). Oh to live and work with saints who know that Jesus has “put to death the hostility”–that is, the hatin’, the cliques, the prejudice, the bigotry, the pride, the racism, the ethnocentrism, the racial supremacy, the cultural imperialism, the chauvinism, the snobbery, the indifference, the know-nothingness, the blinders, the victimology, the guilt trippin’, the resentment, the disenfranchisement, the oppression, the power playing, the privilege-protecting, the race-carding, the white flight, the angry Black, the gentrification, the red-lining, the segregation, the ghetto-ization, the marginalization, the balkanization, and so on!
I want to cooperate with men and women who take seriously the burden-sharing, burden-carrying call of Galatians 6:1-2. I especially want to cooperate with men and women who do that on the issue of our new identity in Christ because the reality is there’s a cost to African Americans who feel like they’re giving up who they are without reciprocity and acceptance in order to be who Christ calls us to be. Simultaneously, the reality is there’s a cost to White Americans who feel like they’re risking blame, castigation, rejection, and privilege without the chance of acceptance in order to be who Christ calls them to be. I want to be with White brethren who carry my burden with me. And I want to carry the burdens of my White, Hispanic, Asian, African, Caribbean, Indian, and European brethren who shoulder their own burdens in all of this. And I don’t want to hang with anyone–Black, White, or other–who pretend that either there are no costs or that they’re the only ones paying it. I want to cooperate with those who believe we either hang together or we shall surely hang together.
Here are some of the ways I look for “put to death the hostility” realism in such cooperation. First, there’s the verbal espousing of this ethic. Doesn’t have to be all the time, but constant enough to know folks are thinking about it. Isn’t enough in itself, but it’s at least necessary to know it’s on the agenda. Second, there’s the willingness of others to take up “my” issue as “our” issue–to bear the burden. That means the Black, Asian, or Hispanic guy isn’t reflexively asked to lead on “their” issue. Other folks have a willingness to get into my world or another’s world. But it also means that I don’t sit back and say, “That’s a white thang; it doesn’t matter where I live.” The issue may not matter in the Caribbean or in Southeast DC, but it matters to the body of Christ, my new spiritual ethnicity. So it must matter to me. Third, I’m looking for sensitivity and action even when I’m not in the room or involved. Does the reality of our new spiritual ethnicity reach living rooms and dinner tables when it’s just you and your peeps. Fourth, I’m looking for some measure of “self policing,” some “get ya boy” responses to others belonging to one’s own natural ethnic group on behalf of this greater principle of new humanity in Christ. I don’t want to call everything I see “racist.” Let some African Americans call other African Americans “racist” when they see it. Let White brothers do the same with White brothers, Asian American with Asian American, Hispanic American with Hispanic American, and so on. Fifth, I want to know if we’ve all relinquished our passive approach to friendships to actively cultivate–not inter-racial or multi-racial or diverse friendships–but gospel friendships with the entire body of Christ. Inter-racial, multi-ethnic, and diverse relationships are not the end but one of the necessary by-products of taking seriously our common identity in Christ and the death of trans-ethnic hostility. I’m not looking for folks who have to say, “Some of my best friends are _____.” I’m looking for folks who can say with deep affection, “This is my brother/sister” and not be strained or surprised to learn that said brother/sister represents the diversity that’s around the throne of glory.
In none of these am I looking for perfection but for an earnest attempt to embrace Eph. 2 and live it out by God’s grace, however imperfectly.
As far as I’m concerned, anything less than this is either worldliness (regarding each other according to the flesh) or punkin’ out (refusing to even belly up to the table). It’s certainly living well beneath our inheritance in Christ Jesus who gave himself to make us one in himself.
The Foundational, Binding, Sacrificial, and Distinctive Mark of Love Requires I Give Myself to Loving Others and Allow Myself to Be Loved by Others
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:3, 13). ”And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14). ”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). ”Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
True confession: I don’t love as I ought. Plain and simple. But also inexcusable. The way the Master has loved me demands that I love my brothers (1 Jn 3:16; 4:11-12). So, I need to be in fellowship and cooperation with brethren who “stir me up to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). This is not just a theological principle; it’s a deep need I have. And it’s a great motivation for cooperating. I want to be in those associations that help perfect me in love. And further to the principle above, I can’t learn to love when hangin’ with people who all look and act like me or when hangin’ with people who don’t inconvenience me with their faults, foibles, problems, and sins. To only be with people like me and who never inconvenience me is simply self-love spread over a wider area. But His love crosses boundaries and gathers up into itself inconvenient ‘aliens’. I want to love like that. I want to be with people loving and learning to love like Jesus.
The Undeniable Importance, Integrity, and Consistency of Both Practice and Method with 1-4 above.
I still believe the medium/method is the message in many respects. I believe our method says more than merely “This is how we do it.” It can also say, “This is why we do it” and “This is what we think is important” and “This is what we trust.” Not all methods are created equal. So, our practice and our method needs to be principled as well. Otherwise, we’re just talking about pragmatism. Doesn’t matter how many fancy words we use to describe it, how many books we footnote to substantiate it, or how many appeals to this or that goal we make to justify it. It’s pragmatism, and the one question pragmatic philosophy cannot answer is, “Ought we to do it?” The “ought” answer comes from the gospel, the scripture, love, and the ethics of our new identity in Christ.
Surely godly Christians can differ on a variety of methodological issues and practices that are indifferent. But we cannot pretend all methods and issues are inconsequential. We must define practice and method boundaries for our cooperation lest we by our cooperation uncritically endorse things that undermine our message and our cooperation. I want to cooperate with men who rank method last in importance compared to the great truths of the faith. But I want to cooperate with men who do rank method and practice as important, even as we admit a charitable range of freedom without compromising critical convictions.
I suspect others have other principles. Cool. This simply reflects the developing principles of one man–me. Perhaps one or two of these things put me on an island by myself. That’s fine; I’ve grown accustomed to living on an island these last six years.
I fully recognize that in the interest of positive influence with others, one might from time to time speak at an event with others who don’t share all the convictions above. But I also suspect it’s wise not to make those one-off events a lasting cooperation. Seems to me we ought to be wary of either appearing to endorse things contrary to principle and be wary of how those things affect us in unexpected ways.
My wife prays that I might have “a bridge-building heart.” Man, I love that woman! And I love her prayers for me. She sees the difference between my “want to” and my “won’t do.” And she knows that closing the gap between the two is a matter of the Lord refining my heart. Because the truth is, I can use these principles to shut down and run away from imperfect cooperation, inconvenient association, and just plain roll-up-your-sleeve-and-love-hard opportunity. Isn’t it easy to make “my issue” the cost of admission for Christian love and fellowship? So, I’m hoping these principles are appropriate fences but also strong motivation to seek out as well.
There’s so much more that could and should be said. This, again, is simply where one man lands. What about you?