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A Conversation with Ligon Duncan and Joshua Harris on the Gospel

EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of the recent Together for the Gospel conference, April 10-12, Ligon Duncan, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church Jackson, Miss., and Josh Harris, senior pastor of Covenant Life Church Gaithersburg, Md., talked with “Towers” editor Aaron Cline Hanbury about honoring ecclesiological distinctive while maintaining gospel unity.

What does it mean to be together for the gospel?

LD: Coming together for the gospel means being profoundly committed to the Bible’s theology of the gospel, to the church’s mission of sharing the good news and to the careful articulation of that good news in a world that is confused about that message. It means to embrace brothers who share that passion for the gospel, despite the fact that there are significant theological issues on which we differ.

I don’t mean “gospel” in a minimalistic sense. I mean it in a maximal sense. These things we share in common are comprehensive. We’re not about a reductionism; we’re about a doctrinal maximalism. We want people to rejoice in robust, profound, broad, and comprehensive theological foundations and principals.

Why do we unite around the gospel?

JH: The gospel is central because it is the message that allows us to know and worship God and be reconciled to him. The message of God’s transforming plan for the whole world – starting with our own hearts and relationship with God and extending out to the entire cosmos – must be what drives everything else we do.

Now when we get into the details, we will have different opinions and different convictions, but we believe that those details serve that greater, more central truth that holds everything together. The sacraments point us to the work of Christ for us. The way that we baptize points us to the truth.

How do we honor our ecclesiological distinctions and honor gospel unity?

LD: Historically, there have been a number of errant attempts at doing that. Some people have said, “What we need to do is rally around the mission of the gospel and not get caught up in the theology of the gospel. Let mission bring about unity.” Others have said, “What we need to do is recognize that there are primary things and there are secondary things and as long as we’re together on the primary things, it really doesn’t matter if we differ over the secondary things.” We want to say, “No” to both of those projects. Both of those projects failed in evangelicalism.

We unite together in the gospel, not only in the broad and comprehensive common ground we have in our embrace of the Bible’s doctrine of God, doctrine of salvation, the Bible’s articulation of the gospel, teaching about the mission of the church, but we also unite in our appreciation of one another’s embrace of principal doctrinal commitments different from our own. And we want to encourage pastors and church leaders that the guys who disagree with one another on biblical grounds are actually closer to you then the guys who don’t care.

The Baptists with whom I want to fellowship with are the Baptists who say to me, “Lig, you’re wrong,” not guys who say, “Awe, we’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

What does it mean for you to be involved in something like Together for the Gospel?

JH: It’s a reminder of the just how big the gospel is and how God is at work in many different places in many different ways. Just as in a local church, you see the analogy of the church being the body of Christ. Each person plays a different part and brings different strengths and different spiritual gifts and so on. So instead of saying, “We all have to do the same thing and be exactly the same,” we can appreciate those distinctives. I see that analogy at work on a broader scale at a gathering like T4G. We’re not all Presbyterians, but they bring a certain flavor and so on. There’s a sense of appreciation that we’re called to be who we are, and yet I’m grateful that the Southern Baptist Convention exists and it’s able to reach people we might never reach and could never reach. You see the richness of the body of Christ.

Conferences are a time to come together and remember what’s most essential and we can celebrate how glorious that is. It’s just another preview of the final day when we’ll all be gathered, all tribes and tongues.

How can pastors foster an appropriate ecumenicism without depreciating necessary distinctives?

LD: The first thing is, do it at the level of friendship and fellowship. When I met Mark Dever, Al Mohler and C.J. Mahaney, I had one of those experiences where you say, “Okay, I get you, I know what makes you tick and I trust you.” I knew them well enough to know their theological instincts and commitments. They all had been through the fire because of them. These are guys committed to the Word of God and to a high view of Scripture, and because of that, I began to get to know them. And that’s where it starts.

The second thing is, don’t try to over-institutionalize something. Don’t try and say, “Isn’t it great that we agree on so much, so it doesn’t matter what we disagree about, and let’s just gather and merge our churches.” What we need to say is, “There are lots of areas where we can work together, and so wherever we see we can work together, we do that without compromising our theological convictions and distinctives.”

In every inquirers class at my church in Jackson, Miss., there are Baptists, sometimes Southern Baptists, preparing to join the church. One of the things I try and do is explain to them why I appreciate a convictional Baptist view of baptism. I appreciate the conviction of a Baptist who would view my view of baptism as biblically deficient and would argue strenuously that people who have not been baptized as believing adults are not baptized and therefore shouldn’t be welcomed into church membership and communion because, in our day-and-age, that sounds mean to a lot of people. We’re about inclusion. It’s the Baptist who won’t let me join his church that I want to fellowship with.

Here is what I am trying to say, “This conviction is something desperately needed in the world today.” And even though Baptists disagree with me on that point, I’m really glad they’re discipling their congregations with a high view of what it means to be a member of the local church and what it means to embrace the truth of the Bible. That’s something we can do with our distinctions that is, interestingly enough, better than we could do if we were all in the same group saying, “It doesn’t matter.” We want people to have biblical convictions on these issues.

How do you motivate your people to embrace an appropriate ecumenical spirit without devaluing what makes Covenant Life unique?

JH: For our church, we have a lengthy membership process where we ask people to attend nine weeks of classes where they listen to teaching and then sit in a small group and talk about our doctrinal convictions. Membership is a big deal to us, and we don’t want people to join because they simply enjoy the worship or think the speakers are nice. We really want potential members to understand what we believe and how doctrine shapes how we live together and do church together.

So these are key moments when churches have to make decisions about things like membership or even the books in the bookstore. These things don’t matter in terms of being a Christian, but in terms of doing life together as a church, we must take a stand on certain issues.

There’s lots of great churches in the area. If someone doesn’t agree with our church, that’s fine, we celebrate that. We partner with those churches for mission. We partner with them in proclaiming the gospel. But in seeking to live out our distinctives as a local church, this is where that takes place.

Baptism is a big one for us. We have many paedobaptists drawn to our reformed theology, but we have to say, “You know, we’d like you to be baptized as a believer.” For us, it’s been a matter of saying, because baptism is such a central part of how we celebrate and proclaim the gospel as a community, if that starts getting watered down, we do a disservice to the gospel. It’s not that the sacrament is greater than the gospel; it’s that it’s serving the purpose of saying, “This is what Christ has done.” We want baptism to be a moment when we are united in our joy and our faith and our understanding of the faith. And so churches have to make some hard decisions as a local church, which involve, sadly, not allowing certain people in your church.

I think a lot of evangelical churches just don’t get into distinctives of doctrine and that’s why this is a little bit of a challenge. They just don’t draw a line anywhere.

If unity is the goal, why do we need denominations at all?

LD: Denominations were invented to preserve freedom of conscience and Christian liberty and to do justice to profound doctrinal convictions and to allow for continued unity among people who disagree about important things. If you try to force everyone into one denomination, you either have to force them against their conscience or you have to make them say that their differences and distinctives don’t matter. If everyone is in one big group – that sounds good to Rome – what that means is that most people have to compromise their conscience in terms of what the Word of God teaches. Denominations were invented in the first place to protect those freedoms of conscience, to establish freedom of religion and to allow for a proper unity to go on among brothers and sisters who disagree.

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