On September 30, 1938, the Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, came back to his country after a tense meeting in Munich with Adolf Hitler. The UK was concerned about Germanyâ€™s aggressive stance on its neighbors. Chamberlain, however, was relieved that Hitler had signed a treaty with Great Britain. He optimistically declared â€œPeace for our time!â€ to a jubilant crowd in London, as he held the peace treaty up high for all to see. Less than a year later, Hitler invaded Poland, launching World War II.
Many evangelicals look at Chamberlainâ€™s moment in the sun as the height of naivetÃ©. They argue that compromise with anyone who is different from them plants the seeds of their own destruction. The problem is, analogies prove nothing. Compromise with an evil dictator like Adolf Hitler is a far cry from compromise with other Christians over internal matters. Analogies always break down.
All of us compromise if we have any friends at all. Every marriage involves compromiseâ€”and on a massive scaleâ€”or else it ends in extreme tension or divorce. No one who attends a church agrees with everyone else there with whom they fellowship. Yet, we have no problem with this sort of compromise. The question is, Where do we draw the line and what sort of lines should we draw?
Some evangelical leaders are calling out for â€˜No Compromiseâ€™ as a battle cry for the faith. But if this is not nuanced, if there is no definition of what we should not compromise, the application of this principle can be too rigid and even unlovingâ€”that is, unchristian.
We could look at the Christian faith from two poles: love and truth. In one sense, love is all about compromise. Paul told the believers at Philippi to consider each other as more important than themselves (Phil 2.3). That is the height of compromise; it is unselfish living, living for others and for Christ and forsaking oneâ€™s own desire and ambitions for the greater good. On the other hand, the Christian faith is all about maintaining a standardâ€”a standard of conduct and a standard of belief. In this sense, truthâ€”or a common creedâ€”is the thing that should never be compromised. But hereâ€™s where things get messy.
Many have heard the joke about extreme separatism among Christians:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said â€œStop! Donâ€™t do it!â€
â€œWhy shouldnâ€™t I?â€ he said.
I said, â€œWell, thereâ€™s so much to live for!â€
He said, â€œLike what?â€
I said, â€œWell… are you religious, agnostic, or atheist?â€
He said, â€œReligious.â€
I said, â€œMe too! Are you Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist?â€
He said, â€œChristian.â€
I said, â€œMe too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?â€
He said, â€œProtestant.â€
I said, â€œMe too! Are you Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Baptist?â€
He said, â€œBaptist!â€
I said, â€œIncredible! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?â€
He said, â€œBaptist Church of God!â€
I said, â€œMe too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?â€
He said, â€œReformed Baptist Church of God!â€
I said, â€œMe too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?â€
He said, â€œReformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!â€
I said, â€œDie, heretic!â€, and pushed him off.
Many evangelicals would smile at this joke: â€œThatâ€™s the trouble with fundamentalists!â€ Itâ€™s an extreme parody on fundamentalism; yet, evangelicals often draw the lines where they ought not as well. When we think of Christianity in terms of love, compromise is key. When we think of it in terms of truth, compromise is often a dirty word. But since truth does not exist in isolationâ€”since there is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christianâ€”believers must combine truth with love. And that means that just as Christianity involves certain standards, compromise must also constitute a part of what it means to be a Christianâ€”even when it comes to truth, or more precisely, perception of truth.
This is an opening volley on the issue of compromise, so I wonâ€™t dwell on the matter too much. But let me ask some questions for you to ponder:
- When does oneâ€™s humble commitment to truth transgress the border of arrogance?
- How should we define fellowshipâ€”that is, with whom can we have fellowship? Do they have to cross their tâ€™s and dot their iâ€™s exactly the same way we do?
- Is fellowship the same as friendship?
- Is there anything we can learn about compromise from the disciples whom Jesus picked to be his apostles?
- What must one believe to be saved? Does the person have to be evangelical? Protestant? Believe in the deity of Christ? Believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ? Be premillennial? Embrace inerrancy? Use a Mac? Be a Republican?
- Should we distinguish levels of certainty when it comes to our credo? Are there things that scripture bears greater, more explicit witness to, or are all doctrines treated alike? (And since I am a dispensationalist, I must of course end with a seventh question, or else I will be charged with heresy.)
- How does our culture view conservative Christians today? Is this perception something that we have contributed to? Is it a good perception? If not, what can we do to change itâ€”and are we willing to go there?