Monday, 3 August 2009

Two models of CU unity

I'll carry on drawing together some thoughts from others on unity in future posts, but here's something that's been buzzing around my head for a wee while on unity. What does it look like in practice to maintain unity in an interdenominational setting like a CU?

It occurs to me that there are two models.

The first model is a kind of 'lowest common denominator' approach. Speakers in this model are instructed to only present Biblical teaching that all members present can agree with (i.e. from within the Doctrinal Basis). If a speaker presents an issue outside of this band of core teaching (and if particularly they teach on a 'secondary' issue that falls outside of the Doctrinal Basis) they might be reprimanded or encouraged next time to focus on core issues (depending on the amount of graciousness shown by CU members). In the model, 'tolerance' is defined by limiting what might cause offence or discomfort. In practice I think this model often leads to the domination of whatever the most popular church background in the CU is.

It seems to me that a better approach would be a second model. In this model, speakers are encouraged to pitch their material bearing in mind that the CU is a short-term interdenominational mission team. However, when they believe that the passage or issue that they have been asked to speak upon requires teaching on a 'secondary issue', they feel free to teach it (albeit humbly bearing in mind that other evangelicals can also have Scripturally-driven positions that are different to their own). CU members bear in mind that within the CU setting, they agree to agree upon the core doctrines of the gospel (as summarised in the Doctrinal Basis) but agree to disagree upon secondary issues. Therefore, so long as the speaker is led by Scripture in their teaching of a secondary issue, they are willing to receive such teaching (even if it is very different from the position they themselves hold). In this model, 'tolerance' is defined by loving somebody as a brother or sister for whom Christ died, even when they hold a position of theology that is very different from your own. It is looking somebody in the eye and saying that you are glad they are part of a gospel-focused mission team with you (and saying this even if you might never join their church).

It seems to me that the second model is stronger than the first model, and closer to the Biblical model of unity than the first. It is harder to achieve, because it is requires a strong understanding of what CUs are about, and a thorough focus upon grace. But I think it is worth striving for.

I once remember a colleague speaking of how, ideally, each CU member should come away from a CU central gathering feeling slightly frustrated, because not everything was done in a way that matched their own preferences and positions of secondary doctrine. However, he said, in this sense of general dissatisfaction, there is great satisfaction - modelling together great unity in the gospel, and being more effective on campus as a group than a whole host of smaller groups ever could be by themselves.


dave bish said...

That's very good Pete.
The second model is vastly better.

Zac Wyse said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this stuff, Dray. Here are some of my jumbled thoughts/concerns. It feels like neither of those work. Help me out!

CU students rarely have a grasp of the teachings that are within the DB; therefore, they won't identify teachings that are outside of it. Local churches support the CU on the assumption that the CU won't contradict what they're trying to teach the students at church.
(I can imagine a church that teaches the continuing validity of tongues and prophecy being quite put-off that a cessationist position is advocated from the front of the main meeting, or vice versa.) If that happens, we could be standing in the way of, or at least causing great confusion in, their elders' ability to pastor and disciple them.

I don't think that the minimalist position is even possible where the Scripture is being proclaimed, though. People who think that they can approach the Scripture with a minimalist set of doctrine (and leave the rest behind) are deceiving themselves. Every person approaches the Scripture with presuppositions that relate to all the secondary doctrines. Each passage will inevitably require someone to utilize those presuppositions (easy examples are a covenantal vs. a dispensational hermeneutic & a baptist or presbyterian approach to OT Israel). Even people who disavow systematics use systematics. We may only explicitly discuss the stuff on the DB at a main meeting, but systematics come out implicitly in the talk, as well.

Little Mo said...


I can't agree with this.

"we could be standing in the way of, or at least causing great confusion in, their elders' ability to pastor and disciple them."

This seems to me, if you'll forgive me, to rest on a pseudo Catholic view of discipleship which sees it as "coming to my pastor's view about most things".

I actually think it is very healthy for students from, say CCL, to hear teaching from people other than me (within bounds set by the db) This provokes genuine searching of the scriptures to divine truth in those who want to know. That's the type of discipleship I want to see.

Furthermore - I think my pastoring of students at CCL in terms of Christian character developing is me, as one of their pastors guiding them through the process of loving Christians with whom they disagree. In a world where there are so many churches, without CUs people never experience this learning to love.

peterdray said...

Hi Zac

I guess I'd start to respond to some of these concerns like this:

'CU students rarely have a grasp of the teachings that are within the DB; therefore, they won't identify teachings that are outside of it.' - Yes, that's true in part. However, I don't think it's unrealistic to get students to the point where they understand what the core of the gospel is. I think most CU students that have been involved for a while would be able to discern between those teachings 'of first importance' and other teachings.

'Local churches support the CU on the assumption that the CU won't contradict what they're trying to teach the students at church. [...] If that happens, we could be standing in the way of, or at least causing great confusion in, their elders' ability to pastor and disciple them.' Again I think this point has some mileage in it, but I don't think it's insurmountable. Local churches can (and should) rightly expect rigorous gospel focus from CU. However, I think that so long as when a secondary position is taught from the front it's made clear that there are differences of opinion ("This is my understanding, but there are other Christian views in this area...") many of these problems evaporate. Students will inevitably come across these secondary issues anyway: surely church elders would rather that these issues were tackled in a safe environment, where students are encouraged to speak to their church leaders.

I don't think that the minimalist position is even possible where the Scripture is being proclaimed.... I totally agree. But I think that the first 'model' of unity is one that several CUs go for, including one of the CUs that I (used to) work with. But I think this model causes more problems than it helps.

What do you reckon?

peterdray said...

whoops just noticed Mo posted as well! Thanks for adding an elder's perspective.

dave bish said...

"I don't think that the minimalist position is even possible where the Scripture is being proclaimed.... I totally agree. But I think that the first 'model' of unity is one that several CUs go for, including one of the CUs that I (used to) work with. But I think this model causes more problems than it helps."

The minimalist position also ends up being some people's position - i.e. charismatic gifts.

I say, teach the word, enjoy the gospel, engage with the meaty issues on which we differ, learn to love those we differ from rather that pretending we don't differ at all (Mo: excellent point!) and then get on mission together.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right - as a former CU exec member who used to get very anxious when speakers went into "secondary issue" territory, however, I'm wondering what the best way to deal with Christians who go away from their first couple of CU meetings feeling slightly dissatisfied might be. Sad to say, not every Christian in the CU I am part of saw the greater satisfaction of unity in amongst the many little dissatisfactions of "secondary issues" and so a fair number of my evangelical Christian friends feel that they don't belong at CU or aren't welcome at CU because of something a speaker said which they don't agree with. How can the student leaders of a CU best minimise the potential for people feeling like this?

Dave K said...

It does not solve everything, but I think the number one way to maintain unity is to be outward looking.

If we look inward as churches and CUs we see the differences with one another as big deals. If we look outward then the gulf between those with hope in Christ and those who don't is enormous. Suddenly our issues are very much secondary.

That is not a magic bullet though as reality is messy.

dave bish said...

A strong mission focus helps, as does being upfront about what does unite the CU - the vision, values and a doctrinal basis of fellowship which in no way means that everyone agrees about everything...

Zac Wyse said...

Thanks for that. The bit where you suggest that the speaker informs the students of a secondary issue is really helpful. If that were the practice, I'd be up for #2.

Amazing how quickly "Catholic" gets brought out. You seem to be assuming a lot. I'm not advocating an exact reproduction of one's pastor in the slightest!
Assume that a pastor has taken vows to teach his flock the whole counsel of God (I hope that's a safe assumption, & I hope we can agree that a CU doesn't attempt that.). Now, assume that a local church has a confession which they hold. I'm not talking about the pastor's opinion, but rather a confession that belongs to the church family/denomination, which the pastor has a responsibility to teach. Churches believe that such a set of truths create love and unity toward others, not destroy it; therefore, they should be proclaimed and understood.
CCL's DB is relatively similar to UCCF's DB when compared with, say, a church confessing the London Baptist Confession or the WCF. CCL elders won't find as much deviation from their standards as a church confessing those aforementioned standards would. My concern is simply that allowing free reign for secondary issues in the CU would actually prevent Christian unity because churches such as Grace Baptist churches could find that these things are too difficult to work with (I'm experiencing one such example in Mancs). It would be very easy for something to be taught every other week at the CU main meeting that is "contra-confessional" in those denominations. That would put a great strain on the pastor/elders as they attempt to exercise their ordination vows. And we don't want to make evangelical unity something that churches with a more extensive confessions cannot sign up to. That would be quite opposed to the Protestant roots that we claim to stem from.
Furthermore, when churches hear that we are passionate about our DB, it seems that they would need to understand that extra-DB things may be taught. We cannot assume that they understand or would be in favor of such an option. We may value secondary issues being taught, but we can't assume that everyone would.

Little Mo said...


Sorry. Shouldn't have used the "c" word. I apologise.
First a few clarifications: CCL's basis of faith is similar (although not identical) to UCCF's but our doctrinal distinctives and emphases, which I also have to (happily) teach in accord with in church are very extensive.
I am still happy for a student at CCL to hear something different on one of those (say predestination) at CU and to work out, with my help as their Pastor how we should understand the Scriptures. I WANT them to see that there are other opinions and work them out from the Bible.
Maybe the difference is that churches with a more extensive DB or whatever think that unquestioning acceptance will create growth and unity. I think it will merely create frustration and control.
Sadly, what these churches tend to do is respond by withdrawing from any Christian who can't sign up to their extensive confession. And thus the church becomes a self selecting homogenous group. I am as Calvinist as the day is long, but I LONG for our students to love Arminians.
Finally, I would say this. The Bible seems to have two categories: those who are believers and those who are not. There is no third "believer but so mistaken I don't have to love them as a brother." Unless a pastor is saying that the WCF defines who is Christian (and most aren't) he has to work out how to teach his students to love other Christians who disagree. Putting up with contra-confessional teaching on secondary things is, I think, the price. Their mileage may vary!

Zac Wyse said...

Thanks for your thoughts on that, Mo. I think we're nearly on the same page right now.

I, too, would want church members to be confronted with other opinions and wrestle with Scripture and the Church's reflections on Scripture throughout history. I agree that unquestioning acceptance is bad. Everyone needs to know what they believe and why they believe it.

A final thought that concerns me. I hope this makes sense... We need to remember that the Scriptures don't specify that "loving Christians that differ on secondary issues" means "participating in para-church organizations". The Scripture doesn't even command para-church organizations (IMO they are legitimate but not instituted - a secondary view!), so this cannot become a standard of unity and love. How one applies this command "to love" is itself a secondary issue, so we cannot call "withdrawing from CUs" a violation of this principle of unity. As a Calvinist, I think that working with Arminians in UCCF (which I'm happy to do) is a great way to apply that command, but I don't think that it should become a standard that other Calvinists need to sign up to in order to love an Arminian. If we make it a standard, we are adding standards for unity that God has never instituted. (Sort me out if that doesn't make sense!)

Little Mo said...

Makes sense Zac and I agree.

But an issue for Reformed (and Charismatic actually) churches which they do need to address is - how to love those believers with whom I disagree. Withdrawal will not do. I remember once having this discussion on my blog and someone saying "you can't do evangelism with anyone from outside your denomination." Surely not!

So you are right, the command is to love, not to join CUs. But you are disobeying the command if you won't join CUs simply because you do not love.

Marcus said...

Great post Pete. Won't surprise you to know I am with the second view as well.

I think it depends how it is done. I have heard speakers present what most people think is a secondary as either (a) a essential gospel primary or (b) completely irrelevant, unimportant or anti-gospel. They undermine graceful dialogue and interdenominational working within a DB.

On the other hand I have heard speakers do great justice to a subject and a CU by saying something like this: "the passage touches on some issues where there are real disagreements (including in this room). I don't want to ignite trouble but don't want to duck them either. So let me lay out the main positions believers take and then try to show you from the Bible why I prefer one of them."

CUs ought to be places where people learn to hear other evangelicals, live and do outreach together and learn from each other with grace and kindness

peterdray said...

Thanks all, I've personally found the discussions very helpful here. Marcus thanks for showing how this sort of thing can be done best in practice.

Agapw - I think it's very important to set out the stall of what CU is early on. It's, of course, a matter of wisdom. But perhaps it would be more sensible to focus on some of the really key ground in early meetings, really celebrating all that we have in common. That then provides the starting point for a framework to tackle issues where we may disagree.

Scott Thomson said...

Excellent post and really interesting discussion!

I too was on exec whilst at uni and had to think about these issues.

Your thoughts are really good Pete and I agree with most that the second option is by far the better. I wonder actually if there can be really be true unity with the first model. I think we had something close to the first model at my CU when I started uni, and what resulted was a large number of people leaving the CU. I think they assumed that as the majority (as you say) were from one church background, then this must be what what the CU stood for. When things weren't open and discussed, people just gave up in frustration. I tried to deal with this a bit (not making much progress unfortunately), and Zac is making huge steps to sorting it out now.

You also fight with the preconception among most Christians that UCCF is conservative, and when nothing is done to help people see this isn't true, the preconception remains.

The second model is very difficult to achieve, though worth fighting for, as you say. It takes a lot of explanation and grappling with people's understanding.

A think a key first step in helping create this kind of unity is getting church leaders on board with the vision of CU (we've seen something of how this helps in Manchester). Church leaders have the trust of their students already and they naturally look up to them for wisdom and advice. When church leaders see the CU as a group of students united around core doctrine with uniquely positioned to reach out to other students, and then pass this on to their students you get a group of people far keener to work at unity.

Then when the CU seeks to reinforce this vision it makes things (whilst not easy), a lot easier, and people more committed to being patient and gracious with each other.