The purpose of this series is to ask the question of whether a conservative philosophy of worship and culture should affect ecclesiological cooperation. For the past several weeks I have been explaining how I define conservative Christianity. Conservative Christians believe in absolute standards of truth, goodness, and beauty and in preserving certain cultural forms and institutions that best reflect those absolutes. This clearly affects the aesthetic forms chosen for worship, then. Only those forms that accurately reflect the truth of Scripture are used in expressing that truth today.
Now, the next question is this: should such a conservative Christian philosophy of culture and worship affect ecclesiastical cooperation? Should unity among Christians be dependent upon whether or not Christians agree on the principles I have just outlined? Or, to put it another way, should Christians separate over philosophies of worship and culture? Should those who hold to some form of conservative Christianity allow it to affect the way they cooperate with other Christians, or should they not make such a big deal about something so secondary to gospel unity?
Boundary and Center
To answer this question, we must be clear about what constitutes the center of Christian unity. God clearly wants Christians to be unified, and Christians should pursue unity wherever possible. Jesus expressed this in his high priestly prayer of John 17. He said in verse 21, “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Yet it is important to recognize the nature of this unity. Christ is clear in verse 14 that this unity separates Christians from the world. There can be no unity with those who do not believe the gospel. The gospel, therefore, is the boundary of Christian unity. Contrary to the popular movements in evangelicalism today, the gospel is not the center of Christian unity; the gospel is the boundary of Christian unity.
So there is one profound since in which the gospel unifies Christians in that it separates us from those who do not believe the gospel. That in itself should reveal something about how we relate to the culture of the unbelieving world. But within that boundary of the gospel, unity among Christians is dependent upon the degree of agreement in matters that are secondary to the gospel but that are important nonetheless. The Christian faith is more than just the gospel—it is the whole council of God. Christ did not say in his Great Commission that we make disciples only by teaching them the gospel; rather, we make disciples by baptizing them and by “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”
Even further, the center of Christian unity, according to Christ’s high priestly prayer, is profoundly relational. It is so relational that it is illustrated by the relationship between the Father and the Son. This center of unity is a communion with the glory of God; it is being in God and he in us; it is as he says later, the love of the Father with which he loved the Son being in us, and Christ in us.
To put it very simply, the center of our unity is the worship of God. As expressed in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, the center of biblical religion, and thus fellowship, is right belief, and right living, and right affection. How we express love and worship to God is not incidental; it is at the center of Christianity and therefore at the center of Christian unity. There is a reason that what divided the Reformers was not the gospel; they did not divide over the fundamentals of the faith. What separated the Reformers and began what we know of as various Protestant denominations, was worship. They recognized each other as Christian, but differences over worship prevented them from officially joining together.
This why gospel separation is black and white—you are either in or out; you’re a Christian or you’re not—while unity among those who believe the gospel varies based on the relative importance of the issue in question and the kind of fellowship under consideration. So contrary to how some fundamentalists have practiced so-called “secondary or tertiary separation,” limiting cooperation on the basis of secondary disagreements is not black and white—it is not all or nothing; cooperation is, rather, dependent upon the particular matter under consideration and the circumstance, whether it be simple fellowship, joining a church, or proclaiming the gospel.
Next, we’ll discuss how this perspective on unity is affected by a conservative philosophy of worship.