As always in the Christian life, there are all sorts of important questions which have to be carefully thought through, prayed about, and discussed with others. Broad, general Biblical principles often have to be teased out in terms of application and appropriation.
One such question involves how much Christians can and should work together and associate with non-believers. It is actually part of a much bigger discussion concerning how the church is to act in the world. It raises issues of how much we need to separate from surrounding secular culture, and how much we are to involve ourselves in it.
It is a huge question involving all sorts of related issues, and cannot be fully discussed here. I have treated aspects of this debate elsewhere.
This post in fact is a spin-off from some comments and discussion which arose over my article on the Manhattan Declaration. While heaps of well-known and faithful Christian leaders have been signing the Declaration, a few noted evangelical leaders are refusing to do so.
Their main complaints are two-fold: cooperating with those of other Christian denominations may involve compromise and a diminution of the gospel proclamation; and the preaching of the gospel should be our only main task, not getting involved in social and political issues.
The latter point I have dealt with on many other occasions on this site, so I will not deal with it again here. As to the former, much of what this involves has to do with the issue of co-belligerency. To one friendly critic who questioned cooperating with non-Christians, or with those Christians with whom we have major theological disagreements, I replied with the following nine paragraphs:
“I am of course an evangelical Protestant. I make no apologies for that, and I have not tried to hide that fact. Therefore I will obviously have some theological differences with Catholics. But that is true of other types of Christians as well: I will also have plenty of theological differences with the Orthodox, and even with other Protestants. Indeed, I can often disagree with fellow evangelicals.
“While any reader of this site will certainly see that I put a premium on truth and sound theology, it is also clear that I see the great value of co-belligerency. If we do not work together on so many of these crucial issues, we will simply lose everything.
“Thus while genuine theological differences will always exist, if we can find some common ground to unite against the greater enemies, that is my preference here in this website and in my ministry. Indeed, I am involved with various pro-family and pro-life coalitions which include all sorts of groups which do not agree on a theological level, but have come together for limited, temporary, and tactical reasons, and have been willing to lay aside theological issues, to work for important issues.
“Thus I have worked with Muslims, Mormons, Moonies and all sorts of other groups on some of these limited, tactical and short-term projects. I have no problems with that. The important thing is to take on some of these major challenges we face.
“Indeed, many of these battles are too big for us to quarrel amongst ourselves, while letting the other side get away with murder. And of course co-belligerency is by definition a short-term working together for specific purposes on a specific issue. It has nothing to do with compromising, or abandoning one’s beliefs, etc.
“This has worked wonderfully on the international level. For example when radical feminists, pro-aborts and homosexuals are trying to push something, say, at the UN, it is often a coalition of pro-life and pro-family groups, along with the Muslim voting bloc, and the Vatican, that have combined and successfully defeated their initiatives time and time again.
“The truth is, in these culture wars, if we first come out with a long list of criteria and beliefs that we have to check off before we work with someone else, we will very soon be down to a handful of like-minded folk. I have disagreements with all sorts of people at times. But if I demanded complete agreement on every theological point, then I would be a club of one. And I don’t even agree with myself all the time!
“So we need to learn to work together with others wherever possible, bearing in mind the bigger war we are in. This may not always be possible, but when it is, then let’s go for it.
“I hope this answers your questions. Not all evangelicals will be happy with my response. That is fine. I have to do what I feel is right, and what I sense the Lord is leading me to do. But in some of these areas we may have to agree to disagree.”
Cooperation and Separation
My critic responded, in part, with these words: “I would still retain some serious concerns over close cooperation with openly non- or anti-Christian groups (which does often include certain conservative groups and religious movements by implication) based on where it may gradually lead and what effect it may have on the clarity of well-expressed, Christian orthodoxy over a period of time.”
Again, there is much that can be said in reply to this. Indeed, whole books have been written on the topic. So let me offer a few more brief thoughts. Those conversant with church history will of course be quite familiar with this topic, and will know of many examples of how this issue has been approached.
Christians have had plenty of differing responses to such concerns. Somewhat recently, for example, theological liberalism has tended to be quite happy with complete association with non-Christians, and seems to have little concern about watering down the gospel to do so.
On the other extreme, fundamentalists of the early twentieth century made it a determined point to withdraw and separate as much as possible from the surrounding culture, and to refuse to work with those regarded as not being of sufficient theological purity.
That whole debate cannot here be pursued, but a handful of remarks can be made. Much of this discussion boils down to certain texts, preeminent of which is 2 Cor. 6:14: ‘Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers’. (See vv. 14-18 for the fuller context.)
While much ink has been spilt on how exactly we apply this passage, many have thought that at a minimum this verse forbids Christians from marrying non-Christians, or perhaps going into a close business association with them, and so on.
Or as my critic said, he was concerned about, “close cooperation with openly non- or anti-Christian groups”. So how do we tease this out? How far do we go? What exactly does all this entail? We are of course told in Scripture that we are in the world, but not to be of it. But again, how we flesh this truth out is often unclear, and a matter of much debate.
For example, how are we to understand the concept of “close cooperation”? What about giving money to decidedly non-Christian and at times anti-Christian businesses and services? Of course the truth is, Christians do this every day of the week. When we buy petrol for the car, do we first enquire about the religious status of the petrol shop owner?
When we sign up for an ISP, do we enquire about the religious beliefs or otherwise of those who run it? When we do our daily shopping, do we refuse to go to certain supermarkets, based on their religious convictions? For example I was informed that Safeway is owned by the Mormons. If so, will some separatist Christians therefore boycott the chain?
The point is, we are dealing with non-Christians every day of our lives, and often this involves giving them money, using their services, and in various ways effectively endorsing what they are doing. How far do we go, and how zealous should we be for separation?
Now it so happens that in order to pen this piece, I had to interrupt another article I was working on. That piece has to do with something which was supposed to be explicitly Christian, but has been watered down over recent years. In that piece I will argue that if it still wants to consider itself Christian, then it has no place in moving down the path of interfaith dialogue and the like.
But is this the same as working with those of other religions, or even with secular folk, on important social issues? I am not sure that it is. The pro-life cause is so important, in my mind, that I am more than happy to work with non-evangelicals, and even non-Christians.
Indeed, for many years the only major group to be heavily involved in the pro-life cause was the Catholic Church. We evangelicals were for quite a long time asleep at the wheel on this one. I think we certainly can find common cause with all sorts of groups to work together for certain specific and limited ends.
We can do this and still fully maintain our theological distinctives. One need not abandon or water them down in working as co-belligerents on vital issues. As I said above, if we do not work together, we are simply going to lose time and time again on very key areas, such as marriage and family.
Now I have only just begun to touch on these issues here, and heaps more needs to be said. Indeed, I will probably get lots of criticism over all sorts of things I have not said, or could have said. But as I say, it really is a rather large topic, with many considerations to explore. But I offer this as at least some initial remarks on a vexing issue.
As always, Christian charity may demand that we be willing to agree to disagree here. Those who think I have become a heretic and given up the faith, well, what can I say? If you are unhappy with me and this site, perhaps go and set up your own website, where you can freely castigate one and all to your heart’s content! But for those who wish to engage in Christlike dialogue, I am happy to keep discussing these issues.