Joshua 22:10-end – a text for the week of prayer for Christian Unity.

This story from Joshua is little known. When the Israelites first arrived in the promised land, some of the tribes settled on the eastern bank of the Jordan subject to a promise that they would help their brethren capture the territory on the western bank. When this task was finished, the Eastern tribes raised an altar to mark their commitment to the Lord – and to emphasis that they were part of the people of Israel. However this was misinterpreted by the Western tribes to be a violation of the law of Moses, which banned the building of an altar anywhere except the one place that the Lord would direct. So the Westerners organised to attack their Eastern brethren – but did make the effort to send a party to investigate first. These investigators were convinced by the Easterners’ explanation, and peace was restored.

So what lessons can we take from this?

  1. We need to take the commandments of God seriously. If a fellowship is reported to be acting in a way that is contrary to the scriptures, we should not ignore it. Although the New Testament model does not call for us to physically attack them, we should be prepared to clearly separate from them.

  2. Our actions need to be based on clear investigation. It’s NOT good enough to respond to vague reports that ‘those dreadful people are doing X and that’s not acceptable’. We see here that they were doing something that looked like X – BUT WASN’T. The classic example from church history is the attitude of the Reformation to pictures in church. ‘Must be idolatry – we must destroy them’ – an attitude that cost the UK much of the artistic heritage of the Medieval period. In more recent years allegations of ‘sheep stealing’ and ‘heavy shepherding’ were routinely made against the new Charismatic denominations. Whilst there may have been mistakes, the fact that those groups have now largely come to be accepted in the wider Christian community is a sign that the early rumours were, ultimately, unjustified.

  3. The outcome should be reported back. If a group has gone bad, then this fact should be declared publicly by the leadership of other Christian communities in an area. Equally if it’s been investigated and found healthy, then its clean bill of health is to be publicised as well. Of course this requires church leaders who are willing to ask those hard questions, take a stand and be clear about what they regard as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour or beliefs. Sadly instead we suffer a surfeit of rumours, a lack of clarity about where the lines are, and a general chaos, enabling the wolves to have free range in the flock. Meanwhile real relationships are disdained and opportunities are lost because those who have been hurt in the past by such wolves are more suspicious than they should be.

Why is this happening? A lot comes from an unwillingness to challenge other churches, to go and discover if they are ‘of the Lord’. It’s easier to avoid asking hard questions and drawing sharp lines. Part of this is because there is a strong belief that the church has tended to be more willing to reject the ‘new things’ that the Spirit is doing; the widespread rejection of Wesleys’ ministry and the Anglo-Catholic movement by the Church of England are trotted out as examples. So instead we’ve allowed liberal ‘theology’ to rule the roost – and seen chaos and massive decline in attendances.

It’s also hard work; there needs to be solid engagement between churches to enable the sorts of conversation that are necessary for this to occur. It’s interesting to note that the incident in Joshua occurs after the two protagonists had been fighting alongside each other – yet still distrust occurred. And today it’s not given the priority that it needs; because the leaders of churches don’t see this as one of their primary roles, they allow other issues that should be lower priority to distract them. Actually this follows from a belief that there aren’t really wolves out there – buying into the vague ‘ecumenical’ agenda – yet the reality is that there clearly are.

As ever we need to be discerning. It’s easy to get it wrong – it’s more attractive to look the other way – and that’s a dereliction of duty by our leaders. And remember where the story starts; the Easterners had wanted to affirm their full membership of the people of Israel – but didn’t talk to the right people to do so. We need to spend far more time in real communication – and far less in things that we KNOW are of no value, but are not prepared to actually kill off.

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