Unity Discussions in North America
In a divided world we come to realize more than ever how important it is for us to live together in unity.
The following progress report on unity developments in North America has been written in conjunction with The Christadelphian Magazine, for whose assistance we are grateful. The report also appears in September’s issue of The Christadelphian.
God is one1 and one of the great prayers of our Lord Jesus on the eve of his death was:
Readers will be familiar with many other such passages, urging us to live together in unity of mind, written especially when there were divisions or disagreements in early ecclesias:
Attempt at Agreement
With these, and numerous other Scriptures in mind, many attempts have been made to bring together the Amended and Unamended fellowships in North America, some of which have been successful at least in part, but none of which have secured a full continental reunion. Over the last five years another endeavor has been made, this time by the General Committee for the Midwest Amended Ecclesias (the GC) who have been working with the Unity Communications Committee for the Commending and Commended Ecclesias of Ontario and Illinois4 (the UCC). Good progress has been made.
In October 2015 the GC ecclesias put together a unity document which they considered to cover all the aspects, both about doctrine and fellowship, which they considered necessary as a basis for a workable unity between Amended and Unamended ecclesias. After discussion with interested parties, it was approved by the GC and other Amended ecclesias in Southern Ontario in February 2016. During the next two years that document was refined, in consultation with the UCC brethren, and was finally agreed in June 2018, to be known thereafter as the Final Agreement 2018 (FA2018). That Agreement was also reviewed and endorsed by three magazines, Tidings, Lampstand and The Christadelphian.
It represents a big step forward and one for which everyone has cause to be grateful, under the good hand of God. It addresses and clarifies key doctrinal issues, explains that inter-ecclesial fellowship between accepting ecclesias will be on the basis of the BASF, and deals with the most difficult issue there has been over this whole process, namely the fellowship arrangements that will hereafter apply.
That Agreement is so important, and is such an indication of excellent progress made between brethren, that it is included here in full, after which this article will explain the issues that still need to be resolved to achieve the long-desired unity.
2018 Final Agreement
The ecclesias represented by the Midwest General Committee (GC) and the Unity Communication Committee (UCC) are eager to achieve a comprehensive unity that is recognized throughout the brotherhood. Many documents have been exchanged during the reunion process in and around Ontario and the Midwest (including the NASU, UA08 and the CL)5 and many spoken and written assurances have been given over the years. This 2018 Final Agreement invites Unamended ecclesias to signify their agreement in a way that can be commended to the Christadelphian Central fellowship throughout the world.
We agree that the doctrines to be believed and taught by us, without reservation, are the First Principles of the One Faith as revealed in the Scriptures, of which the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (with positive and negative clauses, and the Commandments of Christ) gives a true definition.6
Acceptance of this basis would not preclude the use of any other statement of faith by an ecclesia (including the Birmingham Unamended Statement of Faith), provided it is in harmony with the above declaration and in light of the following doctrinal clarifications:
We believe that God holds liable to resurrectional judgment those who know the revealed will of God and have been called upon to submit to it when their circumstances are such to leave them without excuse for refusal. We recognize that God will judge all rejecters of His truth, whether baptized or unbaptized, according to their deserts, as His own principles of wisdom and justice dictate, the degree of light which leads to their accountability to resurrection and judgment being known only to the all righteous Judge Himself.7
We reject the idea that a man is guilty for Adam’s sin and must receive some kind of forgiveness or removal of this through baptism. We reject the teaching that there is any legal condition or impediment which restricts God from raising and judging someone who is not baptized. We affirm that Clauses 3-12 and 16, in the BASF, including the related doctrines to be rejected (4, 5, 27, 30 and 31) are sound and sufficient expressions of what the Bible teaches about man’s nature.
The following assurance is given on the understanding that it might not be achievable immediately, as explained below:
We agree our fellowship at the Memorial table of the Lord will be with Christadelphian Ecclesias in the Central fellowship, and with Unamended Ecclesias in North America who subscribe to this 2018 Final Agreement and honor it in the way they practice fellowship.
In practice, fellowship will be ecclesially-based between members of both the current Central ecclesias and those Unamended ecclesias who formally indicate acceptance of this Agreement. Inter-ecclesial fellowship in the resulting united community will be on the basis of the BASF. By giving these assurances and observing the historical basis for ecclesial and personal conduct as outlined in The Ecclesial Guide, Unamended ecclesias will be joyfully welcomed and commended for recognition as members of the brotherhood worldwide
We rejoice at the opportunity to reach out to interested Unamended ecclesias, encouraging them to participate in unity on this mutually agreed and scripturally sound basis. It is recognized that some time will be required to accomplish this endeavor. The GC & UCC are committed to working together to define a plan for reaching out to those Unamended ecclesias. It is agreed that three years (or sooner) is a reasonable period of time for like-minded ecclesias to deliberate their decisions. During this three-year outreach period, it is understood that those Unamended ecclesias who have accepted this Agreement may choose to continue to fellowship with Unamended ecclesias that are open to unity discussions (i.e. like-minded ecclesias). At the end of this three-year period, fellowship with Unamended Ecclesias will be practiced on the basis defined in this Agreement. We pray that those Unamended Ecclesias who have not chosen to participate in this Agreement at that time will reconsider and join us in fellowship, uniting the body of our Lord. The Spirit of Christ will be applied in the outworking of these plans, all subject to God’s will.
Our common desire is to include CGAF Churches in the Unity effort. This 2018 Final Agreement will facilitate CGAF Churches proceeding on the basis of the 2010 invitation to fellowship from the Midwest Amended Ecclesias8, with a similar outreach and timeframe for their community.
We invite Unamended ecclesias to consider this 2018 Final Agreement and to signify their acceptance in writing to the Joint GC/UCC Outreach Committee.9 A status report of the Unity effort will be provided on a semi-annual basis. As Unamended ecclesias signify their acceptance, and implement the fellowship assurances, appropriate arrangements will be made to notify the magazines. This will enable ecclesias in North America and worldwide to extend fellowship to these ecclesias.
Sincerely your brethren in the Lord,
(Please note that the signature sections are still developing)
There is no suggestion that all Unamended ecclesias would accept the FA2018’s form or words. But after discussion, it appeared likely that many from both fellowships were inclined to do so to varying degrees. A number of Unamended ecclesias were willing to consider this as a basis for unity, including those who have previously been participants in the 2014 process to commend Unamended ecclesias into the Central fellowship.10 While the Amended ecclesias comprising the GC have accepted the FA2018 as a basis for unity, at present no Commending Amended or Commended ecclesias have fully accepted the Agreement because of the outstanding fellowship issues outlined below. Consequently, some uncertainty exists about the general level of acceptance.
The Doctrinal Assurances in the FA2018 are a step forward by making it clear that the unity will be based upon the First Principles revealed in the Scriptures, of which the BASF provides a true definition. An excerpt from the Central/Suffolk Street Reunion document was duplicated in the FA2018 to demonstrate that, as in the past, here was a mutually agreed understanding that would enable both groups to come together.
The Fellowship Practice section is proving harder to resolve. Historically there has been a difference of approach between the two fellowships. At the table of the Lord, Amended ecclesias have accepted into fellowship members who are in good standing in other Amended ecclesias. Unamended ecclesias have accepted members whom they consider to be of like mind with them, without regard to which Christadelphian fellowship they belong. This may also include members of the CGAF churches. They take the view that it would be against their conscience in Christ to deny the emblems to brothers and sisters whom they believe share the One Faith.
Of course, there will be no difficulty fellowshipping members of those ecclesias which accept the FA2018. Members of those ecclesias will thereafter be able to share fellowship with those that were formerly Unamended, but which are now part of the expanded united community. The difficulty comes with members from non-accepting Unamended ecclesias, including those that are either strongly opposed to the new arrangements or have not yet made any decision. There will be members of those ecclesias, including family members, who have a long-standing practice of visiting ecclesias where they have been accustomed to break bread. How frequent or rare these occurrences are will be determined by the results of the outreach program described in the FA2018. These questions highlight a sensitivity that has not yet been resolved and which is the subject of ongoing discussion.
The FA2018 tries to cope with this difficulty in two ways. First, it specifies a three-year period during which an accepting ecclesia can reach out to other ecclesias who are inclined to join in the initiative. Second, it specifies that at the end of this period fellowship would cease between other Unamended ecclesias who were unwilling to unite on this basis. This has been the sticking point for three reasons.
It could be that there are reasons why a like-minded ecclesia cannot come on board within the prescribed three years, not for doctrinal reasons but because of other things that are happening in that ecclesia. It is expected that such situations will be rare, and the two parties have already expressed a willingness to work with such ecclesias to mitigate their concerns and consider their circumstances with a view to resolving them within a reasonable period of time.
If a particular visitor is known to the ecclesia, is in good standing and is of known sound doctrine, it seems wrong to the Unamended participants in the FA2018 to refuse to share the emblems with such individuals. But it seems that this is a fairly rare occurrence, given that a number of Unamended ecclesias have already separated themselves from the commended ecclesias. Commended ecclesias have made it clear that they would not resume fellowship with such ecclesias whilst there are doctrinal differences.
The main obstacle will arise for Unamended ecclesias that reject the FA2018. At this time, the community represented by the UCC are finding it difficult to consider changing their fellowship practices with occasional visitors who accept the One Faith but come from ecclesias which are not yet participating in the FA2018 unity process.
If there is a will to make this work, and if trust exists between everyone involved, these issues should not be insurmountable. The GC and UCC will be helping with the roll-out of this Agreement and can use their judgment in resolving the first of these two problems.
The three-year period is designed to encourage ecclesias to reach out, and to help uncertain ecclesias to conclude their deliberations, but there may well be certain issues that delay acceptance. It is just as important to ensure that an exceptional case does not become the norm, or the process of transition will never end.
The second issue is the sort of thing that ecclesias have to deal with on an ongoing basis, where they have to use their judgment to deal with occasional issues.11 If any decisions taken are seen as exceptional, and as long as we all trust one another to make sensible and appropriate decisions, it should also be possible to work through that issue. The third obstacle may resolve itself as Unamended ecclesias accept the FA2018 and the circle of fellowship expands as a consequence of that process.
Where We Are Now
We have much to thank God for as the search continues to achieve unity among ecclesias and brothers and sisters. We encourage discussions to resume, and this article is designed to explain to members of both fellowships what has taken place and what remains to be achieved.
We anticipate there will be meetings held in several ecclesias to talk these issues through and to answer unresolved concerns. It is our prayer that with God’s help the community in North America might draw closer together in the unity of the faith as we await the imminent arrival of our Lord and Savior. Everything that has been, and is being, done is proceeding in the spirit of Christ and is subject to the will of our heavenly Father.
1 Or, as The Declaration expresses it “God is a Unity.”
2 All Scriptural quotations are taken from the New King James Version.
3 See also Rom 12:16; 14:19; 15:5,6; 2 Cor 13:11; Eph 4:3; Phil 1:27; 2:2; 1 Pet 3:8.
4 That long description refers to the last attempt made to establish unity in 2014 when 12 Amended and 10 Unamended ecclesias came together (the “commending” and the “commended’” and a measure of agreement was established, on a basis which was not wholly accepted by other Amended ecclesias, which somewhat complicated the situation.
5 NASU (North American Statement of Understanding 2003), UA08 (Unity Agreement 2008), CL (Commendation Letter, September 3, 2014)
6 Excerpt from 1956 Central/Suffolk Street Reunion document: A Final Statement Defining the Basis for Future Co-operation between Central and Suffolk Street Fellowships
7 This sentence is taken verbatim from paragraph 6 of a letter written by Bro. Cyril Cooper to Bro. John Carter on February 10, 1956, which was used as a basis for the 1956 Central / Suffolk Street Reunion document, referred to in Footnote 6.
8 July 19, 2010 Letter to CGAF Brethren from Midwest Central Ecclesias
9 This is a Committee formed from representatives of the GC and UCC.
10 This was the attempt when about a dozen Amended ecclesias commended a similar number of Unamended ecclesias to the Central fellowship. Not all Central fellowship ecclesias accepted the commendation as they felt that the basis of the agreement was inadequate. The FA2018 seeks to remedy that situation.
11 These matters would be decided by the local ecclesia, guided by the principles in The Ecclesial Guide and as practiced within the Central community. Such fellowship decisions will respect the integrity of the One Body by upholding the doctrinal principles of the Final Agreement and the fellowship practices of the Central community.