As many of you will have picked up, we are currently moving forward with plans to plant into Rochdale. The borough has a population of c. 220,000 people and at least one bible teaching church serving it. But the town of Rochdale, as distinct from the borough, has c. 110,000 people and no Bible-teaching, gospel-centred church within its boundaries. The need is great.
And it is no secret that the church we are going to plant, whilst sharing all of our core gospel convictions and Reformed theology, is not going to be identical to Oldham Bethel Church. But I want to offer a few reasons why I think it is right and proper to support church plants, even planting those churches ourselves, that are not exactly like us.
First and foremost, the need pushes us to support churches that are not identical to us. The fact is, there are 110,000 people in the town of Rochdale, the overwhelming majority of whom do not know Christ and do not have access to a Bible-believing church that preaches the gospel. People are waltzing headlong into a lost eternity and it does not seem wise or kind to allow them to do so because the means by which we can do anything about it does not square with all of our secondary and tertiary doctrines. That is not to relegate any of those things to the category of being unimportant, it is simply to say the need vastly outstrips the priority for purity.
Coupled to the previous point, often the opportunity to plant with those who hold to every theological jot and tittle that we do simply is not there. All things being equal, we would naturally rather plant churches that share all of our theological convictions, from the greatest to the least of them, because we believe that is what the scriptures teach and don’t view it lightly. But we also have to reckon with the fact that we could wait forever and day for such a planter or set of persons to turn up.
When faced with the need before us – tens of thousands of people heading for Hell because they have no access to a church that proclaims the gospel – it makes most sense to us to plant with the gospel preaching, Bible-believing people who will go (despite our differences) than to wait for the one who shares all our views who may simply never appear. The choice is ultimately between a church that is not absolutely in our image or no church at all. Faced with that choice, the answer seems obvious enough.
The benefits of difference
One difference we may have is over the ordinances. Without getting into all the whys and wherefores here, the bottom line is that we can’t welcome paedobaptists into membership of our church because our theological convictions tell us that they haven’t been baptised. They have not come through the doorway to membership that we believe Jesus and the Apostles laid down for the church. Now, I don’t want to argue about that here, you can read other posts on this blog to read why we take that position (bottom line: we think it’s biblical).
In most places, there is no reason for this to be a problem. Paedobaptists would tend to want to go to a church that shares their convictions and everybody is happy. But occasionally, there is nowhere for them to go. This is particularly true in towns where there is no church (that is, ultimately, why we are planting them!) What are we to do under those circumstances? It seems to me, we do well to help them plant. This is good because it gives us somewhere for us to send believers whom we cannot welcome into our own church without undermining our own ecclesiology and theological convictions. Rather than de-churching people altogether, we provide a means for them to belong somewhere whilst maintaining our own convictions and ecclesiology.
The fact is, I don’t think those who differ from me in their theological and ecclesiological convictions, if they subscribe to the same core gospel convictions as us, are not believers. I think there are important doctrines for the church on which they are wrong. But I don’t think these things place them outside of the fold altogether. We might not be able to sit in the same local church, but we still believe in one holy catholic church.
The question is, how do we express our catholicity when we can’t sit in the same church together in membership? For me, I don’t believe catholicity is served well by insisting that others have to go against their conscience, and pretend theological convictions they hold are immaterial, by forcing them to welcome you. Instead, catholicity is best served (in my view) when we recognise that though you can’t belong to this church, I still recognise that you belong to the church. Despite our theological differences that mean we can’t belong to the same local church, I can recognise you as brothers and sisters within your own church.
This is relevant to church planting. First, we recognise the first two points made above. There is a need for a gospel preaching church and we can’t necessarily create one that looks exactly like us. We can then acknowledge that, under other circumstances, it would be hard for you to join us in our church we can affirm you as believers by helping you create your own church. We are working together in the gospel in creating one, we are prepared to support it and work together in gospel ministry, without either one of us forcing each other to go against our consciences and convictions by insisting that we welcome each other in our churches against what we believe to be Biblical.
As such, I think helping and facilitating the planting of churches that are markedly different to your own – even holding convictions that mean you wouldn’t sit in the same church together but you do preach the same gospel – is an excellent means of expressing gospel generosity and upholding catholicity.
The nature of independency
Perhaps this one is more significant if you (or what you are planting) are committed to independency. But the nature of independency is such that we believe churches are just that; independent. That means that I cannot insist that your church does A, B or C. But if we are truly committed to independency, particularly if we plant independent churches, we have to be committed to the fact that they may not express every theological conviction that we hold. They may do some things differently to us.
Of course, we all have our lines. There are some things we might not be able to countenance supporting in another church. We will all draw those lines differently. But if we can’t cope with any theological divergence whatsoever, no ecclesiological differences of any sort, it might suggest that we’re not really committed to independency at all.