I often find myself at denominational functions looking around the room and wondering, “What is it that really brings us together here?” Is our unity based simply on an expressed common desire to reach the lost? Or do we gladly join together in mission because we have deeply shared doctrinal convictions?
I’ve found some guidelines in a couple of the smallest books in the Bible, 2 and 3 John. One way to read these short letters (which combine for a total of just 28 verses) is to put them side-by-side as two crucial lessons in cooperation.
First, here is some background to both books: a church planting movement is taking root in the Roman world furthered by traveling missionaries who depend upon support from other Christians, primarily in the form of food and lodging.
In 2 John the tone and feel is one of caution: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world.” “Watch yourselves.” The emphasis is on getting the gospel right. Specifically, some of these traveling missionaries “do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh,” what has been referred to as the “Gnostic heresy.” John speaks soberly of remaining in Christ’s teaching and not going beyond it. He then directs genuine believers: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home… for the one who says, ‘Welcome’ to him shares in his evil works.” In other words, don’t cooperate with everyone!
The tenor is different in 3 John. Here John is commending a “dear friend” for his generosity to certain missionaries. The emphasis in this mini-epistle is on getting the gospel out. “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.” These missionaries “set out for the sake of the Name” and trusted God to provide through his people. “Therefore, we ought to support such men,” says John. He even calls out a guy named Diotrephes for his independent spirit. “He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so.” Don’t be like Diotrephes. Don’t cooperate with no one!
2 John teaches us not to make our tent too big. 3 John encourages us not to draw our circle too small. We need both messages.
Notice the disproportionate amount of times the words truth and love occur in these two short letters. We absolutely cannot disconnect them. There are people who have great drive, but do not have good doctrine. We have to be discerning about who we partner with. On the other hand, there are Christians who are cranky and overly separatist. We must be large-hearted and kingdom-minded.
Because of 2 John I know that the Apostle John would applaud the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC. Is it not amazing that we have six top-notch seminaries that are committed to robust and orthodox theological training?
At the same time, based on 3 John, I am pretty certain that the Apostle would thoroughly endorse the concept of the Cooperative Program and be thrilled with our North American and International Mission Boards. It is wonderful that we have state and local associations. And is it not telling that we have Directors of Mission and not District Superintendents? We are the people who come up with campaigns like “Million More in ’54.” And I love that I live in what was once a Strategic Focus City, now a SEND City.
However, we have not always gotten this balance right. At times I have seen people approved for work in the SBC based on their passion without an examination of their doctrine. And at other times I have seen people who were well qualified turned away because of a technicality.
In all of our missional zeal, may we never fudge on doctrinal clarity. And in making sure we are all on the same page about what the gospel is, may we make sure we are doing whatever it takes to get the gospel out. If we are truly faithful to Scripture, we will heed the lessons of both 2 and 3 John. But there just might be something to the fact that 2 John comes before 3 John.
Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist in the University District of Chicago.