Moral and doctrinal compromise plague the 21st century church. It is not that moral and doctrinal compromise in all their various forms are unique to this century, but they are becoming more prevalent and unashamedly held by those in the church. Increasingly, churches are allowing nearly any and everyone into their bodies. Church membership is not only being taken less and less seriously, but in some cases, it is little more than a passing memory. Church discipline is for legalists. Christian education is for academic heavyweights who know nothing of faith.
But something even more subtle creeps into local church bodies; cooperation without consideration. The idea that ministry should never be sacrificed for doctrinal difference is very easy to fall into. Can a biblical, evangelical church (its sad that I even have to write this qualification) partner with charities or businesses that support and promote ungodly ventures and lifestyles? Who should evangelical Christians partner with in ministry? Can Baptists cooperate with Presbyterians? Methodists? Catholics? Unitarians? Muslims? Is it not true that as long as ministry is done, it doesn’t really matter who is doing it or how?
To give an answer, we must first qualify what we mean by ministry. Doing ministry, any kind of ministry, for the wrong reasons is no better than not doing ministry at all. It is only God-honoring, Christ-exalting ministry that counts. Ministry that magnifies the majesty of God in Jesus is the only proper ministry for the true Church, the bride of Christ. Caring for the physical and spiritual needs of believers (and unbelievers) should never be done haphazardly. All ministry efforts should reflect the mindset of the apostle Paul:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God! –1 Corinthians 10:31
And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. –Colossians 3:17
In all of our ministries, we should work “in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Why? Because, “to him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (v. 11). The lordship of Christ over all is the reason for ministry. The glory of Christ is the goal of all ministry. One implication of this is that the cross of Christ must be central to our ministry efforts.
So, it is clear that ministry cannot be performed just “any ole way.” Doctrinal agreement determines not only how we do ministry, but with who we do ministry. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of cooperation in ministry with those who differ with us doctrinally. Ministry that glorifies Christ must prohibit cooperation with those who deny Christ. At the same time, ministry that glorifies Christ can be done in cooperation with those who differ doctrinally on certain issues.
When formulating and evaluating Christian doctrine, there must be a healthy and appropriate blend of grace and truth where one is not compromised for the other. Cooperation among Christians who differ doctrinally must be viewed with a proper grace-truth lens. There are primary doctrinal issues for which truth should not be compromised. There are also secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues for which grace should not be compromised for truth or conscience. It is a healthy and holy blend of grace and truth that gains most ground for the gospel and produces a bounty of fruit for the Kingdom. When one or the other is compromised, it is to the detriment of the church.
In the first place, doctrines such as the Trinity, the atonement, the person of Christ, salvation by grace alone, the gospel, the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture, etc. are non-negotiable doctrines. Denying these primary doctrines make any and all forms of cooperation impossible. In this case, truth should never be compromised for what some would call gracious cooperation. Not only would fellowship in a local body of Christ be impossible, but inter-denominational cooperation would be impossible as well. Baptists and Unitarians could never partner in ministry, for example.
There are certain doctrines that separate Christians from non-Christians, and when there are professing Christians who deny these central and crucial doctrines, we must not compromise truth for the sake of cooperation. We see this in the Reformers’ split from the Roman Catholic Church. Even though Luther was slower to break away, perhaps in hopes of reform within the Catholic Church, eventually there were doctrinal differences of a primary nature. Cooperation was not possible. Practically, we are right today to avoid ministry cooperation with those who deny these central tenets of the faith.
There are also those doctrines that are secondary in nature, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership, etc. Most evangelical denominations that are faithful to the gospel of Christ differ over views on baptism. In these cases, belonging to the same local church would be impossible (i.e. a Baptist could not be a member of a Presbyterian church). However, total ministry cooperation would not be impossible. There can be tremendous work done through such cooperation for the sake of the glory of God in the gospel of Christ. This is where I see a sad mishap in the proposed union of Zwingli and Luther. While agreeing on primary doctrines, there were secondary doctrines (technically half of a doctrine) that kept them from uniting. I think cooperation would have been good between these two factions despite some disagreement. More grace and humility could have been demonstrated.
An excellent modern example of this very thing can be found in the Together for the Gospel initiative established by Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, and Ligon Duncan. This conference was founded and continues to be led by men who differ on secondary issues, yet passionately are united by the crucial primary issues of the faith. In fact, the T4G website affirms this: “Together for the Gospel began as a friendship between four pastors. These friends differed on issues such as baptism, polity and the charismatic gifts. But they were committed to standing together for the main thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Their cooperation has greatly benefited not only pastors, but the church at-large. They have equipped men to passionately proclaim Christ and him crucified for the sake of God’s glory among all peoples. Where there is union over this “main thing” (and other primary doctrines), cooperation for the sake of God’s glory in Christ should not only exist, but should be championed.