On Saturday July 16 a huge crowd, one that organizers are hoping will approach one million people, will descend on the national mall in Washington D.C. for “Together 2016” a rally that ostensibly is about Christian unity. The organizers describe their aim and their event this way:
We believe there’s power in coming together. Jesus promised whenever two or more come together in His name, He is present. It’s emboldening to join with others, to know we’re not alone, to realize we can do more together than apart.
July 16, 2016 is the day when this generation lays down what divides us and lifts up Jesus who unites us. On a day of unified prayer, worship, and a call for catalytic change, we will meet on the National Mall to declare that Jesus changes everything.
We believe Jesus can do unprecedented things in our time. Our dream is for more than one million people from all backgrounds to be part of this generation-defining day.
Aside from the egregious misuse Matthew 18:20, which is about church discipline, not prayer rallies or meeting (and this particular misuse of Matthew 18:20 is the reason it appears on virtually every list of the most misused Bible verses), and the lack of clarity about what a “call to catalytic change” is or even what is to be changed, this on its face is not that bad of a statement.
However, things get a little stickier when they add this explanatory statement:
Jesus directly challenged a culture of division. He prayed we would be one—one family, one body. And He told us to love our enemies. Everyone loves their friends; it’s when we love those who aren’t like us that the world takes note. It’s time to come together around Jesus in a counter-cultural moment of unity and love for each other.
Jesus did pray for the unity of His disciples in John 17:21, but He also prayed that they would be sanctified in the truth and then defined truth as God’s word (John 17:17). Furthermore, he said He came not to bring peace but a sword, and that following Him would cause divisions, even within families (Matt 10:34-35). To that Paul adds “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers…what fellowship has light with darkness (2 Cor 6:14).”
Christian unity must, and can only be, unity around the truth and unity with other believers. And this is the real problem with “Together 2016.” The lineup of speakers and musical acts includes those who deny the gospel of grace, and replace it with the “gospel” of grace + good works, those who have replaced the forgiveness of sins promised in Christ with promises of earthly material rewards, those who supplant the truth of scripture about prayer with Jewish folk tales about how to manipulate God, those who promise (for a price of course) to be able to teach anyone to become a higher form of Christian, even those who practice a form of necromancy.
And so the question has to be asked can we have Christian unity with such people? And just what is at stake? In other words, does just saying the name “Jesus” act as a kind of Christian shibboleth, enabling us to lay aside all differences?
To the first question I would say (shout even) no! As believers we are commanded not to be yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14) and that is just what anyone who brings a different gospel is. Whether it is a gospel that requires more than the bible does for salvation (See Romans 10:9; Ephesians 2:8-9) or promises more than scripture does, like material prosperity, that is a different gospel. And Paul minced no words when he wrote to the Galatians “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal 1:8).” “Accursed” is anathema in Greek and it essentially means cut off. Paul is saying that anyone who brings another gospel is to be utterly cut off from the body of Christ. And to that 2 John 10-11 adds this stern warning, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching (the apostolic gospel), do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works”. (And earlier in the letter John, the apostle of love, calls anyone bringing false teaching about Christ an antichrist!)
(Here is a great short video of John Piper explaining why he “abominates” the prosperity gospel.)
False teachers have been with the church from the beginning, in fact Jesus warns about them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:15) and Paul warns the Ephesian elders that false teachers will arise inside of the church (Acts 20:30). We shouldn’t embrace a false teacher in the name of unity, we must be on guard against them.
And what is at stake is the stewardship of the gospel God has given to the church, and His Glory. This is truly weighty stuff.
The church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). And in context that truth is the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we unite under the banner of Jesus with those who preach and teach a different gospel, we are effectively communicating to the lost that those who teach that salvation is merited by good works, those who teach that the Kingdom of God is about having material prosperity in the here and know, and those who teach that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone and is concerned with eternal things not the temporal, all possesses a truth about how a sinful man or woman can be reconciled to a holy God. Can you imagine Peter answering the men of Jerusalem who cried out “Brothers, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37) or Paul and Silas responding to the desperate plea of the Philippian jailer of “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30) with “let me run through the options”?
Yet that is effectively what we are saying to the lost when we partner with those who preach a different gospel under the banner of Christ. And when church leaders join in this kind of togetherness, that message is sent to the people we serve too. We are effectively saying to our churches that the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is not an essential issue.
And when it comes to the glory of God and how participation in this kind of event impacts it, I think Paul’s words from Romans Chapter 2 are key. Writing about unbelieving Jews he says:
You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” – Romans 2:21-24
The reason I say this is a key text with implications for participation in the Together 2016 event is because the on their splash page, under the heading of “voices that will fill the mall” are a series of image blocks. The largest, and the one that sits on the centerline of the page, is a picture of Hillsong UNITED, a popular band associated with the scandal plagued Hillsong church of Sydney Australia. (I don’t want to hash through the details but the history of scandal goes back decades. If you really want to investigate here is a good place to start.)
When we put our arms around an organization like this and say they are one of us, we are sayings not only does theology not matter to our identity as Christians, but that obedience to Christ (see John 14:15), biblical morality, and basic human decency don’t matter either. And it is not just Hillsong United or the other representatives of the Hillsong brand. Many others on the list of confirmed speakers and musicians have a history of theological, financial, or personal scandal. When we join with those who have functionally denied the Lordship of Christ and the authority of His word under the banner of His name we are culpable in the dishonor they bring on His precious name. We wallow in the mud with them, and splash it on our precious Savior defiling His name.
Now I want to be clear, I am not saying we can only have Christian unity with those in lockstep agreement with our own theology. In fact, many of those I admire, and many of my friends in ministry have significant theological differences with me. I count those with different views on eschatology, ecclesiology, mode of baptism, the extent of the atonement, God’s sovereignty in salvation, continuationism vs cessationism and many other weighty issues as dear brothers and sisters in Christ. I think they are wrong on those issues; I believe I can demonstrate why they are wrong on those issues from Scripture yet I would gladly cooperate with them, as Christians, on any number of issues and projects.
And I am not saying that Christians should not cooperate with unbelievers. We should. There is nothing that prevents us or should prevent us from working together with unbelievers with a clear conscience. Whether it is working with unbelievers on a community food bank, or on a community clean up, or in disaster relief, or anything else we are free in Christ to do so. It is only when we say we are working together as Christians that a problem arises.
And I want to be especially, crystal, clear that I am not saying that all who will be participating in, or attending this rally are unbelievers. I am sure that some well-intended believers, not only those involved in this event but in many others like it, unthinkingly join together with unbelievers who claim the name of Christ, without ever thinking through these weighty issues.
Furthermore, it is not my intention to bind anyone’s conscience regarding this event or others like it. Rather I want to inform consciences. Who we join with as Christians is a weighty matter, and it must be thought through carefully, under the authority of Scripture. Having thought through these issues, I am firmly convicted that as a believer, I cannot join hands as Christians with those at the Together 2016 rally. I would humbly encourage you to think through these issues too before you attend or participate in Together 2016 or any of the related events.