Promise Keepers & Christian Unity
by Kevin Offner
It was a hot and humid first week of October here in Washington, D.C., and my wife and I had kept the windows of our Capitol Hill row house open as we went to sleep Friday night. We were awakened at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 4, by the sound of the loud voices of men from the sidewalk outside. We are used to hearing obscenities and shouting from our street, but these voices weren’t angry—they were cheerful and enthusiastic, punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter.
The Promise Keepers had arrived! Dozens and dozens of them were pouring out of busses all along our Maryland Avenue, and they were making their way by foot to the Mall, that long grassy area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation in their faces and voices as they walked. My wife enthusiastically ran to the window and shouted, “Go-o-o-o-o-o-o Guys!”
There was no way that I was not going to be a part of that noon-to-six-p.m. assembly. I had never attended a Promise Keepers event before, and this one was the Big One—and right in my own backyard! I decided not to go with men from my church, however, because I wanted the freedom to raise my hands, cry, fall prostrate, or whatever (things we Baptists aren’t known for doing). I went partly out of curiosity but primarily because I longed to be touched by God, and be a part of what he is doing in men’s lives across the country.
It was an overwhelming experience. Everywhere I ran into men huddled together for prayer, singing, or encouragement. I was deeply moved by the number of father-son duos I witnessed that afternoon—young boys who looked up admiringly at their dads, and fathers who unashamedly hugged and cried with their sons. And I was impressed by the earnestness of these men: they came to do serious business with God about the state of their souls.
One thing characterized the sacred assembly and was not faked: Christian men of many denominations and traditions, thousands and thousands of them were seeking and receiving personal renewal. We were individually and corporately crying out to the Lord for forgiveness for our prayerlessness, neglect of Bible study, and sexual lust. We were repenting over our racism and our failure as husbands and fathers. And we were promising that, by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s help, we would be different men from this day forward. The October assembly in Washington was not about politics but personal repentance.
But Promise Keepers is about more than male bonding and repentance. Promise Keepers brings with it, quite self-consciously, a perspective on Christian unity. No Promise Keeper event (so I am told) fails to address this topic directly, and of course the rallies themselves by their very existence speak indirectly to this issue.
So what is the Promise Keepers’ view of Christian unity? Despite the attendance of some Orthodox and not a few Roman Catholics (including at least one of the plenary speakers), the ecclesiology presented at the Washington rally was unquestionably Protestant evangelical. We were repeatedly exhorted not to let denominations and tradition get in the way of the true unity all Christians share because of our being brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. All the men were asked to sing: “Have we not one Father; have we not one faith; have we not one calling; to be God’s holy race?” One speaker, in a burst of emotion, exuded, “We are the Church, we are the Body of Christ. Where is the Church? Right here! Just look around you: we are the Church!” And again, “No denominations or traditions can get in the way of our ultimate unity in Jesus Christ. God is perfecting His Church.” And once more, “We belong not to a church but to the Church of Jesus Christ. Say to someone next to you, ‘I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.’”
To drive this point home, the speaker had each man, on the count of three, say out loud the denomination or tradition to which he belonged. We did this, and the words “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Pentecostal,” “Baptist,” “Methodist,” “Presbyterian,” etc, were indecipherable in the wild cacophony that ensued. But then we were instructed simply to say in unison the name “Jesus Christ,” which was easily heard in powerful unison.
Surely this clearly reflects the evangelical Protestant understanding of the Church which they (we) have held throughout this century, and arguably since the Great Awakening of the 1730s, when Evangelicals intentionally prioritized personal conversion over ecclesiology. What it the Church for Evangelicals? It is the gathering of Christians. Period. If you know Jesus as your personal Savior, and if I know Jesus as my personal Savior, then you and I are members of Christ’s Body, which is his Church. That’s it! Why get bogged down with sacraments, tradition, creeds, doctrines, liturgy and church authorities—as long as you know Jesus personally, that’s all that matters. This view of Christian unity, which used to characterize only the Protestant parachurch groups, is now becoming the predominant one held by most evangelical churches.
So what are we to make of this ecclesiology? Two things, I think, need to be said, and each needs to be said strongly.
First, I believe Promise Keepers (and Evangelicals generally) are right to highlight and rejoice in the spiritual unity that occurs whenever Christians gather in Christ’s Name. All those whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated are indeed “brothers and sisters in Christ.” The unity Christians share is deeper than a mere shared set of theological doctrines, commitment to the same cultural agenda, or joint membership in a particular denomination or tradition. Spiritual unity is a supernatural work that only God can bring about, and this he does when he miraculously regenerates men and women by his Spirit, thus bringing them into his family.
Though the Church may be more than the mere sum of her regenerated members she is not less. Christian unity must be centered upon the Person of Jesus Christ, “for no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). And where is Jesus Christ to be found? Surely one place is within the sanctified hearts of all those whom he has regenerated. Each person’s body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). It’s true: “Wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The Church is the Body of Christ—and Christ’s Body consists of people, people whom he has regenerated and people whom he one day will perfect.
The Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, have something to learn here from Evangelicals (and Charismatics, who, for my present purpose, I am lumping together with Evangelicals). The answer to our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17—that we may all be one even as the Father and the Son are one—will not come about merely through institutional means; one non-negotiable prerequisite is the Spirit-generated unity that occurs internally and invisibly in men’s hearts.
It is sad indeed to hear conservative Christians pooh-pooh Promise Keepers for its “naive” view of Christian unity. To sneer at what may be a supernatural movement of God (surely someone besides Coach McCartney was at work drawing 800,000 men together for a day of repentance and renewal!) because its theology is not perfect or because it has bypassed institutional hierarchies may be to blaspheme God himself. If God is doing a new thing in America among men today, and if one vessel he is choosing to bless is Promise Keepers, woe to us if we are critical and cynical.
All Christians can and should give thanks to God for the Christian unity that is displayed through Promise Keepers; and we should seek to emulate this good (as opposed to what is so often bad) ecumenism by looking for similar ways to mobilize local Christians in our own towns and cities to love Jesus Christ and his commandments more deeply.
But a second thing must be strongly said about Promise Keepers’ notion of Christian unity. The Church of Jesus Christ is more than the mere sum of all individual Christians—just as the Trinity is more than the mere sum of the three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Church is a living organism, the Bride of Christ, God’s “building” or “field,” the very “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Cor. 3:9; 1 Tim. 3:15). Christ’s Church is a ‘thing,’ a concrete entity, an institution. She is a liturgical assembly where holy baptism is performed and the Eucharist is celebrated. The Church is sacramental as well as personal; she has form as well as freedom.
The Lord breathes new life into human souls by the Holy Spirit’s regenerative power—one is “born again,” his sins are forgiven, and God the Holy Spirit comes to reside within him. Yes and amen—but this is not all! We are born into a family, the “household of God,” and this household has a family code that we are to live by; we are built into God’s building (Christ himself being the cornerstone), and this building has particular, identifiable walls. The one who is regenerated does not stand alone but is saved into the Church.
The Lord Jesus Christ is Head of his Church and he rules her with authority. The means by which he has chosen so to rule are, yes, in part, by the Holy Spirit’s personal work in each individual heart, but also through human authorities whom he has ordained to teach, admonish and perform his sacraments. These men rule with God’s authority not merely because they are strong Christians, know their Bibles and are well liked by their congregations, but also because of the God-instituted offices that they hold. The authority of God’s leaders is both personal and positional.
The Church is invisible and spiritual, but this is not the whole story, She is also visible and physical. God has chosen to manifest himself to his people not merely in their hearts but also in and through physical sacraments, visible human authorities, and concrete creeds.
The Christian unity that occurs at Promise Keeper rallies is real and to be applauded. But this is not enough—and this is not the Church. The way forward in Christian unity is not to tear down expressions of the invisible Church but to build up the visible Church. The six-million-dollar question, then, is this: Where, in pluralistic America, is the visible Church?
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“Promise Keepers & Christian Unity” first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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