In the recent Evangelical Manifesto put out by Oz Guiness and other Christian leaders in the US, the authors see their evangelical churches as moving into two polarised groupings, the "liberal revisionists" and the "conservative fundamentalists", with the consequent loss of the evangelical middle. While, in the UK, evangelicals might not use those terms in quite the same ways, we surely see the same tendency to polarise.
There are two minor (but important) causes for polarisation and one major one. The minor ones are differences in personalities and lack of environments in which people (leaders in particular) can meet, do ministry together and sort out contentions in a friendly atmosphere.
The major one is that a whole lot of doctrinal issues are being raised that no historical evangelical would ever have debated. Among the issues are:
- the authority of scripture
- whether God knows the future
- whether the atonement is about Christ dying for sin
- the nature of justification
Often the raising of debate in these and other areas is justified by adding a rider or qualification to the word "evangelical": open evangelical; catholic evangelical; liberal evangelical; conservative evangelical, etc. The trouble is that subsequently the national discourse about what it means to be evangelical tends to circulate around the riders and qualifications (often single issue politics) rather than around the core of essential evangelical commitments.
Therefore national discourse and debate is in danger of only taking the form of negative response to provocative or radical statements. This happening at the same time as many seem reluctant to define evangelicalism in any way doctrinally, prefering sociological definitions or self-definition to theological definition. Where any fresh idea is able to enter the frame and - with use of a rider - claim automatic legitimacy within the orbit of evangelicalism there is a danger that the word will become so elastic as to be, to all intents and purposes, useless.
The loss of national doctrinal discourse that everyone is, roughly speaking, in fellowship with leaves us with what Guinness calls "enclaves of separateness." I would want to go a little further and say that it leaves evangelical relationships done in one of several different, but equally destructive, ways:
- the politics of confrontation. Those who feel driven into a corner by these trends tend can want to define the boundaries extremely tightly, effectively saying that to relate to them you have to cross all their Ts and dot all the Is as a prior condition
- the politics of withdrawal. At the opposite extreme are those who don't like drawing doctrinal boundaries at all for fear of doing so ungenerously
- the politics of distance. Those who are so fed up with strident disagreements in the evangelical world that they simply vote out and hermetically seal themselves into new groupings of the like-minded
The great challenge to unity is the breakdown of consensus about what constitutes the core of evangelical commitments. Where the politics of confrontation, withdrawal or distance prevail there will be no forum for saying what must be adhered to and in what areas there may be legitimate difference and plurality between brothers and sisters. Instead there will be increasing definsiveness from all sides, a circling of the wagons, a sniping at each other from positions of invulnerability.
For those who want the core of evangelicalism to be a place of inclusion and understanding, rather than exclusion and hostility, I suggest we need to have three principles for dealing with each other and for being known by others. I call them my three Cs. We need to be:
- confessional. ie doctrinally defined. That way even where there is difference we will at least all know what we are talking about
- clear. Too often there is the temptation to maintain friendships by smudging what we actually think. Or to assume that friendships will be damaged by (generous-minded) challenge. So the temptation is to be chameleons for the sake of peace-keeping in a tense environment. We need to be peace-keepers (and peace-makers), we need to learn to make compromises, but we need to do so with warm-hearted clarity
- kind. It is ever so easy to confessional and clear but hard. I contest that God is remarkably kind to us when we offend him and get things wrong. It is a gospel-primary issue for us to imitate him in this. Do your utmost to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace
We can be confessional and clear but hard if we miss out on being kind. On the other hand if we are kind but not confessional and clear we will be vague and wishy-washy. There is no genuine lasting unity in either of these. We need to draw doctrinal boundaries but to do so as generously as we possibly may. We need to learn to allow others to have genuine difference on secondaries and for it not to destroy our unity, and to treat what they consider to be extremely important secondary matters with the utmost respect. I propose we need a politics of doctrinal kindness.
May God give grace for brothers and sisters to stand shoulder to shoulder in these testing times.