The gospel is a system of facts, commands, and promises, and no deduction or inference drawn from them, however logical or true, forms any part of the gospel. Our opinions about the gospel are not part of the gospel and therefore cannot be held as a threat over those who deny them. I am willing to surrender any opinion for the sake of unity, but I will not give up one fact, commandment, or promise of the gospel for the whole world. While there is but one faith, there may be a thousand opinions; and hence if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion.
These are some pretty bold words. They are even bolder still because they were spoken by “Raccoon” John Smith at the Campbell-Stone unity meeting in Lexington, Kentucky in 1832. One hundred and eighty-one years ago, this Elder of the Christian Church spoke clearly to us today – “our opinions…are not part of the gospel…”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of Love. Of this we can be sure, for Jesus himself said that the Greatest Commandment is to Love God, and that the second is to love each other. Disciple’s historian Leroy Garret wrote that “the Campbellites were far too rationalistic for the Stoneites, while the Stoneites were too “heartfelt” for the Campbellites. They had reasons enough to remain separated, and surely their differences were greater than many of those that keep the Movement divided today. The point is that they loved one another, a love that transcended the differences, a love that binds everything together in perfect harmony, as the apostle Paul puts it. Too, they realized that only a united church can lead the world to Christ, and they believed that their two groups shared in common those principles upon which the body of Christ could preserve the unity of the Spirit.”
“Only a united church can lead the world to Christ.” What a profound statement! It is very noble, but in actual practice, quite difficult. As our congregation approached the question of being an Open & Affirming congregation, our leaders took a great deal of time to pray, read scripture and come to individual decisions about what this would mean to them. We each had, and still have, our own opinions about the subject. But when the time came to “ask the question” of the congregation, we did not vote. We presented a Covenant document to the church over a period of four weeks. An overwhelming majority of the congregation signed this document, affirming the statement that “We love God, we serve others, and we welcome everybody (and we mean EVERYBODY!)”
Over the past year, we have experienced some amazing Spirit work in the church. We have seen men and women come to church with their partners and cry through an entire service at being accepted just as they are. We have welcomed almost 40 new members into the congregation, and we are seeing attendance at worship services that is astounding. No, we are not a big church, and our average Sunday attendance is around 80 or 90. Not too long ago, that would have been the attendance for Christmas or Easter.
We do not all come to the table from the same background. We don’t all share the same politics or even the same world view. Yet we do all agree on one thing – that all are welcome at the table. Jesus did not tell us to “Go into the world, judge the people you meet, and if you find them worthy, make them disciples.” No, what he said was for us to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt 28:19 NIV)
Being part of a congregation that welcomes all people to the table gives me great joy and hope for the future of the church.