Unity for the love of God

Yesterday was not a great day for Christian unity. But sometimes good things come out of not such good days. I hope it was one of those.

Under the gaze of intense public scrutiny, from both Christians and the mainstream media both UCCF and Bristol CU changed their positions yesterday. And they did change, even if they were presented as clarifications. Bristol CU moved from a position of only allowing women to speak in certain rather restrictive circumstances, to now committing to open up all their speaking engagements to men and women. For UCCF a former position of not having a position seems to have morphed into something more robust, stating that it would be “wholly against the UCCF basis of faith and the advice of UCCF staff” if a CU devised a policy not to have women speakers for some or all events. That’s not the same as not having a position, and while I welcome the change, let’s be frank and call it what it is.

**Update** All is not as simple as this! Pod from UCCF has been in touch and defends the absence of a change of policy. UCCF have always held that the Basis of Faith as the only requirement for speakers, and for CUs to prevent a speaker on other grounds goes against the unity at the heart of the basis of faith. From the sounds of it, rather than a formal change in policy, it is a more robust application of it. **End of update**

A lot of talk went on yesterday and most of it was fairly respectful and gracious, most of it was from people committed to the witness of the church as well as the full use of all people and their gifts and talents. I think there is a place for public debate, and I don’t think all church matters and discussions of theology and practice should be decided behind closed doors or in private. Light is brilliant and shows up what might be wrong and we should not be afraid of the light.

Even so, I worry that as the world looked on yesterday, as the papers ran their stories and journalists sought out a fresh angle, what was shown was not a body of believers committed to working together for mission but a gang of factions, each desperate to get one over another.

And I spent a lot of time thinking about unity. Thinking about what unity looks like, what it requires, and what it is for.

What is unity for?

Unity is for mission, it is so that the world may see. It is not to provide a warm and cosy feeling. It is not to impress the world. It is not to do away with differences. It is not to suggest that all roads lead to God.

It is so together we can present Jesus to the world.

What is unity?

Unity is not being a doormat. It is not compromising on everything in some false attempt to keep everyone happy. Nor is it an attempt to sideline secondary issues in order to focus on core doctrine and mission, because that logic leads to a lowest common denominator when those who are most conservative or keen on the status quo win out. Take for example the issues of women speaking or the exercise of spiritual gifts. The logic that all are happy receiving teaching from a man but only some are happy with a woman teacher, so we’ll just have men, is a false unity. So to is the idea that because we all agree that the Holy Spirit enables us to understand and receive the teachings of the Bible we’ll stick to just that because some might not agree that the Holy Spirit speaks today through prophetic revelation.

Unity is tough. It is being fully aware of our differences and agreeing to work together. It is loving each other more than we love our own doctrine.

Unity is not about creating or maintaining a monopoly. That’s another thing that sometimes bugged me with the CU when I was at university, the idea that they were the bastion of unity and everyone else were dissenters and trouble makers. Maybe I put it a bit strongly, but a strong idea of unity does not try to take over or incorporate those who think and operate differently. It finds a space to exist together and work together.

What does unity require?

Unity would not take any effort if we all already agreed. And if would be nothing more than a saccharine soaked beauty-pageant-esque call for world peace if it had nothing to unite around.

Unity is also not the same as working together. I am willing to work with just about anyone, and I think churches and Christian organisations should show willingness and initiative to do so. I work with people whom I disagree on many things but we come together for a common cause. We come from different places, and ultimately our goal is different, but for a segment of the journey we can help each other out. To give it a technical term, it’s called co-belligerence.

Unity requires a common goal, but it also requires a common cause behind reaching that goal. The UCCF Basis of Faith is similar to the Evangelical Alliance’s, but with a couple of important differences. Probably chief among these is the commitment of UCCF to the infallibility of scripture compared to a concept of the Bible as supreme authority and fully trustworthy for faith and conduct in the Evangelical Alliance’s basis of faith. The challenge for UCCF is that not only is it an evangelical organisation, of which it should be proud, but it requires a standard for unity that some evangelical Christians might not agree with.

The question, and the challenge, is what level of core agreement is essential, and what draws too tight a circle? At what point do we stop working together because our differences have become too great? And who judges if and when those differences become too great?

It is easy to say that mission is our common cause, but that is hard to do. I have seen on the ground the challenges of churches working together in evangelism. What happens when people commit to following Jesus, which church do they go to? I’ve seen jointly run Alpha courses run aground because of differences about baptism.

Unity requires a humility that this is a hard road to walk and we haven’t worked out all the contours. It requires a humility to accept when we get it wrong, often when we are too eager to prove that we are right.

Why unity?

We work together because the church is the bride of Christ. We commit to overcoming but not dismissing our differences because we are called to be united. We are committed to unity because we want the world to see Jesus, and to see the difference He makes. And that makes it worth the effort. It makes it worth the heartache, the headaches and the disagreements, it even makes it worth the rather messy and not always wanted public disagreements.

It is hard, it is challenging. It will frequently be frustrating and we will often get it wrong.

And when it all goes wrong, when we want to tear each other apart, instead we fall over ourselves to serve one another out of a love for God and a commitment to make Him known.

Bristol CU and finding grace in hard places

Ten years ago I was a fresher at university. I arrived fresh from a charismatic church environment heavy on the use of spiritual gifts and where my younger sister sometimes spoke at our Saturday evening youth church meetings.

Three things caused an immediate dissonance between my experience of church and what I encountered with the Christian Union. One was the absence of any practice of the spiritual gifts, no prophetic words, speaking in tongues or prayer for healing. Secondly was the friction which later become outright hostility between the CU and Fusion which I had been introduced to and had expected to be the predominant feature of my spiritual life. Thirdly the bar on women preaching or serving as president of the CU.

I had a minor leadership role within the CU during my second year and argued fiercely against the position vis-a-vis Fusion. And when the elections were held to confirm the nominated committee I spoiled my ballot, I believe only witnessed by one other. The election was a formality, the people filling the posts had been chosen by the previous year’s committee – a process which enshrined the conservative position.

I also found the position around women speakers nonsensical, Damian Thompson alludes to this in his Telegraph article on the current furore. When does teaching become teaching, for example women were allowed to give evangelistic apologetic talks but not speak at the evening main CU meetings. Leaving Fusion to one side for now, the justification behind the CU’s position on women and spiritual gifts was that these were secondary issues not foundational to the Christian faith, and therefore to take a position on these would damage the unity of Christian witness on campus. To some extent I got their logic, I didn’t want to see a charismatic CU, a conservative CU, a CU that had spiritual gifts but not women speakers, maybe one backing infant baptism and another supporting adult immersion. However, the logic was also flawed because it defaulted to a conservative position that kept those against various things happy and those wishing to see a missed aspect feature alienated.

I also sat in on the university council meeting where someone brought a motion to disaffiliate the CU because of its positions, I can’t remember the details, I suspect it was either around not having a women president or its views on homosexuality. The details are not important. What was important was that a body separate to the CU felt they had the right to decide what was or was not a legitimate aspect of Christian belief.

I know different CUs take different approaches, some are charismatic, some have women speakers, some work alongside Fusion in relative harmony. I think there are two massive challenges here that are worthy of note, firstly CUs are good as organic student run societies led by people who know the community they are reaching. But this means those in leadership will often be relatively inexperienced.

Secondly, CUs are not churches, but operate and exist as quasi-church entities, that means that for students they are often the place where most of their spiritual interaction and input occurs. For this to work and not displace the primacy of the local church it requires local churches to support and guide the work of student led ministries. It requires local church unity. It means that they don’t try and place their style of worship above another, or use a default conservatism to maintain a status quo that actual does damage the unity of Christians on campus for mission.

I don’t know what’s going on at Bristol CU at the moment, but I know plenty involved in CUs who have got caught up in student media storms, or pressures from the student union. I think they need our prayer as a matter of urgency. I think they need the support of the local churches, I think they need wise counsel. And I think they need our grace. I think they have tried to handle a difference of opinions in the best way they felt they could. It maybe that they’ve got this wrong, but don’t we all from time to time?