A vibrant Nigerian choir; stirring Bible teachers; nearly 2000 Anglicans from across the world gathered in Jerusalem, enthusiastically declaring the conference catch-cry, “We will proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations!”; the Lord’s Prayer said aloud in a joyful cacophony of different languages; six days of encouragement, challenge, inspiration, tears, laughter, and joy. This was GAFCON 2018! I was one of the 220 or so Australian delegates, privileged to be part of this key milestone in the history of the Anglican church.
This GAFCON (the name derives from the Global Anglican Future CONference) was the third international gathering of Anglicans committed to stand for gospel faithfulness in a context of increasing compromise and false teaching within the traditional Anglican church. Church leaders and ordinary members – together representing over 70% of the world’s Anglicans – were encouraged by stirring Bible expositions (including one by Mike Raiter from Melbourne); testimonies from those in the US, England, Nigeria and New Zealand facing various challenges and threats; seminars on topics including the prosperity gospel, African Traditional Religions, secularism, abortion and euthanasia, one-to-one discipleship, ministry to the Chinese Diaspora, ministry in a post-Catholic context, and sexuality.
The conference, through a process of consultation, produced a seminal 8-page “Letter to the Churches”, which affirmed the commitment of those involved in GAFCON to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations – and in our churches.
A celebration of good diversity
A highlight of GAFCON was the sense of partnership in the gospel with like-minded Christians from around the world. We delighted in the God-given diversity of the conference – different nationalities, cultures, clothing (from African bishops and their wives in matching colourful outfits, to moody bearded North American hipsters!), style of worship (do you raise your hands, clap spontaneously in sermons, call out “Alleluia!”, or simply nod in sober agreement?), degree of formality or informality, and so on.
There was the encouragement of seeing others stand firm in difficult circumstances, and mutual support as we face similar challenges. GAFCON was a great reminder that God is the God of the whole world, and that he is working powerfully to build and preserve his church!
Indeed, we are united in Christ with all believers, whether we are the same denomination nor not. The Body of Christ is bigger than any one denomination, and it pleases God to foster unity and cooperation between different denominations (which is one reason I am involved in The Gospel Coalition!). Non-Anglicans can celebrate what God is doing through GAFCON.
Limits to diversity
The conference was also a clear statement of the limits of diversity within the church. To fight the good fight (2 Timothy 4:7) and to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v.3) there must be no compromise on essential doctrines. Paul warns that those who disregard God’s commands about sexuality and holiness “disregard the very words of God” (1 Thess. 4:8).
We must take seriously the many warnings in the Bible against false teaching. Being a Christian means standing for some things, and standing against some things. Church leaders, in particular, have a responsibility to defend the truth and oppose error: “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Anglicans are not the only Christians facing battles over issues of sexuality and the gospel. We need the encouragement and example of others.
Striving for unity
God calls his people to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (Philippians 1:27). Striving for gospel unity will take wisdom and humility. Satan would love to see GAFCON implode and fracture over non-essentials, such as differences in strategy or style. We need to think clearly about what issues are worth dividing over, and do our utmost not to let non-essential differences divide us, while at the same time working towards a common mind on what the Bible teaches.
We need to keep repenting, acting in humility, being aware of our own failures and our tendency to self-righteousness and arrogance and hard-heartedness. If we act without love, all our striving is worthless (1 Corinthians 13). It was reassuring that the conference statement included several clear calls for those within GAFCON to keep repenting.
GAFCON Anglicans will need to remember that there are faithful Anglicans who are not (yet) part of GAFCON. Some faithful Anglicans will straddle both GAFCON and Canterbury; different people will have different convictions about the ’tipping point’ for leaving/separating, and we will need to exercise grace and patience with one another.
The cost of faithfulness
GAFCON was a reminder that it is costly to stand for truth and to oppose those preaching a false gospel. As some in Northern America reported, standing for truth has meant losing church buildings, pensions, a secure income, comfort and convenience. Other Christians, such as those in parts of Nigeria, live in circumstances where they face losing their lives or their families.
Faithfulness is costly in terms of the emotional toll of opposing those in leadership, to whom, under ideal circumstances, we should submit with grace and loyalty. It is costly in terms of broken relationships, as not all members of congregations and dioceses make the same decisions at the same time to separate. It is painful to keep asking, “Is this the right thing to do? Is this worth the cost?” It is painful because the process of reform and renewal is going to be messy and complicated for years to come. The fight is not over: in fact, it will continue until Christ returns.
Our ultimate source of hope
Encouraging though the GAFCON movement is, it is wonderful that it is not our ultimate source of hope. The Church is God’s, not the GAFCON Primates’, not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, not the Africans’, not the West’s. God’s Church is not exclusively Anglican (that should be a relief to you Baptists and Presbyterians and others out there!). And God will preserve his church. Those of us involved in GAFCON would be humbled and delighted if God keeps using this movement to grow and strengthen and purify his church; but we need to remember that He doesn’t need us. We need Him.
Further reading: Faith in a Time of Crisis by Vaughan Roberts and Peter Jensen.