Evangelicals always seem to be arguing over something. It’s in our DNA. Protestantism is simply PROTEST-antism. For some that means to be a protestant means I must protest. But in our quickness to protest and defend truth, have we made Jesus and the gospel a secondary issue in evangelicalism?
Few would deny that the political landscape of America has become more polarized in recent years. The rise of alternative media, talk radio, and the internet have not brought greater understanding of issues, but a new public square where we can yell across lines without having to listen to what is being yelled back with less difficulty. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out this is extremely unproductive. And we know it. Congress is ineffective and thus receives low approval ratings from the public.
This same polarization is creeping into the evangelical church. Like the rest of culture, we are losing our ability to listen to the other. This will ultimately hurt our witness in the world, our ability to fulfill Jesus’ last prayer for unity in his church, and our ability to love one another. But deeper still, I believe our increasing polarization will cause us to lose focus on the gospel and get caught up with secondary issues.
John Stott, in his book Christ the Controversalist, quotes Georg Ingle, late Bishop of Willesden, as saying that the sad spectacle of division within the church comes when “Allegiance to a church, or even to a party in that Church,comes before allegiance to Christ.” Stott goes on to say,
“If I thought that being an evangelical Christian involved a party loyalty which took precedence over allegiance to Christ, I would give up being an evangelical immediately. They very idea of subordinating Christ to a party is abhorrent to me.”
With posts like Joe Carter’s and John Piper’s words, I can’t help but wonder if Stott would give up being an evangelical. I understand that last statement may cause some to spit their drink out, but it seems that being an evangelical is now, more than ever, defined by one’s loyalty to a particular party. I have a growing sense that if one is not reformed, complementarian, creationist, and Republican-voting their legitimacy as an evangelical is, not only questioned, but in some cases out right denied. Allegiance to Jesus and a desire to see people come to know him as Lord seem secondary to ones stance on women’s ordination or politics or some other issue.
Some will push back and say those issues are not secondary but are in fact extremely important. For them, the perceived problem is not about the issue (gender-roles, social justice, politics, etc.), but about the Bible. Their fear is that more liberal interpretations of the Bible in particular areas will lead to a less than evangelical stance on Jesus, sin, and the gospel. While I agree that we must be careful to guard orthodoxy, I can’t help but think fear is a driving motivational factor causing people to hold tight to party lines that are not meant to be held to.
Let’s take women’s ordination for example. The complementarian would say they derive their beliefs that a woman should not be ordained to the office of elder or deacon based on Biblical authority. Most egalitarians I know, myself included, would say they derive their beliefs that women can be ordained into these offices from the Bible. If both tenants of evangelicalism is holding the Bible in high authority for determining how one should live, are not both being true to what it means to being an evangelical? Might this be a party line secondary to allegiance to Christ? This isn’t just limited to women’s ordination, but could been said in regards to social justice, politics or any of the other issues evangelicals battle over.
The question must be asked, is evangelicalism broad enough and mature enough to allow for differing views on secondary issues to exist under the same umbrella?
Please hear me. I am not saying those issues are not important. They are extremely important. It would do us well to have open, honest dialogue about them so the church can be faithful to Jesus, to scripture, and to her witness to the world. Unfortunately, it seems the kind of dialogue that would lead to greater understanding is not possible. For years the church fought over things like communion and believer versus infant baptism. In spite of those bitter battles, we have since come to a place where, by and large, we accept our differences in these areas. They now have become secondary issues and new theological differences have arisen to take their place. And new secondary issues will rise when these issues are deemed truly secondary. Paul wrote that now, in this life, we “see dimly” and we will see dimly until the moment in which we see Jesus. Only at that point will we see clearly. As long as we see dimly we will always have different interpretations and understandings in regards to scripture. Our imperfect hermeneutics will always cause us to arrive at different conclusions.
With that in mind maybe the best thing we can do is work on accepting our brother and sister with grace; to understand them rather than be understood. James exhortation to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” may be the most needed word in an age when polarization is the modus operandi. Maybe we would be slower to draw lines in the sand determining who is the most faithful of those who say they follow Jesus.
As we look back at issues that divided the church in the past, communion and baptism, perhaps history can help us take a deep breath and give us hope that there is coming a day in which these modern “watershed” issues will truly become secondary. A day when the gospel and allegiance to Christ come before every secondary issue and we can be united by what truly matters; the glory of God in Jesus Christ.