Monday, August 20, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (2)


Removing the Cause of the Quarrel

It is abundantly obvious that previous attempts at reconciliation have failed. Even the so-called ‘reunion’ of 1958 never really worked and many ecclesias in Australia today have their own ‘basis of fellowship’ while still claiming adherence to the Unity Agreement. The basis of fellowship at some combined meetings. for example, ( including meetings during visits to Australia by the editor of The Christadelphian) is ‘the Unity Agreement’ with additional requirements. This is a contradiction. The imposition of any additional requirements means, of necessity, that the Unity Agreement is not the basis of fellowship. Similarly, Melbourne Youth Gatherings and a past Melbourne Conference have imposed additional requirements for fellowship, despite a resolution by participating ecclesias at an earlier Conference Business Session [1] that the basis of fellowship would be the Unity Agreement without addition or further explanation. Let’s be honest. Either ecclesias accept the Unity Agreement as adequate, or they don’t. They can’t have it both ways. If the Unity Agreement has failed to achieve its objective, and clearly it has, then we need to look at a different basis for fellowship.

First we should examine why the Agreement failed. No agreement, contract, partnership or marriage will succeed unless there is a commitment to it by both parties. Perhaps one of the primary causes of an increasing divorce rate in this country is that the Legislators have made it relatively simple to obtain a divorce and many people enter marriage with the expectation “if it doesn’t work we can easily get a divorce”. Hence, in many marriages, there is no real commitment to make it work. The analogy with fellowship is, in fact, a Scriptural one. The word used in the Greek New Testament for ‘fellowship’ is koinonia. In the contemporary colloquial Greek koinonia is very commonly used of a business partnership, of marriage and of a person’s relationship with God. [2] Fellowship in the Biblical sense is essentially a partnership or a sharing in something, and without a commitment by all parties the partnership will fail.

I would suggest that the Australian Unity Agreement has failed chiefly because of a lack of commitment to the idea of Unity. In fact, the history of the Christadelphian community has shown that the brotherhood has never been terribly committed to the idea. The existence of so many 'fellowships' is testimony to that: we have Central, Dawn, Berean, Old Paths, Apostolic, Wayfarer, Advocate/Unamended, Amended, Antipas, and Family Journal fellowships, and probably others. Some of these fellowships you may never heard of, although I'm sure we could also add a few more! It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. The Australian Christadelphian Shield once published a chart showing all the divisions in the Christadelphian community throughout its history. [3] The Editor noted that “the diagram represents an embarrassing skeleton in the Christadelphian closet” and rightly commented that “controversy is so often the result of emotion, pride, personalities, dogmatism, lack of listening, lack of love, lack of thought for the common good, lack of glory to God”. It is also a tragic situation of which the brotherhood should be ashamed.

Before we could ever be committed to unity we would have to decide that we wanted it. Not some of us; all of us. We would have to be prepared to make compromises. We would have to accept that other brethren are perfectly entitled to maintain different points of view, or standards of dress, or styles of worship, or ways of expressing their faith in Christ. We would have to become more tolerant, more flexible, more understanding, more empathetic, more caring, more loving. We would have to find ways of demonstrating to our brother or sister that we are genuinely concerned about them, their welfare and their salvation.

This is why the Unity Agreement didn’t work. It was a formality, a technicality, a legal document encompassing a credal formula which was open to interpretation. It could not, however, compel the parties to it to love each other. For a while the threat of exclusion from the ‘fellowship’ of the wider community was sufficient to encourage ecclesias to support the concept of ‘Unity’, but it didn’t take long for some brethren and ecclesias to realise that nothing needed to change. They could still insist that their interpretation of Scripture was the only valid one; if they didn’t like the way other brethren said or did things they could try to isolate them in various ways; they could criticise, condemn or denigrate their brethren; and they didn’t have to do anything at all to help their brethren in any way! And everything was fine because we had ‘Unity’.

Many ecclesias, of course, are quite prepared to accept that other brethren and ecclesias do have differences of opinion on non-fundamental issues, and yet are prepared to acknowledge that these differences create no barrier to fellowship. These ecclesias are prepared to accept another Christadelphian at his or her word when they say they share the same faith. These ecclesias are not part of the problem.

The following steps must be taken before Unity in the Christadelphian brotherhood can be achieved.

1. Christadelphians must want Unity. They must do more than think Unity would be a nice ideal. There must be a genuine yearning for it.

2. There has to be a realisation that there can only be real fellowship between brethren when each of us, individually, has true fellowship with the Father and the Son. For reformation to occur in the brotherhood there must be a reformation in each of our lives. We must dedicate ourselves to prayer, meditation on the Word and to righteous living. Ronald Dunn wrote about ‘revival’ in the church:

“Revival has never come because men placed it on the calendar. It has come because God placed it in their hearts.” [4]

His words apply equally to reformation in the Christadelphian community. Unity and genuine fellowship can only be experienced if God has placed it in our hearts.

3. We must pray for Unity. It is a sad truth, however, that in some parts of our community there must first be a revival of praying. By this I mean there has to be a greater intensity of personal prayer. The only way to improve the quality of prayer in our meetings is to improve the quality of prayer in our personal lives. We must learn to talk with each other more frequently and openly about the power of prayer and learn to pray together.

“The church must learn to live in a kneeling position, for in order to pray for revival there must first be a revival of praying.” [5]

4. Once we recognise that fellowship and Unity come from God and not from human endeavour we will want to dissolve all our Unity and Fellowship Committees. We will view our man-made documents, our Statements of Faith, Unity Agreements, Resolutions and Creeds with the correct perspective. We will see them for what they are: man-made, fallible and inadequate. By then we will have come to learn our priorities and begun to focus on the growth of Spirituality. We must follow the apostle’s instruction to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), constantly renewing our commitment to truth and experiencing a deeper understanding of the Word of God.

5. We must trust in God. We must accept him at his word that he will meet all our needs [6]. With this trust we will submit ourselves to him and accept the Divine arrangements as the only ones suitable for our Body, realising that “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinth 12:18). Instead of attempting to cut off some parts, or trying to isolate them from the rest of the body, or dividing the body into segmented parts, we will endeavour to understand why God has placed them there and what contribution they are intended to make. We will seek to discover each one’s talent and to learn from them, realising that each member has a story to tell about his or her encounter with God.

Then we can experience real Unity and fulfil our ministry of reconciliation.

[1] Resolution passed at the Conference Business Session, Sydney, 1988. This meeting had to be held in Sydney due to the cancellation of the Adelaide Conference over an inability by the Adelaide ecclesias to reach an agreement on the basis of fellowship at the Conference.
[2] William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, London, 1964, p173.
[3] The Australian Christadelphian Shield, Editorial, November, 1993.
[4] Ronald Dunn, Don’t Just Stand There ... Pray Something!, Alpha, England, 1992, p217.
[5] Ibid, p232
[6] For example, see Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things” and 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness ...”