As I recently led a Ph.D. seminar for the Rome Scholars Network, then again as I Skyped with one of Sojourn Church’s missionaries, a key issue came to light: just how far can church plants and existing churches engaged in mission cooperate with other church plants, churches, and other Christian organizations? In Europe in particular (though not confined there), where progress in church planting and advancement in gospel ministry is so hard and slow, the desire for having others with whom to relate for encouragement, strategizing, accountability, and prayer is keenly felt. The same is true in the North American context for isolated church planters.
Let’s consider this issue in terms of a spectrum of cooperation, from minimal help to maximum collaboration.
The lowest degree of cooperation is represented by co-belligerence. Co-belligerence involves “siding with people of other religious persuasions for the sake of promoting specific issues that are shared by a cross-section of society and that are under threat by secular tendencies, especially in the realm of basic moral values” (Leonardo De Chirico, Vatican File 122 [April 1, 2016]). These religiously other people include Protestants of all stripes, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists. Examples of activities of co-belligerence are:
- defending the unborn, the radically handicapped, and the elderly, while resisting abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, and population control;
- defending religious freedom and human rights, and advocating for the structures of the government, the family, the church, and voluntary associations;
- standing against classicism, ageism, racism, and sexism;
- challenging the coarsening of culture by violence, promiscuity, and antireligious bigotry (adapted from Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty, 13-19).
As we cooperate with people of other religious orientations, we engage in co-belligerence and do not form alliances. “On the one hand, an alliance is a kind of unity based on truth, and therefore has to do with born-again Christians only who receive Scripture as the standard of their lives. On the other hand, co-belligerence focuses on a specific issue and is open to all those who share it, whatever their backgrounds and the goals that motivate them” (De Chirico). Co-belligerence flows from all people being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the cultural mandate to build civilization (Gen. 1:28), the church’s call to be in this world but not of the world (John 17:14-18), and a mature faith “that is able to maintain different relationships with different people, without losing its Christian identity and Gospel commitments” (De Chirico).
A low degree of cooperation is represented by involvement in the European Evangelical Alliance and its affiliates, the national Evangelical Alliances (for example, in Sweden and Poland). The EEA is a very broad association of evangelical churches and ministries, ranging from liberal orientations to more conservative expressions. Examples of activities at this level of cooperation include protesting against the recently enacted anti-terrorism law in Russia (this law will restrict evangelism to registered religious organizations and buildings) and providing concrete aid to relieve the refugee crisis.
A medium level of cooperation is represented by engagement in the Lausanne movement (and its regional networks). Lausanne exists to facilitate global mission by shaping mission theology and practice and fostering collaborative efforts like Bible translation and distribution. This movement engages self-consciously evangelical Christians and churches worldwide who are deeply committed to the Great Commission. The Lausanne vision consists of four elements: the gospel for every person, an evangelical church for every people, Christ-like leaders for every church, and kingdom impact in every sphere of society. Involvement in the Lausanne Covenant signifies cooperating with evangelicals who are biblically and theologically sound and who are committed to the church, evangelism, social responsibility, evangelistic cooperation, and more.
A high level of cooperation is represented by involvement in The Gospel Coalition (and its chapters). “As a broadly Reformed network of churches, The Gospel Coalition encourages and educates current and next-generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom he shed his life’s blood” (TGC website, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/overview). Its foundational documents—the Confessional Statement and Theological Vision for Ministry—express a conservative Reformed orientation. Involvement in TGC signifies cooperating in conferences and encouraging Christians to become members at churches that are listed in the TGC directory.
The highest level of cooperation is represented by participation in denominational associations (e.g., North American Mission Board, International Mission Board), mission agencies (e.g., Pioneers, Surge, Frontiers), and church planting networks (e.g., Sojourn Network, Acts 29). Unity at this level rests on a well-developed foundation:
- as Protestants, we enjoy unity in the gospel (the Word of God preached) and the celebration of the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (the Word of God enacted);
- as evangelicals, further unity (according to the Bebbington quadrilateral) resides in our biblicism (a high view of Scripture), crucicentrism (a focus on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sins), conversionism (a call to repentance and faith in order to be saved), and activism (the concrete expression of the gospel);
- beyond our Protestant and evangelical unities, we also possess theological, missional, and philosophical (in terms of philosophy of ministry, core values, and the like) commonalities.
Cooperation at this highest level involves brotherhood and sharing many resources including finances, church planting efforts, assessment strategies, training, and more. In many cases, we would invite these people to become elders and staff in our churches, as we share the same heart with them.
I would urge us, as we look across the spectrum, to spend the majority of our time seeking out and cooperating with Christians and churches on the high and highest end, without neglecting the impact we can have at lower levels of cooperation.