Let’s just come out and say it: I am a Baptist, and I attend Southeastern University (a liberal arts university squarely seated within a Pentecostal tradition).
My first year attending Southeastern University was very challenging. It was as if my ears were like sonars and were programmed to track everything that I disagreed with. To be honest, being Baptist did not leave a lot of wiggle room in the area of disagreement. Ideologies can become pretty black and white in my tradition. At the time, I could only focus on the things that caused division. My heart was hardened to the possibility of accepting what I strongly disagreed with. I was uncomfortable with women preaching in chapel. I felt awkward when the preachers would encourage people to speak in strange tongues. And I was flabbergasted after listening to several sermons that were not a pure exposition of the Bible. I guess you could say that I was experiencing a form of culture shock.
Historically, the relationship between Baptists and Pentecostals has not exactly been quite Christ-like. There has been a lot of harm done that has tarnished the Christian witness. Many have tried to come together in unity that resulted in failed efforts. I thought that I had only two real choices in being a Baptist amongst Pentecostals. I could continue to be bitter about our differences, or I could ignore my Baptist convictions altogether. I knew that forcing myself to identify with Pentecostals would not work. This situation I found myself in is not unique. Many before me had struggled with this disunity with other members of the Church. Many of my friends from other denominations can relate to what I was experiencing. However, over time, disunity between Baptist and Pentecostals and other denominations alike have constructed a false divide.
It wasn’t until I became really good friends with someone who was strongly Pentecostal that I thought of another option. As our friendship grew, I realized he had a deep love for Scripture. As a Baptist who was formed by the idea of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), I immediately began to respect his heart-felt Pentecostal convictions. I finally had a real choice, a choice to embrace the differences for the sake of unity. I came to the conclusion that unity is forged, not forced. Unity does not happen when we fail to embrace others based on perceived differences. We cannot truly know the other, until we are ready to befriend them.
Our friendship validated a choice that didn’t seem like a real choice at first.
Although Baptists don’t typically see eye-to-eye with Pentecostals on many doctrines, I found it quite rewarding to live within a diverse faith community for the past three and a half years. Worshiping with people who expressed their love for God differently than I do broadened my understanding of the Church. The Church is not limited to my faith tradition, but is more inclusive than I could ever imagine. I found that diversity fashioned the opportunity for unity to exist among many denominations. I cherish the years that I spent in fellowship with my spiritual brothers and sisters during my time at Southeastern University. Diverse Christian environments are hard to come by. I can’t help but think of how heaven will be inclusive to those who my denomination and others may have excluded over the years.
I believe Christian unity best happens when we live well in our communities of conviction and love well across convictional lines. Love for Jesus and his glory is the thread that binds all of our denominational communities together. Whatever group we call our own, if it makes much of Jesus, we celebrate it together.
Of course, not all communities are equal in terms of doctrinal truth, just as there is no such thing as a denomination that is perfect in their doctrinal commitments. It has been said that “In the essentials, Unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, grace”. What are the essentials? Those doctrines that specifically deal with soteriology, or how one has a relationship with God (for a helpful understanding of this, go here). The list of denominations that would deny the essentials doctrines for salvation is actually quite small.
Christian unity best happens when we live well in our communities of conviction and love well across convictional lines.
Wherever we might find ourselves we must be kind to those who choose differently from us. Disunity must cease and we must embrace all of those who belong to the Church, for the sake of the Kingdom and those who need Christ. Regardless of the possible ramifications, we are to pray for unity. We are to love our denominational neighbors in all the ways the Bible says to love others. Maybe revisiting Mark 12:28 -34 could validate this new perspective for you, God willing. Therefore, we will love God with all that we have and love other Christian denominations as we love our own so that the message of Christ can reach those who do not know him. After all, how can we show people the love of Christ when we cannot even show it well to our own sisters and brothers in Christ?