In one of the missionary passages of the New Testament, the Apostle John reported to Jesus that the disciples had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and had tried to stop him. The reason John gave was that “he does not follow with us” (Luke 9:49).
For John, it made sense that anyone who was going to be doing what disciples do ought always to be going where disciples go. But that is not always the case. In fact, Jesus reproached John for his lack of discernment: “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for the one who is not against you is for you” (v. 50).
In the life and work of the church, it is tempting to think that those who are not worshiping and evangelizing with us are in some way not really worshiping or evangelizing at all. Yet the principle that Jesus enunciates requires application and living out in our work and witness day by day. Behind it lie three significant realities.
First, none of us is able to fulfill the Great Commission on his own. Christ’s command to the church that follows Him and professes His Lordship is for the church to make disciples from all nations. The Apostles who originally heard that commission were small in number but had the promise and prospect of growth. The Great Commission grows with the church; we are all in it together.
Second, the enemies of our enemies are sometimes our friends. There are only two camps. Jesus would repeat this principle in a slightly different way in Luke 11:23: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Whatever divisions or subgroups there may be in the church, ultimately it is a case of being either for Jesus or against Him.
Third, in all the work of the kingdom of God, it remains true that “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Sam. 17:47). We are only instruments in the hands of the Captain of our salvation, and we are entirely dispensable. God can do His work without us, even though He ordinarily opts to do it through us. When we think of the work of the kingdom, therefore, we ought always to think of it not in terms of what we do but in terms of what God is doing by us and through us.
Yet, it is we who are to strive, engage, fight, strategize, and go forward in the name of the Lord. We cannot do it on our own—we must do it alongside our friends. They may hold different church credentials, but in the matter of the gospel, they are on our side. We are all, to use Paul’s phrase, “fellow-workers,” both with God (1 Cor. 3:9) and with each other (Phil. 4:3).
How do we identify our fellow workers in the spiritual work of evangelism and mission? Let me suggest several things.
First, we work alongside those who have a high view of the Bible. We associate with those who can say “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) and who will affirm that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). If it is by His Word that God changes lives (1 Peter 1:23), makes His people holy (John 17:17), and establishes them in the faith, then we can work alongside those who believe what the Bible says about itself.
There may be some aspects of the doctrine of Scripture that will cause debate and discussion—even the best theologians in the Reformed tradition have had their intra-confessional disagreements in articulating the doctrine of the Word of God—but if we can aver with our fellow Christians that there is no other book besides the Bible in which God has spoken definitively and finally, then we can associate and cooperate with them.
Second, we work alongside those who are prepared to defend the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ. When it comes to saving souls, He does not share the stage with any—He stands alone. “I am the way,” He says. “No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). The pluralism of contemporary society cannot swallow such a claim, but it must be the beginning and end of all discussion for us. There is no right association that compromises the integrity of Jesus’ claims, and the claims of the New Testament of Him: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We must surely associate with those whose answer to the problem of human sin is exclusively the cross of Jesus Christ—by grace alone through faith alone.
Third, we associate with all those who believe in a substitutionary, unrepeatable, sin-oriented, complete atonement by Jesus’ death and resurrection. By His own admission, Jesus came to lay down His life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), to bear our penalty, pay our debt, and carry away our guilt. His death on the cross was no less than an example to us, but it was also far more than that: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Fourth, we associate with all those who are prepared to say this to people: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). “Repent and be converted” was the message of the Apostles (see Acts 3:19). To affirm human choices or to condone all kinds of relationships without exception is not the Christian way. Indeed, the gospel way is to say that our choices, according to our sinful inclination, are hostile to God and rebellious. We need to be changed. We need God’s grace to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
But even when we have affirmed and agreed that we have a biblical duty as well as a warrant for such association, how should it work out in practice? In many places, it is already working out in practice, as Christians, notwithstanding their differences on matters of church life and practice or their disagreements on polity and liturgy, work together with common purpose.
This happens in a variety of ways. In the rural communities of Scotland where I minister, three local churches share the youth work, evangelizing young children and teenagers by common participation in different activities. Different denominations are represented locally on various bodies that seek to maintain a witness to Christ in the public sphere. And nationally, my denomination is involved in evangelical and Reformed groupings with a view to mutual encouragement and co-working.
But such associations do not simply happen. They need to be prayed over, discussed, organized, and thought through. In many cases, someone has to take the initiative. To be involved in such cooperation may require adjustments of perception and comfort, but more is always gained than lost.
The fragmentation of the Christian church is not something we can easily defend, nor is it something about which we can afford to be complacent. Yet unity can happen without it being formal and institutionalized. Indeed, sometimes it is best to affirm our distinctness while working in harmony and cooperation with those who love the same gospel of the same Lord that we do.
In 1 Corinthians 14:12, Paul counsels us to “strive to excel in building up the church.” If we truly love the body of Jesus Christ, we will see that no part of it can exist on its own. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). It is because we need one another that we need to associate with those who are themselves part of that body of Jesus that is the church. To be many yet one—that is our challenge. After all, are we not meant to be like God—the three-in-one—Himself?