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Summers are traditionally a time for vacation, and that was certainly true of my youth. Besides journeys to visit grandparents and time spent on the beach, however, summers during my high school years usually involved one kind of church retreat or another. These were not your ordinary, garden-variety retreats made up solely of people who were members of my local congregation. No, these retreats were a broader affair, involving people from all sorts of denominations in my hometown of Miami, Florida. Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, non-denominational evangelicals, and even Roman Catholics were all represented on these spiritual getaways, making them ecumenical in a very strong sense.
I do look back on these retreats with a certain fondness, for I believe God did use them to instruct me about important topics like service and repentance. The need for personal faith in Christ was always stressed as well, along with a call for us to be actively involved in the churches we represented — all invaluable truths if ever there were any.
Yet hindsight is often twenty-twenty, and I would not encourage anyone to attend them today, despite the good these retreats did for me. In order for these gatherings to take place and welcome Roman Catholics along with Protestants, there had to be a white-washing of the important differences that separate these bodies. Certainly, the church of Rome and the heirs of the Reformation hold many beliefs in common, but essential components of the biblical Gospel separate us. Until Rome abandons its understanding of justification, the role Mary supposedly plays in redemption, and other such distinctives, a committed, Bible-believing Christian cannot in good conscience affirm the Roman system as a valid pathway to Christ. To participate in a spiritual retreat like this would be, in effect, to affirm the fallacies of Rome.
That being said, I hope that my commitment to the visible unity of the church is as strong as my conviction of the truths of the Gospel. After all, we often think that we can have one without the other. Of course, the invisible unity all Christians share is important, but we too often act as if Jesus is really not all that interested in visible unity. But how will the world know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35) when we are lobbing insults at each other because we do not like anyone to disagree with us over baptism, the Sabbath, eschatology, and so on? Believe me, the pagan does not see us as one in the Spirit when we all confess the Nicene Creed and then tear down each other over the timing of the rapture. The unbeliever also has difficulty understanding how Christians can possibly love one another when we are dispersed across many different denominations.
So even though I would steer clear of the retreats from my past today, I still want to be someone who, without sacrificing truth, embraces the spirit of love and unity these retreats tried to promote, albeit at the expense of vital doctrines. To that end I have made several commitments:
First, I will strive not to disrupt the unity of the individual church of which I am a member. This means that I will endeavor never to grumble to my leaders nor join with other members who might disparage them behind their backs (Heb. 13:17). I will submit to the elders in every decision until the day they deny the Gospel itself, which, Lord willing, shall never happen. In other words, I will not make my opinions the standard by which I evaluate my church.
Second, I will maintain contact with my Christian friends who do not attend my church. Since I am a member of an independent, Reformed congregation, this necessarily means that the friendships I have with Christians outside of my local church body are friendships with those in different denominations. May I never be unconcerned with how God is moving in other parts of the body of Christ.
Third, I will seek to understand the nonessential doctrines found in other traditions in order that I might respect them and not dismiss them outright. If all believers did this, our thoughts and discussions would be more civil. We might even learn from each other and find a new consensus on issues
that might promote visible unity.
My fourth commitment is to pray for the peace and purity of the church. My heart is not yet as broken as it should be over the disunity of the church, and only the Holy Spirit can make me long truly and deeply for Christians to be one again. Without such longing, I will not be motivated to work for the unity of the church.
Of course, I share these promises not merely to tell you about myself, I share them in the hopes that you will make them with me. If they can help, even if in a small way, to help believers work for a unity based on the clear truths of the Bible, then I will consider all this talk of retreats and commitments a heavenly success.