On Saturday thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC for Together 2016. This event was billed as a time for Christians from around the country, and around the world, to make a stand for Jesus and “reset” their lives in repentance.
Well-known pastors and musicians marked the gathering. Before the event had to be called off due to excessive heat, there were seven hours of wonderful testimonies, challenging messages, impassioned prayers, and heartfelt singing by all in attendance. The theme of “unity” and standing “one in Jesus” ran throughout the day.
I didn’t see or hear everything during those seven hours, but I saw much of it. And as I watched, I found myself encouraged, convicted, and concerned.
I wish all those who scoffingly claim that Christianity is dying off could have seen what was happening on the Mall this weekend. This gathering of impassioned believers boldly proclaimed that Jesus is still the most relevant name in the universe.
They came together in prayer, singing, and crying out to God. Together 2016 was a bit nostalgic for me. During the first summer following my conversion, I attended One Day 2000. During that gathering I heard John Piper challenge us not to waste our lives. It was a pivotal day for me, and I suspect Together 2016 will be the same for many others.
There were people from many tribes, languages, nations, and generations. Skin colors were diverse, but the prayers were unified. Themes of justice and righteousness marked the day. The songs, most of the people who spoke, and the regular pauses to pray about loving God, repentance, and our need for Jesus were heartfelt.
As Francis Chan reminded us at the end of the day, following Jesus will not be the popular thing to do, but it will be eternally worth it. I praise God that He is raising up another generation of believers who desire to follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.
I must confess, I approached the event with a critical spirit. Over the past ten years, my theological convictions have deepened—and I anticipated that most of them would be grated against during this event. And they were.
Lack of theological precision, careless phrasing of words, and the emotionalism that marks evangelicalism were not difficult to find.
But that’s when the Holy Spirit convicted me with a scene from the Gospels. In Luke 9, we find an account of a few of Jesus’ disciples getting irritated that people were doing ministry in a way they weren’t.
“John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49-50).
In the opening minutes of the event God convicted me of spiritual pride. I was reminded that Jesus is doing great things in His Name among people who are very different than me. And regardless of who is ministering, Jesus is always working in spite of our feeble efforts. As one of my professors used to say, “The Holy Spirit loves to work in the midst of our mess.”
Praise God for that!
The Body of Christ is diverse and we must all learn from and be encouraged by one another. I have plenty of my own issues and blind spots, as do the people in my theological camp. It is easy to sit back and be critical of others who don’t do things the way I would. But that attitude isn’t pleasing to Jesus.
He would say to people like me, “the one who is not against you is for you.” After a few moments of conviction, the Spirit broke my pride and gave me the freedom to rejoice in the good work God was doing in my brothers and sisters on the Mall.
But that joy didn’t leave me without a concern.
Calling us to be “together” is a noble thing. There are countless things that divide us unnecessarily. Many of these were addressed wonderfully during the event. But the one thing that actually brings a unity that pleases God was not always clear; and was at times even undermined.
At one point in the first session, a group of men came on stage to pray, including a Roman Catholic. What he said was encouraging and true. But having him on stage to speak and pray (plus promoting the event with a video from Pope Francis) was a tragic decision that may have been overlooked by many in the swirl of all the encouragement.
While it is true that #JesusChangesEverything, this is not the truth that unifies believers. What unifies Christians is that Jesus died and rose and that anyone who repents and believes in Him and His work alone will be saved. The organizers of the event seemed to work so hard to bring down walls of division, that they intentionally neglected to be clear about the Gospel of justification by faith alone.
We must remember that the Protestant Reformation happened for a reason. The theological truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is eternally important. And sadly, this was dangerously distorted on Saturday as thousands watched it happen.
In the days since the Protestant Reformation, more people were executed or exiled over the truths that were brushed aside today than the number of people who were in attendance at the event.
Should we work for unity at great cost? Yes.
Should we pursue unity at all costs? Never.
As J.C. Ryle said in Warnings to the Churches, “never let us be guilty of sacrificing any portion of truth upon the altar of peace.”
I believe we should work together with people of all faiths for issues of religious freedom and social justice. But I do not believe that Jesus would have us sacrifice precious truths He shed His blood for in order to have togetherness.
I deeply believe that the organizers of Together 2016 are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Some dear friends of mine participated in the event today. I do think the true Gospel was proclaimed by numerous speakers and performers. I am certain the motivations of the organizers are to get the Gospel to more people. And I trust the LORD will do great things through the event today.
However, muddying the Gospel will not help any of this come to pass. The best way to love those who are in error over the Gospel is not to link arms with them, but to help them see the importance of our differences.
Whether this sort of gathering will happen again or not, I do not know. But we who are Christians must remember that before Jesus prayed for us to be “one,” He prayed for us to be “sanctified in truth” (John 17:17-23), because after all it is “the truth that will set you free” (John 8:32).