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Toreador ­ Shelly Debate on Unity

religion, articles, christianity

(Editor's note: Doctor Shelly's portion of this debate is taken from a transcript of a tape recording of a speech Shelly made at a "spiritual renewal conference," Florence, Ala., April 19, 1996. L. Toreador is responding to the Shelly remarks.)

Fourth Affirmative by Rubel Shelly

In Nashville I have been for the last two years part of a group of men who come together and pray once a month. It was called together by L.H.. Hardwick. He's pastor of Christ Church. He called 7 or 8 of us out of a time of crisis in his own personal life and in his church.

He said, "I know you. I trust you. I believe that you're a man of God. Will you come and meet me at 8 a.m. and pray for me?"

And 7 of us joined him that first day, and he wept and he poured out his heart out what was going on. And we stayed together-a couple of Baptists, and a Presbyterian, and three independent charismatic churches, and the church of Christ guy-we stayed together and prayed for 2, 2 ½, maybe 3 hours. And we laid our hands on each other, and we cried.

As we were about to leave, Rick White, who is pastor of First Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, he said, "I need to tell you guys something before we leave."

He said, "I need the kind of prayer that we met today and offered up for L.H. Hardwick."

He said, "Can we not do this again?"

And we've been meeting once a month now for two years. And twice a year, we take 3­day retreats and go where there's no television and no telephones and we pray, and we confess, and we confide, and we ...

The group now totals 14. We'll not let it get any larger than that. We have resolved that, not because we want to be exclusive, but we've encouraged other ministers and pastors in the town, to form similar groups.

A while back, at the Belmont church in Nashville, we hosted a breakfast for all the pastors and preachers and church communicators-whatever term you use within your tradition-that would come together for breakfast. We really had no agenda except each of us talked for about 90 seconds about what this time of prayer had meant to us in our own personal, spiritual lives, and urged them to form similar groups. And that probably was the largest meeting, almost 200, probably the largest meeting of pastors that Nashville's ever witnessed. We worshipped, and we praised, and we ate, and we prayed and left with some resolves about trying to lead our various congregations to unity in Christ.

The biblical message of one Lord, and one faith, one baptism, and one body, one hope, that message is the message that God has called us to share with the world, and we cannot share a message about oneness while we are perpetuating our sectarian, divisive ways. We will not lose our separate denominational identities. We will not give up our particular heritages and histories. We will not give up our distinctive practices with regard to our different organizational structures, worship, and so on. I see no need for that. But we will have to decide that there is something that matters more than those things and we will have to quit being idolaters who give those things such priority that we divide over and refuse to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Amen! And it really is idolatry to elevate any issue higher than Christ and to consider that worth dividing over if, in fact, you share Jesus.

Toreador's Fourth Response

Doctor Shelly, your report leaves me bumfuzzled. Are you saying that after two years of meeting, praying, weeping, and touching each other, you are still divided? You have had 24 monthly meetings and 4 retreats and are still as separate as you were in the beginning. How long will it take you idolaters (this is your word) to get over your petty refusal to get over your distinctive practices? And, by the way, what are these distinctive practices?

Doctor, did the first century church have any distinctive practices? Baptism is distinctive. The church is exclusive-distinctive. Worship in spirit and truth is distinctive. The name of the church is distinctive. Even pure living is distinctive. What, Sir, are you suggesting? Are you saying that baptism, the church, worship in spirit and truth, and the names of the church are idolatry?

Doctor Shelly, you seem to be saying that the touchy­feely, mystical type experience is what counts. Are you saying that a small group of blubbering, crying, sentimental people (laying hands on one another) are Christians, and all others are idolaters?

You say the biblical message is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one body, and one hope. Well, Okay. What is the one faith? Is it diversity in critical, basic Christian doctrine? What is the one baptism? Does it involve both action and purpose? Is sprinkling baptism? What is the one body? Is the one body the one church of Christ?

Doctor Shelly, when will you and your cohorts give up your organizational structures? You have had two years of meetings (eating, crying, and touching) and you still have not resolved your differences. When, oh, when, will you give up your idolatry?

Woodmont Hills ought to merge with the Baptist, Presbyterian, charismatic churches you have been meeting with over these past two years.

You flippantly say there is no need for that. In what, then, does unity consist? Is unity deciding to maintain separate organization, worship, teaching, and identity? Rubel, what did they teach you at Vanderbilt?

Now, Rubel, when you brought together this mighty band of dedicated "pastors" in Nashville to have eggs, bacon biscuits and prayer, what was the end result? Has a single church merged with another church? Have any of the idolaters repented? Has your historic meeting made any difference? Your children may suspect that you are fiddling with an irrelevance.

What is the one faith? Paul commanded the Corinthians, "Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10).

Hey, Rubel, was Paul wrong? You say that is idolatry. Paul commanded it. Who is right, you or Paul? Jesus prayed that his followers be one as he and the father are one (John 17:21). That would be unity in word and deed. Was Jesus praying for idolatry.

Doctor Shelly, real religious unity consists in teaching and doing the same things. We can meet, eat, pray, weep, touch, and be sentimental till the cows come home, but that will not unite us. Meaningful unity comes from walking in the light.

"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin."

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Published December 1997