One of the greatest things about the 18 years we served churches in Montana was the lack of sectarianism. By this I mean those who were of the Reformed or Armenian or Calvinist or even Wesleyan belief systems worked well together. Those issues were not a litmus test for brothers and sisters working together on projects much too large for one church. Part of the reason was the geographical situation. Churches were often isolated from other churches of the same denomination. My own, for example, was 110 miles removed from the next church of the same denomination. Throw in Montana’s abysmally cold and long winter which forbids travelling long distances much of the time and one learns how to play nice with one’s neighbors. I spoke at our churches, Lutheran churches, Methodist congregations and had great rapport with the ministers of the Assembly, 7th Day Adventist and Disciples of Christ churches. This was necessary to reach a town that had never seen an outbreak of revival in anyone’s memory. We knew each other intimately. We knew each other’s families. We prayed and labored together. Did we have our differences? Yes. We didn’t sweep them under the rug or compromise – we discussed them, rationally, like adults and joined where we could, such as on issues of the right to life. We knew each others hearts and never demonized the other.
I well remember rumors, unfounded of course, that flew one year about my family and I. At a ministerial meeting, the other pastors pledged to address this from their pulpits, set the record straight and they did so. This show of support was overwhelming and much appreciated. In this atmosphere, the gospel witness went forth.
Unfortunately, this did not last. Even more unfortunately, the disruption came from within my own denomination. There were many who came in, from down South, with preconceived ideas and agendas that ruined a sweet fellowship. Adherence to a particular interpretation of Scripture became the basis for isolating and minimizing churches and pastors who failed to follow those in positions of power. The same has been experienced in church after church here in Georgia after our relocation. I long for the days when church leaders got together to know, intimately, the heart and soul of fellow ministers. I long for the time when differences of opinion can be discussed rationally, like adults if not like Christians without demonizing those who differ. It may be that I am wrong in an area of doctrine or you may be wrong. We may even both be wrong because I have yet to meet a single person who understands every aspect of Scripture. I have met many who think they do but that’s another story.
In the midst of this, though, I do find hope. From some in my denomination, though not many. I find it from others who have taken the time to get to know their fellow ministers as a person. They may have met them at a hospital, visiting on the same floor, traveled on the same flight together or met at a community event. This gives me hope. Our ministry spans denominations as in many countries there are ones not even represented here in the States. We don’t make churches who ask for help fill out a questionnaire – we go and help. They will take what they agree with and toss the rest, we know. But it is freely offered to all the same. Ta Ethne is somewhat Reformed in its leanings but our most faithful supporters are Wesleyan. They know our heart and work with us. We have Calvinists and Armenians both who advise us and help edit our resources. How can this be? Because God is bigger than all of us. He knows our heart and soul and we should get to know the heart and soul of His children as well. We have also been shunned by others who thought we were too “Presbyterian” and by others who felt we were too “liberal” (whatever that means). Others have questioned how a “Calvinistic-leaning” organization could be so mission-minded (guess they haven’t read our books) and still others thought we played and worked too much with our Wesleyan friends (although I would never give up those friendships). Both sides (or maybe all 4 sides) have labeled us as somethings or other at various times. I just shake my head and forge on as God directs. I would rather describe us as followers of Jesus Christ helping other followers of Jesus Christ become mature disciples.
It is far easier to dismiss someone if you don’t personally know them. Getting to know people shakes up your assumptions and the parroting of beliefs held by others. I remember my first trip to Malaysia, a Muslim nation, and having every assumption I had crushed. They were the most open and friendly of people, full of questions and having a desire to know my beliefs. From mosques to bazaars we encountered curiosity and developed friendships. I learned about the Koran and Muslim beliefs from practicing adherents and they learned of Christianity and the Bible from me. We discussed and argued civilly, respecting each other while differing. The same held true on my trips to China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and other places. I find it sad that I find more civility and respect in foreign countries from those with differing beliefs than in the Bible Belt.
Oh, how I long for an outpouring of the Spirit to bring about a melting of hearts, a desire for civility. I long for ministers of the gospel to get to know other leaders as people. Invite them over for a meal, go on a retreat with them, study Scripture together regularly — get to know their heart and soul. You may just win a friend for life or even for eternity. You might also become a far better minister