Underlying assumptions about unity and partnership in church planting

There seems to be something of a superficially appealing view of unity that does the rounds when it comes to church planting. Why, for example, will X church not partner with Y church in the planting of a new church? Why isn’t X church sending half its members to Y church? Why, some wonder, are we planting a church there when there seem to be other churches there already? Can’t we all just partner together nicely for the sake of the gospel?

I think there are several potential assumptions underlying these sorts of questions. One is that all the churches in the area are at all credible. That is to say, I think we are often overly charitable about soundness. Would we realistically send people to a local affirming Anglican or Methodist Church that already exists? Would we really send people to that Nigerian Prosperity Preaching church? I think it would be less than excellent to have two FIEC or Gospel Partnership churches planted on top of one another, but might we be overly charitable about what is credible? It strikes me those on the ground are best placed to know, not those of us looking in from a distance.

Another underlying assumption – which I think is all too prevalent – is that ecclesiology just doesn’t matter. Why can’t a Presbyterian, a Baptist, an Anglican, someone from the Brethren, a Congregationalist, a New Frontiers person, a Vineyard member, uncle Tom Cobley and all get together and plant a church? The issues are obvious when you think about them for a second. As much as we might want to relegate everything to the realms of “second order issues”, we nevertheless actually have to do something when it comes to those issues.

We can’t simultaneously submit to bishops and call ourselves independents (regardless of what some Church of England folk are currently trying to claim!) We can’t be congregational and elder-rule-only at the same time. We can’t be complementarian and egalitarian, with women both preaching and not preaching, in eldership and not in eldership. We can’t express the miraculous spiritual gifts like charismatics and at the same time reject them entirely as functional, or actual, cessationists. We can’t insist we believe credobaptism is properly biblical, or paedobaptism is properly biblical, whilst doing both (dual practice being, by definition, paedobaptist as every paedobaptist church baptises professing adults too!) None of this is to say what line anyone should take on any of these matters, but we do have to take a line.

If we are convinced any of these things might be properly biblical matters, how can we join a church doing what we think is necessarily unbiblical? Some of the things we may be content ourselves to set aside, others we may find more difficult. Some may be happy with different views on baptism but not on women elders. Other may be fine with different polity but not with differing approaches on charimata. I am yet to meet a believer who really only looks for an essentialist gospel and no more; we all draw our lines. Calling a matter “second order” doesn’t make it unimportant nor does it make it okay for us to join a church doing it in the face of what we think the Bible teaches. Some argue these are just “stylistic” matters. Other (rightly in my view) insist that although they are not first-order gospel issues – we can still say here are brothers and sisters in Christ – these are nonetheless important matters of biblical fidelity that would be sin for us in the face of what our conscience – captive to scripture – tells us is right.

Most importantly, we recognise that we are about more than just conversion. The church exists to make disciples, which means discipleship matters. We cannot consider it very helpful to send people to places to be discipled that are doing things we think are unbiblical! There may well be a church in an area that essentially preaches the gospel. That is, if somebody went to that church they would hear that they need to trust in Christ in order to be saved. Though we never grow beyond the gospel, we also know it has far greater implications for our lives than merely whether we get to Heaven to be with Jesus or not. A church that operates on the understanding that the only thing of import is getting your ticket into Heaven is going to have some significant discipleship issues to contend with that might make it a difficult place to direct people towards. I don’t think it entirely illegitimate to say – though I am sure if you went to an evangelistic meeting at that place you would hear the gospel – we are concerned that nobody in that area has anywhere they can go to find out what the implications of believing the gospel actually mean. if you can’t direct people in an area to a particular church to be discipled, what exactly is the answer? Surely it is to plant somewhere where you will be confident they will be discipled, not only hearing the gospel, but coming to understand its implications for their lives. That strikes me as more than a “stylistic” matter.

Another underlying assumption is that all the sound churches that exist in the area already (assuming we’ve judged soundness rightly and there aren’t any significant second order issues as we judge it) can actually reach the whole area. Is it likely that a church on a particular council estate is going to draw in people from all over a borough? Is a middle class church away from an estate likely to draw people from the estate who tend not to want to come off the estate at all? In cities, towns and boroughs, what are the local barriers that mean, though only a mile or two apart, this church simply will not reach that area? FIEC recently did a podcast with three church leaders in London, some of whom were planting down the road from one another. To an outsider, that might seem a bit odd. But all recognised that, though only a mile apart, the communities they are reaching are so vastly different and the worldview in their respective places such that they could see their church would not reach these people from where they are. Again, we have to recognise people on the ground will know better than those of us, with the eyes of contextual outsiders, assume that we know looking on.

Nevertheless, we also have to accept some on the ground will have vested interests. There are those doing the planting who simply see planting, of itself, as an inherent good. More churches is always better, they aver. Some are seeking to build their name through church planting. Never mind what it may do to churches on the ground already, we are planting because it serves our purposes rather than the cause of the gospel. There are also vested interests from those on the ground. There can be a self-interested mindset that worries about people encroaching onto “our patch”. There is a fear that people might now choose that church rather than this church. There can be worries that supporters might decide to support that new church rather than this existing one. Vested interests abound on all sides. Sometimes, those doing the planting should be challenged about whether their church really is needed in that place. Other times, churches on the ground should be challenged to not be so insular and recognise that they are not going to reach the entire area alone, cannot reach the area a new church is going into or just to be more kingdom-minded. But it can be easy as outsiders to assume we know the realities when those on the ground often know better. Even our mates may have their vested interests too.

Finally, we can often assume as outsiders looking at new plants near existing churches that partnership is not actually going on. I have already noted the FIEC podcast in which local churches were working together on nearby plants. Similarly, we planted a church 6 miles away from us in Rochdale. Whilst that church is in another borough, and separated naturally by a motorway bridge crossing over a road, our reach as a church goes up to Royton and Shaw which is just next door (places equidistant from us and the new plant). On top of that, the church we planted is headed up by a paedobaptist ex-Anglican and functions in line with some of those ecclesiological convictions. As a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist – and re-reading that bit above about the importance of ecclesiology – how is it that we could reasonably plant that? I think the answer is simple and simultaneously undercuts the naïve approach to unity in planting I outlined at the start.

It is because ecclesiology matters – and because we have convictions that make it difficult to be in the same church – we both agree another kind of church might be warranted. All parties affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. But all parties also recognise planting a church together, where we have to make some decisions about what we actually do in practice, would be extremely difficult. But we can support a new church being setup in line with their own convictions, that we can affirm as a bible-believing, gospel-preaching church whilst still maintaining our respective ecclesiological convictions.

I think it is a false view of catholicity to say, I am fine with this thing that you think is sin so you must adjust yourselves to welcome me. That is not catholic at all. That is, rather, imposing your convictions onto another church. It is allowing the conscience of the individual to hold a whole church captive against their collective conscience. Rather, I think catholicity is best expressed when a church says, we cannot welcome you here because of our biblical convictions but I can point you to a good church down the road that preaches the same gospel who have different convictions on the matter at hand. I think catholicity is best expressed when a person says, because of their convictions, they cannot abide by yours and – if there is no other suitable church in the area – you help them plant a church where their convictions can be accommodated and recognise them as a true church thereafter. That is the kind of catholicity that recognises brother and sisters but also doesn’t seek to quash anybody’s conscience. That is in contrast to the rather naïve view I outlined at the start that insists everybody must submit to the lowest common denominator and all must quash their convictions in the face of what they honestly believe the Bible demands. They insist it is for the sake of the kingdom, but it is hard to see how the kingdom is served by going against conscience, which the Bible calls sin (cf. Rom 14:22-23).

The issue, then, is what does meaningful partnership look like? I think we can pray for one another. We can ask the Lord to help maintain gospel preaching churches and to lead them to healthiness. We can support with finances. If we recognise this is a good church, albeit one we might not join for legitimate second-order reasons, we can still support its ministry financially. That is precisely what we have done. We wanted a good, Bible-teaching church in the town of Rochdale to whom we could direct people. We now have that. We have supported it financially, even though I couldn’t co-pastor it given our respective positions on certain ecclesiological matters. We are even happy to direct people for whom the ecclesiological issues at play are not a matter of conscience because, apart from one secondary matter, we are certain they would be discipled well and built up in Christ. If that is not a matter of conscience for them, we would be glad to send them to support. After all, each one must be fully convinced in his own mind (cf. Rom 14:5). If they are not convinced the issues are matters of sin, there is no reason not to encourage them to go and support, not passing judgement on them or refusing to recognise them as a brother or sister.

There are some nuances at any rate. For example, one might be unhappy as an elder of a church doing something – being as they would have to implement it and expect the church to follow – but not have the same issues as a member submitting to the rule of other elders on the matter. Others may object to a matter if they are asked to do it, but do not have any such concern with others being permitted to do the thing (whatever it may be). There are always nuances to these things and there is often a difference between what a church might do by conviction and how an individual might feel about it personally. There are differences between how a person might feel about a thing as a pastor or elder and how they feel as a member. There are differences in how some feel being asked to do a thing themselves or merely permitting others to do a thing without it being required of them. Nevertheless, the point is that we can still support and partner with other churches with different ecclesiology and polity, and even some differing theology, without crushing our personal convictions. Sometimes helping to plant a church is the very way to do it.

One comment

  1. Thanks Steve, it’s good to get a sense of things being important even if they are not of first importance. I think it is also helpful to distinguish unity in fellowship and support v unity in attempting to plant together. I know of people considering planting a church in the same town one from FIEC other New Frontiers. They probably will plant different churches and the town I think needs more than one church. So best to plant separately but to get to know each other, talk together, shard plans, pray for each other

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