These days, weíre very alive to the dangers of contamination. But the church is also living in a contaminated world. Global warming is not its chief problem, though. Itís the contamination of sin which we need to be alive to. Sin and the effects of sin are all around us everywhere.
But the danger of contamination does not just come from the world. It also comes from those we might think we can trust. It comes from people and churches who say that they follow Christianity, but who in reality are preaching a completely different message. Maybe they say that Christ did not die bearing the punishment which must otherwise have come to sinners like us, for example.
The Christian message is that you are a sinner, that you need to be saved from your sin, that Christ lived and died and rose to save sinners, and that you are saved when you repent of your sin before God and trust exclusively in Jesus Christ. That is the Christian message. If thatís the path youíve taken, you are a Christian. If itís not, you are not, and you need to come to him now. You really do!
But those other voices pose a danger to us. They pose a danger of contamination. Their ideas can get in and before we even know whatís going on, they can be gnawing away at us from within. Result? Another polluted, tainted, infected church. Weíll see what the Bible teaches about what our attitude should be to such churches this morning.
At the same time, however, there are many churches near us which are thoroughly faithful to the Christian message. Theyíre preaching the same gospel. They may do certain things a bit differently. But on the essentials, weíre agreed. What is our attitude to be to them? This morning weíre going to see what the Bible demands of us here too.
i The unity at which to aim
Look at John 17:20–23, at a prayer prayed the night before Calvary. Here are three questions.
Firstly, who is Jesus talking about in v20? Answer: all who believe in him, regardless of where and when they live. In other words, this is Jesusí prayer request for you if you are a Christian.
Secondly, what does Jesus want for all those who believe in Him? v20–21 and v23 tell us clearly. He wants every Christian everywhere to be completely united to every other Christian. And he wants that unity to be visible to those who do not belong to the church. Isnít that a rebuke? Donít his words make you feel just a little bit embarrassed? The UK is full of Bible-centred, Christ-loving, evangelical churches divided over insignificant matters!
Thirdly, why does Jesus want all Christians everywhere to be united? v23 tells us that too. Christians are to be united because their unity will be a powerful witness that God is active in the world! Our witness is diminished when we are not united. In our society, profoundly suspicious as it is of institutions, we have to work all the harder at showing people that the church is not an outdated monolith. It is alive, a vibrant community of people who love one another. When are not united, we give people all across the land an excuse not to believe.
ii The unity from which to abstain
Look at 2 Corinthians 6:14–16. They are words with a wide range of applications. Paul is saying that Christians should not be yoked together, joined closely together, with non-Christians. If they are, itís an unequal yoke. And the end result is going to be trouble every time. After all, a Christian and a non-Christian really have nothing in common. Thatís why Paul asks those five questions in these verses.
The normal application of these words is to show that if youíre a Christian, you shouldnít marry a non-Christian. And thatís right. Go further, in fact. Christian, donít even go out with a non-Christian. However gorgeous she is, however hunky he is, you really have nothing in common.
But Paulís words in 2 Corinthians 6 also have a bearing on the subject of church unity. They tell us not to be united to churches which do not preach the Christian message. After all, if they do not preach the Christian message, can they really claim to be Christian churches? 2 John 7–11 tells us in the strongest terms that anyone who welcomes someone who teaches a false gospel shares in that man/womanís wicked work! How dare we do that?
Itís for this very reason that Carey wonít be a part of the ecumenical Churches Together movement. That would involve us joining with other churches in Reading and elsewhere which hold to false messages. We must not have fellowship with those who preach another message. Rather we must humbly pray for them. What we cannot do, though, is join with them. Unity is more than looking for a theological lowest common denominator which we can agree on and then holding hands. Unity is only possible for those who are genuinely one in Jesus Christ.
iii The unity for which to act
Look at 2 Corinthians 8:1–4, 10–11. There Paul gives us a cracking example of unity in action. In v1–4, youíve got the Macedonian Christians. Theyíre poor, but they are desperate to give to the poorer Christians of Judaea. Then in v10–11, youíve got the Corinthians Christians. Theyíre also keen to give to the Christians in Judaea; they just need to put the finishing touches to their gift by actually collecting it in! Itís a real international show of unity!
The point is that the Christians in the early church showed forth an active unity. Unity is more than talking. Unity is acting. Unity is acting together. And thatís the lesson we need to learn from 2 Corinthians 8.
What does that mean for you and me, then? It means that we have a responsibility to other Christians in the area, elsewhere in Britain, and across the world. Thatís especially true for us as a larger fellowship. So what can we do? What ought we to be doing? What is the unity for which we ought to act in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 8? Should it mean giving financially to needy Christians elsewhere? Is there anything we can do to show unity and fellowship with some of the smaller churches in this area if they want help? Should we do more with the local Affinity group we belong to, or with the FIEC? Is there more we could be doing? Use your imagination! God has entrusted us with plenty. May He make us faithful and responsible in what we do with that plenty. We must be.
How do you eat an elephant? In bite-sized chunks. As Christians living in the UK today, weíre facing an elephant-sized problem. Evangelicalism is so fragmented and divided. Weíre not going to change that in one go. But we can do our own little bite-sized bit. We can do what we can. So may God give us grace to do what we can do, empowered by his Spirit, to the glory of his Son, Jesus Christ.