Evangelical Catholicity and How To Foster It
Anyone who has spent a few minutes on Christian social media knows it’s not the best place to look for answers to Jesus’s upper room prayer: “may they be one.”
Rancor and division abound. Perhaps less obvious is how much division characterizes our church services themselves—not the social media division of argument and backbiting, but the division of mindlessness and neglect. We talk plenty about our own church’s programming, but how much do we pray for and talk about God’s work in other churches?
Compare that to the New Testament, where the churches regularly greeted one another (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:19), shared preachers and missionaries (2 Cor. 8:18, 3 John 5-6), supported one another financially (Rom. 15:25-26, 2 Cor. 8:1-2; 9:12), and prayed for one another (Eph. 6:18).¹
What we need is a better evangelical catholicity: an understanding of our partnership with churches everywhere. If we did a better job here, Christian social media might even look better.
How can we better foster an evangelical catholicity? As a Baptist preacher who cannot help himself, let me offer several “C’s” for a path forward.
CONFESSION AND CONVICTION
In order for evangelical catholicity to be truly evangelical, we must be able to faithfully answer the question, “What is the gospel?” Eternity hangs on its answer. The gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
19th-century English bishop J.C. Ryle said, “To keep gospel truth in the church is even of greater importance than to keep peace… Unity without the gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell.”
Neither must we sacrifice doctrinal distinctives to achieve unity. Our Triune God didn’t deliver the whole canon of Scripture, hoping we would pluck out the pieces necessary for salvation and then write off the rest. Scripture reveals truths that—while not essential to salvation—are essential to the health and maturity of believers, both individually and as God’s church.
Ecclesiology, the sacraments or ordinances, eschatology, and the work of the Spirit are among secondary doctrines that are crucial for biblical faith and practice. While different convictions about some of these issues might prevent believers from being members of the same church, those distinctions do not prohibit our foundational unity in the gospel.
COOPERATION AND CHARITY
“Good fences make good neighbors.” What Robert Frost prescribed for neighbors holds true for evangelicals, too. Our disagreements over important but non-essential matters lead us to live in different houses marked out by fences. And yet, the gospel frees us, as one pastor observed, to “keep clear fences. but keep them low, and shake hands over them often.”
How can we intentionally promote cooperation and charity?
1. Pray for Other Churches and Ministries.
Do your church members or ministry partners think you are in competition with other congregations or ministries? Or do they embrace the fact that Bible-believing saints with different convictions or philosophies of ministry are on the same team?
We can foster that insight by publicly praying for other churches and ministries. Demonstrating we are cheering for each other in Christ immediately undercuts any competitiveness.
2. Commend Other Churches and Ministries.
When was the last time you encouraged someone in your congregation she might thrive more in another church and had the freedom in Christ to make that change? When was the last time someone left your body for another gospel-preaching church and you rejoiced that God was doing good to her under someone else’s leadership?
Brother pastors, Christ’s sheep are not our possession. They belong to him. We did not purchase them with our blood. He bought them with his. If, for any number of reasons, Christ’s sheep might fare better in another gospel-preaching context, we should count it a privilege to be able to serve the Chief Shepherd by pointing one of his sheep elsewhere.
3. Cooperate with Other Churches and Ministries.
Years ago, local churches in my city with different convictions about secondary matters cooperated to host evangelistic lunchtime talks throughout our community. While this may not be possible in your context, there are other ways evangelical churches and ministries could cooperate with each other to advance the gospel, strengthen Christ’s church, and honor our distinct convictions.
Cooperation can begin by simply building friendships with other gospel laborers who have different beliefs about second- and third-tier issues.
For now, we still “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Let’s avoid giving the watching world any reason to say gospel people view each other darkly. Hear this wisdom from the early 17th century afresh: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
 This partial list taken from Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly, 104-05