I enjoyed an interesting discussion earlier today with another Pastor on the limits and scope of working together with Christians from other traditions, including those with whom one might have substantial disagreements over doctrine and polity. This arose in response to join in an effort that is highly valued by a particular group but which could, if pursued, engage the other Pastor in work that would detract from his primary charge to care for the sheep entrusted to his care. "Is it wrong for me to refuse to get involved with this new initiative? After all, I do care about visible unity in the Church", he asked.
We worked through some levels of proper involvement with other groups, congregations, and individuals.
1. Pastors have a primary commission to shepherd the flock. Christians in general do not have that same charge and might be able to engage in a whole host of activities that transcend denominational, but none of these extra activities should keep them from their primary charge to care for their families. In the same way, even legitimate activities to which one is invited as a Pastor must not be pursued IF these take us from our chief task of feeding and tending the flock. Its the old proverb about keeping the main thing, the main thing. Refusing to participate does not mean that Pastors believe that the activity is wrong or will prove unfruitful - though that may well be the case. It simply means that its not something he can take up at that moment without violating his primary stewardship. Level One is no participation either because it takes one away from one's first work, or because the activity is so compromised from a theological standpoint that appearing as part of it would foster confusion in the church, and raise doubt about the veracity of the Church's teaching.
2. Vocational Partnership is helpful. Lets say that all the music ministers, or all the youth ministers, in a city want to meet and pray together - for the churches they serve, for the city, and for one another. That collaboration might well be very helpful to the participants in carrying out their primary task. Conferences to which one travels serve the same purpose; there's no reason to avoid the same kind of gathering when its meeting across town rather than across the country. That's Level Two - Regular Vocational Partnership for Mutual Edification.
3. Cultural Co-Belligerants: Churches, Pastors, and Christians can work together in a whole host of ways that promote the love of Jesus Christ for people where we live. Many Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, together with many Evangelicals and Pentecostals, have found common cause and the capacity to work together to promote the well being and protection of the unborn. Still others have joined together to care for unwed moms, for the hungry and needy, and to promote Christian education. I'm sure many examples could be cited. This is a Level Three involvement - we are visibly together to promote in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns those issues which we believe are vital to social justice.
4. Common Grace Concerns: If there is a tornado or flood that strikes a community, or if a local playground has fallen into disrepair, or if a major medical expense by a neighbor is overwhelming that person and their family, people from all faiths and no faith, as well as people and churches from all kinds of denominational traditions, band together to help and serve, and bring relief, renewal, and hope. We do this because everyone is made in the image of God - we help one another as a response of love that arises from the fact (even unrecognized by many) that God made us all from one and so we are linked together in ways that call forth from us all our 'better angels'. All people join together to assist those who hurt or who have been injured, or to make a community safer for our children, and we do this because, while sinful and in need of redemption, we can and must work together when an emergency demands it. That's a Level Four involvement - our home towns and the call to be Good Samaritans, good neighbors. If anything, Christians should lead the way on this.
So lets understand the limits of shared work, rejoice in the places we can currently share, pray for the day of full visible sacramental unity, and join with our friends and neighbors to bear witness to the truth that all are made in God's image, and all are in need of the Savior.