We Can Answer Jesus' Prayer — and Article 3 of the Belhar
July 20, 2011
Updated July 3, 2018
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Before Jesus went to the cross for us. He prayed that we would become perfectly one with each other, with the Father and with Himself. WE COULD ANSWER HIS PRAYER. We could "Make every effort to pursue the unity of the spirit — there is only one body, and one Spirit" Eph 4: 3. But we don't, because we are not really sufficiently Reformed, or more importantly sincerely committed to God's sovereign redemptive plan. We really don't quite believe in the Headship of Christ over the church.
We sincerely ask Jesus to answer our many prayers. The one prayer request that Jesus makes — which we have the capacity to answer — we essentially ignore. Yet, we are happy and content with the Protestant penchant for schism, and we happily embrace "denominationalism". Our own form of subscription affirms our stand against what Jesus is asking for. I have often heard excuses that our disunity is simply a result of sinfulness. So we decide, to simply go on sinning.
So what kind of unity are we talking about here? or what kind of unity is Jesus praying for? I would suggest that it is not "ecumenism", which is typically understood as a bringing together of "institutions" into one big institution or denomination — so sound teaching is water down. I am sure that is not what Jesus had in mind. He refers to a relational unity — a deep fellowship and communion that it defines the Oneness of the triune God. Their are three differnet persons in the Godhead. Yet, they are so close in their fellowship with each other that they are One God. In is a similar way there is only ONE BODY — we just somehow think we can pretend it is not so.
This unity is more than just fellowship. It is a shared mission and function. "That the world may know"
When all of the CR churches in Kalamazoo meet with other evangelical churches and worship together, a genuine pursuit of this unity has begun. When they begin to develop strategies for ministering to all the domestic violence victims, and begin divorce care together, and have a city wide training conference, then they have come closer to answer Jesus' prayer. When they do everything they can together to cause the gospel to ring out everywhere — then they will have become serious about the heart and desire of Jesus' request.
While the Belhar confession is mostly about racial reconciliation, Article 3 gets at the Biblical teaching about pursuing the unity of the body. This is not just ecumenical gobbledeegook, it is one of the most essential teachings of a true Reformed faith.
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I basically agree with the intent of what you're saying here. We should not erect unnecessary barriers to unity with other believers. That's just wrong.
I'm a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion that it's up to us to answer Jesus' prayer. I always thought God answered prayers.
However, let me suggest that the Father has actually answered Jesus' prayer for unity and we are one. Our lack of unity is then really nothing more than stuff we've erected to inhibit (rebel against?!) what is actually true. Our experience can point us in either direction (depending on what we're looking at) but almost always when two genuine believers begin to talk, the unity becomes obvious. Notice in Eph.4 we don't create unity, we are told "to keep the unity of the Spirit" (making unity a work of the Spirit).
As to denominations, I like them. When people ask me about them, I pull out my wallet and show them a $1 bill a $5 bill and a $10 bill (or whatever I have in my wallet). Then I say, "See these? These are different denominations, but it's all the same money." When we say we're a Christian denomination it doesn't point as much to what separates us as what unites us. If we were to say that we are The Christian church, that would be different. To do away with denominations (it's been tried many times), what we end up with are either simply new denominations (e.g., the Christian Church), or multiple denominations of one scattered across the landsape - and as soon as they start relating and form an agreement about how their relationship works, we have another denomination!
I do agree with your assessment of the Belhar's treatment of unity in the Church. It's one of the things lacking in our other confessions (at least with this amount of clear articulation) that atracts me most strongly to it.
I still think that we have a significant role to play in answering the prayer of Jesus in John 17.
First regarding prayer: one form of prayer is placing our request before a person--most often God, but when ever we make requests of humans we are essentially doing the same thing we do when we pray. Jesus is praying to the Father in John 17, but he is doing so delibertely for us to hear or read his prayer. When he does so, he is stating the desire of his heart. Since this particular request focuses on us and our activity, if we fulfill that desire by responding to his request we essentially participate in brining the answer to his requestt into reality. When we simply ingnore Jesus' sincere desire and pretend that a pursuit of such unity is not important to us, then his request will not be answered at least by those who ignore it. This is why Paul encourages us to "make every effort to pursue the unity of the spirit for there is only one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all".
Secondly, I am not suggesting that seeking to fulfill Jesus' desire requires us to do away with denominations. But the norm among denominations is a pursuit of our denomination's agenda and kingdom. When a paricular denomination is strong in a city or region they usually act as if they do not need the rest of the church to fulfill the missionary task that Jesus gave us. Instead of "contending as one man for the sake of the gospel" we establish an attitude of competion that hinders the gospel and causes people in the community to reject Jesus and his kingdom.
Third, when churches from various denominations begin to work together. When they pray and worship together, even equip leaders together the world sits up and takes notice and the tide of Chrisitianity rises in that region. I have seen this happen among the churches in Anchorage Alaska to wonderful affect. The Ethiopian evangelical church was almost forced into this kind of unity by the communist government with the result of millions of believers coming to Christ.
Finally, let me say that our Reformed Theology--concerning the soveriengty of God over redemptive history--should cause us to lead the way in city reaching efforts that unite the churches of a region. God has revealed his plan and purpose to us (the 4th spiritual blessing of Ephesians 1) that is "to bring all things together under one head even Jesus Christ". What would happen if all of the pastors of the CRC began to take the 3rd article of the Belhar seriously, and developed a sustained effort to bring the churches of their city into fellowship and functional unity?
Even if it is true that we cannot answer Jesus' prayer as you suggest, we could certainly make every effort to fulfill the desires of his heart---and he says that the result will be a world that knows him. I suggest that we make his agenda our's.
This is why Paul encourages us to "make every effort to pursue the unity of the spirit for there is only one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all".
I'm not aware of any version that puts "pursue" in that verse (Eph 4:3). The word is "keep" (KJV, NIV, NET, NLT), "maintain" (ESV, RSV, NRSV), "preserve" (NASB). A minor, yet very significant point, I think. Unity is not something we achive, it is something we receive, in fact have received. Disunity then = rebellion. And, as the unity is described specifically as a "unity of the Spirit" we recognize that not all unity is this kind of unity (a unified Roman army, e.g.!), but all who belong to God through the same Spirit, are already unified in a deeply significant way. Disunity, then is rebellion not only against Jesus' wishes, but against the on-going work of the Holy Spirit!
Even if it is true that we cannot answer Jesus' prayer as you suggest, we could certainly make every effort to fulfill the desires of his heart---and he says that the result will be a world that knows him. I suggest that we make his agenda our's.
Yes, I agree, as long as we see this as primarily God's effort & work in and among us. My concern is that some unity is created around projects, visions, and 'ministries' but not around the Spirit. That is they are merely human efforts, which though laudable, fall short, and typically fall apart after a short while.
In my very limited experience this unity of the Spirit is almost never the fruit of an institutional project. It begins when ordinary believers, and sometimes individual leaders, sense the unity of the Spirit they already have and begin to serve, pray and even worship together. So, if we want unity, I suggest we start by getting believers to get to know each other by fellowshipping together, working together, praying together and worshiping together (other ways?). When this begins to happen, amazing ministry begins to flow (have you seen "Appalachian Dawn?").
While I believe the Belhar confession has too many problems and too much baggage with it to be adopted as a testimony or confession within the nacrc, I do agree with Richard's comments on unity and denominations. Practicing a practical unity of believers, whether between races, denominations, ethnicities, is more valuable than just writing about it or professing it. The Belhar does not solve the problem, and will likely lead to other problems. This unity is not only between reformed churches of similar historical backgrounds, but between all believers everywhere in all places. The unity must be in spirit and in truth, which transcends structural, procedural, political, and functional barriers and differences.
Our confessions are quite clear that those who confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour are all members of the one body of Christ.
John Zylstra, you are right when you say that the unity must be in spirit and in truth that transcends structural, procedural, political, and functional barriers and differences. I would suggest however that because it transcends those things it also impinges upon them. The unity that Jeus and Paul call us to is more than a metaphysical unity, and more than just good fellowship with Christian brothers, but it is also a functional unity--a contending as one man for the sake of the gospel unity.
In Ephesians4:11-16 Paul tells us that Jesus gave gifts to men "apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers for equiping the saints---the Greek word in the text katartismon here has to do with bringing structure to the oikodoman the house of the body of Christ. These leaders are called to work together to structure the body in an area (not just in one congregation or one denomination) towards unity---when they do the whole body grows toward maturity. When it does grow in maturity and a deeper knowledge of Christ--the body also grows in number---the world begins to know. It was this unity in the body that caused the Ephesian church to be so effective---the Gospel rang out everywhere--and the whole Roman world was transformed.
The Greek phrase used in Ephesians 4:2 is spoudazonteV threin thn enothta tou
pneumatoV en tw sundesmw thV eirhnhV. The word “spoudazontes” is an imperative participle used to urge passionate action, the word denotes an attitude or orientation toward doing something passionately, eagerly—like boiling pot of water. So the challenge from Paul to our responsive human souls, is to “eagerly, and passionately keep or secure the and also preserve the “bond of peace”.
While you are right Richard that we are “one” and that this one-ness is something that is simply true of us as believers, never-the-less we are being challenged to eagerly and passionately secure the entata, the oneness of the spirit and the bond of peace.
In this case the best way to confess the Belhar confession article 3. Is to encourage all of our pastors and churches to be engaged in city or region reaching efforts in their neck of the woods. When we confess—homologeo—it is implied that there is a homogeneity between our words, and our actions. Such a confession should be made by all CRC churches and lived out in their communities.
This pursuit of unity is pro-activity. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven advances rapidly when violent individuals—(read proactive individuals) pro-actively pursue the kingdom. Jesus didn’t wait for the kingdom to come to him--he more than anyone was ready to initiate action that would bring His kingdom and his Father’s will into the world.
(Yes to the Appliachian Dawn question---that is precisely what I am suggesting we CRC pastors and churches passionately pursue. )
I agree, Daniel that the unity is metaphysical, functional, and contains elements and possibilities of fellowship. It must be in spirit and in truth. Which is sometimes the difficulty. To maintain unity without truth, or with a divergence in truth is also a false unity. However, understanding that our divergences are part of our sinful nature and understandings, and are not greater than God's spirit, and are not greater than God's truth, is what unites us in thought, word and deed. Therefore, for example, while I believe that infant baptism for the children of believers is a better expression of God's love for us, I can yet work with christians who believe that infant baptism should not be practiced, but that only believers who profess should be baptized.
In a sense, this unity is natural, but it also requires hard work sometimes, including the desire both to be true, and the desire to forgive, and the willingness to be forgiven by others.
The difference between real unity and artificial institutional unity is obvious. One leads to the exercise of the Christian virtues, to increased witness, to living the love of Christ, following Christ and the guidance of scripture. The other leads to (or is the result of) idolization of forms, buildings, institution, hierarchy, money, structure and efficiency. "
"Attempts at union between the churches (UPCUSA and PCUS) were renewed in the 1970s, culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. At the time of the merger, the churches had a combined membership of 3,121,238. Many of the efforts were spearheaded by the financial and outspoken activism of retired businessman Thomas Clinton who died two years before the merger. A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the UPCUSA in New York City and the PCUS located in Atlanta, Georgia." Wikipedia
This quote shows the numbers at the merger. Today the PCUSA has about 2 million members, a 33% reduction from 1983, only 28 years ago. Compared to if numbers had kept pace with general population, the reduction would be much greater; membership should have been at 4 million, so the assumed reduction is close to 50%. Of course, we always think we are different (different than the PCUSA or anyone who shows these trends). But we cannot prove we are different, and the evidence to date indicates we are similar.
The type of unity we often focus on is orgnizational or institutional unity. I do not believe that this is the type of unity that Jesus was praying for. Often when two institutions merge, there is subtraction and not addition or multiplication of fruit. Less instead of more. There seems to be a reduction in the pursuit of truth and a mariginalization of values, and also a numerical reduction of leadership, and a loss of clarity regarding mission.
The type of unity that Jesus prayed for includes fellowship with each other, but more importantly a common, significant, enduring commitment to find ways to collaborate in the mission of the church. The goal here is focused on bringing lost people into the kingdom. The unity is regional, or focused on reaching a city. When this type of unity is pursued there is addition, and mulitplication.
I have seen the fruit of the second type of unity efforts in Anchorage Alaska, and in Ethiopia to great effect and fruit
I agree that bringing unity between churches in an area is a key part of the concept. Jesus addresses the church in an area, ie. the church of Ephesus, the church of Smyrna, the church of Pergamos, etc.
So, I believe we do need to connect with other congregations/denominations in our area as the "church of your town", ie the "church of Grand Rapids" or whatever it might be, to worship, pray and serve together. It is so beautiful when brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ cross these traditional barriers and focus on His Kingdom together.
I'm not against denominations, they have a practical side, but I am against the dissension, the competition, the pride, the superior attitudes that tend to go with them, and as someone mentioned, we might be more focused on our little "kingdom" then His Kingdom.
One of the scriptures the Spirit's been putting on my heart is Malachi 3:1-3... and along with this the line from the hymn, How Firm a Foundation... The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Its been a few months since you made your comment. I am encouraged by them.
To be Christian, or be consistent as Reformed believers (most Protostents, are Reformed generally) we should take hold of the 4th spiritual blessing mentioned in Ephesians 1:9-10 which indicates that we have been given insight into God's plan for historyt--"to bring all things together under one head--Jesus the Christ". To be consistently Reformed---means that we join with God in pursuing his sovereign plan. We would make "every effort" to pursue the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:2).
If the world sees disunity when they look at our denominational loyalties, then they represent a problem that needs our efforts. When we do not repair the damage of denominationalism we assist those who "dislike organized religion"--on their way to damnation. Therefore what you have outlined about churches of the city needs to be pursued with much greater effort---So as Jesus said, "The world would know the one who was sent".
I suggest that this effort would produce great results--If every believer in a city--chose to place themselves in another church's ministry or program on a weekly basis.
I suggest that this effort would produce great results--If several churches would seek ways to collaborate in an out reach to their community--i.e. CPC, food pantry, divorce care, or even joining together to equip leaders.
So---tell me what is happening, or not happening in your local church and your community. Share with us what you think your church could do or is doing--to make every effort to pursue unity. The gospel of reconciliation will roll forward if we become ambassadors of reconciliation.
there is quite a bit happening in building unity between pastors/churches/ministries in the county. I like that you keep bringing up "make every effort to pursue unity"! I will confirm that I believe God is asking us to be "intentional", "purposed in the Spirit" (Acts 19:21 NKJV)
Prayer seems to be a significant key. I am involved with the Light of the World Prayer Center, which is a county wide prayer center on a crc campus =), but with a variety of denominations/local churches involved. Every month we have about 20-30 of the youth pastors come together for lunch and prayer together and out of that a college focused gathering started last fall with over 50 salvations in the first several months, and usually about 200-300 students coming together once a week.
We have about 50 senior type pastors from the county that are starting to come together for fellowship and prayer. (i'm not sure if it's once a month or once a quarter, but we're praying toward it becoming monthly)
We are working toward having 24/7 worship and prayer going on at several different levels in the county. One level, is we have over 30 churches signed up to cover one full day each month in prayer with specific prayer requests from what we call the 7 spheres ( church, family, government, business, education, health care, and media), so all the churches involved are praying the same thing. Each church can add or edit the requests as fitting for their congregation. We have seen some powerful results in decrease of crime and abortion in our county, and increase of adoption and key drug busts with high level dealers as well as exposing human trafficking involvement.
The second level is that we will have 24/7 worship and prayer on site at the prayer center as well. We have just over 100 hours and are struggling with filling the night watch. At the prayer center once a month, we have 24 hours of continual worship in 12 - 2 hour sets, where different worship teams from various local churches come and lead a set for 2 hours. Each of these "burns" have a specific focus.
a third level is that some of the bigger churches can cover 24/7 with their own church. The one church that we know is doing this has 200 people signed up for 1 hour each week.. wow!!!
In 2 of the county towns we have "seek God for name of town" prayer gatherings, and these are cross denominational as well. This has been interesting as we start to put pieces together of what God has in mind for that region, and we are seeing some convergence of ministry through this. It's the closest thing I've found to a "prophetic table" in the church. The other believers involved are open and sensitive to the listening prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we've had many, many confirmations at this gathering.
The prayer center, (and bless his heart, my pastor does this as well) make a point of praying on behalf of other churches in the area. One of our key requests is that a Spirit of prayer will be poured out in the Church that the level of prayer in the county will increase, and that our congregations will become "houses of prayer". We are also just starting to pursue unity between various ministries... ie. connecting 3-5 different college focused minstry leaders so they can connect with each other and encourage each other and pray together.
the local food pantry is the local crc churches (7 of them) working together, but with many volunteers from other churches as well as donations from every one, schools, churches, AWANA, various ministries, civic groups, etc. The cool thing, is with the spiritual foundation, the gospel is part of the ministry =) !!
We do still run into an attitude from some of this is my territory, and I'm not letting anyone else in, don't step on my toes. the spirit of competition or of fear =( as well as some other discouraging stuff, but that's ok, we know we are in a battle, and it's not against flesh and blood.
the prayer center was recently asked to do a video testimony on the unity that is going on here in Whatcom County, as it seems to be unique. We had a gentleman from Tennessee come visit to see what was going on here, and he sponsored the cost of the video, which was huge (Michael Lienau, who filmed the first Transformation video with George Otis is doing the filming). The testimony will be used at the World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta Indonesia this May, where thousands of prayer leaders from around the world will be gathering. Amazingly, the only requests from the organizers for such presentations from the US were us (we are just a little prayer center) and the Kansas City IHOP. Our executive director will be sharing at the assembly on how God is increasing unity in Whatcom County. It's not a program, it's prayer. It's listening and obeying what we sense to be His leading, and we are experiencing some powerful fruit from our prayer times.
Here's a link to the prayer center website
I'm sure I've missed lots as this is just from my perspective and sphere of influence, but these are a few things God is doing here to increase unity in His Bride!
I'm excited about the crc prayer summit this spring... I think that could be a key gathering for the direction of the crc as part of His Bride!
Wow. Praise the Lord. I am humbled by your response. Yes, prayer is the key---the only place we can come into unity with the Spirit.
I am assuming this is Whatcom County, WA--or Bellingham--A beautiful place for the spirit of God to move.
we are humbled as well... there is so much potential not only for Whatcom County (yes, we are in the NW corner of WA and includes Bellingham and Lynden) but for His Church everywhere, and it seems like we are just on the front edge as we are getting more and more "prophetic" pieces of what God wants for this area. It's when we connect with other believers from different congregations in the area that the pieces start coming together and we see a similar focus that God isn't just giving to one congregation, but to His Body in the area. Each area has it's own unique flavor, struggles, needs, and I think it's important each area seeks His leading for that particular region. He's an infinitely creative God, and so I don't think He's going to give us cookie cutter "programs" that we can "market", for how He wants to move in each area, but He is going to ask us to seek Him in prayer first. He wants everyone to come to Him in prayer instead of just copying what worked somewhere else.
Prayer is a key for being in alignment with and sensitive to Him. He's not going to let us get away, anymore, with doing it "our own way" and avoiding time with Him (we (the prayer center) have found significant prayerlessness in the North American Church =(, Pentecostals do a little better than traditional denominations, with many spiritual leaders (95% is the statistic from one survey) spending 5 minutes or less a day in prayer). His command is to love Him first with heart, soul, mind and strength, and then love our neighbor. We are in danger of flipping these 2 in priority with the emphasis on loving our neighbor through "social justice", the "social" gospel, and being "busy" with justice issues. We have to keep those commands in the right order. Dan, getting these 2 reversed is so subtle, because justice is biblical, but not if it's coming before our love relationship with Him, not if we are doing justice out of our own efforts and using our busy-ness to avoid spending time with Him.
We have found that when a ministry is "birthed" in prayer (and this includes hours of laboring as part of the time spent in His Presence, not just a few minutes here and there and not just "God bless these ideas"), the fruit is night and day difference beyond other efforts that did not come from the labor of prayer and having our relationship with God first. I hope that makes sense, as it's a complicated and subtle distinction, but one that we are finding is key. We (north american believers) intellectually know prayer (relationship with God) is important, but we do not practically live it. One of the lines from the movie "night at the museum, the Smithsonian" is General Custer says. "We're Americans, we don't plan, we do!" What I believe is the case for many north american believers is "we don't pray, we do!" and I've been there myself for about 20 years. we're good at being Miss Marthas - she's so practical and efficient, and struggle with "wasting" time in His Presence as Miss Mary chose to do.
again, there is so much potential. Just last fall, He blew us away through prompting us to ask a simple question that ends up potentially impacting thousands of believers thousands of miles away in Indonesia, with potential to bring unity between the charismatic and reformed streams. There's no way we could have coordinated that with our own efforts, and with a simple question, it opened doors and made connections that could only be Divinely orchestrated.
oop s.. forgot to put in this link to this prayer/song on behalf of His Church.
Thank you for your response Bev. Makes me want to take a SELAH (pause and wonder)
"unless to agree how can they walk together" "unless we pray together how can we agree".
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