I took the opportunity to listen in to some of the General Synod debate on the Anglican Communion Covenant on Friday (don't tune out non-Anglican friends, this affects you too).
I found the portion I heard heart-wrenching. I listened to three or four people passionately pleading for the communion to stay together. But when it boiled down to it, their argument simply amounted to "we do love each other, don't we?"
I don't doubt that (almost) all those there do, indeed, love each other at a personal level. But love without content is an absolutely unsustainable basis for a functioning partnership that achieves gospel ends together. There is no direct line that leads from love to strategy, from love to shared understanding of mission, from love to commonality on truth and doctrine. For sure love is crucial, the highest command of the Lord. But it is a mistake to think that just because we love someone that therefore it must necessarily be possible to work together. We are called to love our enemies too, but the Bible never expects us to have shared commitment to extending God's Kingdom with them.
Partnerships are based on other things. They can't happen without love, but love is not the thing that makes gospel partnership work. I like to think of it in three levels:
1. If we have the same core gospel commitments, the same convictions about primary matters such as the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, what he achieved on the cross, our commitment to the Bible, etc, then we are, at a very deep sense, united.
2. If we have the above and a shared sense of the particular specific mission that God has called each of us to, then we will want to express that partnership in common working wherever possible, in prayerful consideration of each other, and in making sure that our work is synergistic
3. If we have all of 1 and 2 and a common strategy, we need to ask whatever is stopping working so closely together that we do one work with one purpose. We are the closest of gospel partners
Three levels - unity (level 1), commonality (level 2), close partners (level 3). Based on shared convictions (level 1), shared convictions and mission (level 2) and shared convictions, mission and strategy (level 3).
(Note, under this scheme it is impossible to build level 2 without level 1, and impossible to build level 3 without levels 1 and 2. From the little I heard of Friday's debate it seemed that some folk wanted to appeal for a level 3 unity, appealing that everyone present was a partner, without defining either level 3 or, for that matter, levels 1 and 2 either. It just doesn't work. Partnership without firm foundations doesn't last.)
For those of us who aren't Anglicans or interested in the Anglican internal debate, it should be said that exactly the same thing is true in a local church and between churches. If you assume that people in your church will do good, long term mission together, without a common convictions and shared view on mission, I suspect you are wrong.
Similarly unless people have those common convictions there is no way to tell with whom you can and can't do mission. As an example, a friend of mine recently said to me "I have lots of catholic friends, they love the Lord and they want to see people won for Jesus." Wonderful," I said. "So we can formally work with their church on a mission, then?" she asked. Of course the answer is, "no way" but she found it very hard to see why not. I asked her:
- if someone becomes a Christian, do you want them to go to a church where they are taught that you don't only pray to one God through Jesus Christ, but also to a host of mediating saints and to Jesus' mother?
- do you want them to be taught that the Pope is the only authorised interpreter of the Bible?
- do you want them to be taught that salvation is dependent, in a very meaningful sense, on attending mass (where an old covenant priest sacrifices Jesus again for you every week) and confession?
- do you want them to believe that God's grace is a reward for their work?
And a host of other differences, all of which are on extremely primary matters of truth. "But they are my friends," she concluded, a little unhappily. I have catholic friends too and I feel the weight of my argument. Sooner or later we have to say, to our own distress and theirs, "we can do x and y together, but we can't do z together because we don't believe the same things and we think each other are wrong."
The appeal to love alone is also an appeal to never draw any such boundaries. It is unworkably fuzzy and appeals deeply to a postmodern generation that dislikes the idea that there are some areas in which being correct or incorrect really, really matter. And that some people will be right and others wrong. Just as in Parliament it is an offense to call someone a liar, it often seems among Christians tht the most offensive thing you can say is "we think you are wrong about that." Somehow that seems to challenge friendship. It shouldn't. Friends ought to be able to say that and remain friends