Scot McKnight has a interesting post today in answer to someone’s question. I can assume from the answer (since the question is not posted) that the question has to do with where the Emerging Church fits into the Evangelical movement. This is a really good question that I have thought about quite a bit lately. I really enjoyed reading his post (as I always do) and I wanted to comment on one paragraph.
He gives a good brief summary of the history of the Evangelical movement spanning over the last 50 years or so. He rightly says that Evangelicalism is “all over the board” and is difficult to define these days. He also talks about the change that it has undergone since the 80s from a broad movement wanting to graciously impact culture to a retro fundamentalist movement with an I’m right your wrong approach to spirituality and politics. Then he says this:
“Many in the evangelical church today want to “clean house” by pushing out those who don’t believe exactly as they think — and not all of the concerns are with the essentials. And the house cleaning seems to be concerned with issues that tie culture and church together — they are concerned about which political party one votes for, where one stands on abortion and stem cell research and homosexuality, and they routinely declare which candidate is the most sacred. And they are concerned about women in ministry and megachurches and how much doctrinal diversity we can handle — and they think that nearly every variation leads to a slippery slope that will end up in apostasy or (worse yet) being a liberal. A clear sign of this is that I’m hearing more and more about denominations that are tightening up their doctrinal statements. This kind of rhetoric reminds me of the old days of Fundamentalism. These folks don’t want evangelicalism to be “all over the place.” They want it to be like an energetic child in one place: to sit in one place and just be quiet.”
While I think that today’s Evangelicalism is in trouble, I don’t believe that we can narrow its problems to this group of symptoms (not that that was exactly what Scot was trying to do). There is much more to it than this and the issues are more foundational. I agree that defining one’s place in the Kingdom should never have its main artery linked to the stand one takes on particular moral and political issues, but it would be an overstatement to suggest that the worsening of the Evangelical problem (demise?) is primarily rooted in the fact people are taking a strong stand for morality and life. Being a regular reader of Scot lets me know that his statements are usually a good mix of being provocative and cautious. I like this approach because it makes people think. But I also think that the cautious was somewhat lacking in this paragraph. Scot is right, people’s relationship with God is not determined by their political affiliation or their stand on any number of important moral issues. If it were, we would have problems, because mine are not all going to line up with yours in stance or degree of conviction. As well, yours are not going to line up with mine or anyone else’s. We are all going to be somewhat different, and some diversity is good. But I am not so sure that he is right that Christians who listen to and are persuaded of the truth of God’s word can sit back and twiddle their thumbs simply because one’s stance on moral issues are not essential for salvation or because there is diversity in opinion. All our stands must be based upon our conviction that it best represents God’s truth as we have come to know it. And the degree of our convictions should follow the same criteria. Some decisions are more clear than others. Some represent issues that are more vital than others. Whatever political party one subscribes to must be well thought through, understanding the issues of both sides. I am a Republican and conservative. This does not mean that I hold the party line on everything. Neither does it mean that I believe all who disagree simply need to “get saved” to solve their unfortunate problem of parting with me on the issues. I am a Republican and conservative because I believe that they serve the greater good on most of the issues, not the perfect good. I hope to extend grace and evidence humility to the other side, knowing that there are reasons why they think the way they do and their experience and perspective do not allow them see things the way I am seeing them. Yes, I still think I am right, but not in a black and white sort of way. I pray that those who disagree with me will show me the same courtesy.
I agree with Scot in his analysis that Evangelicalism, from the standpoint of popular culture, is perceived as those who say you are in or out based upon your stance on such and such political and moral issues. This is very unfortunate. But the diagnosis must move beyond the symptoms and reveal the real problem (which is much more than I can hope to do in this post). What is the real problem with Evangelicalism? I think the root of the problem lies in the fact that most people in the pews today don’t really know what it means to be a Christian or Evangelical. There is an old saying that you are who you think other people think you are. If other people are saying that this is what being Evangelical means, than people take that in and that becomes the definition from their standpoint. But it should not be. To be Christian means to follow Jesus Christ based upon an understanding of who He was and what He did. To be orthodox means that you hold to the confessions of the historic Christian faith. To be Evangelical means that you understand the difference between essentials and non-essentials and you are persuaded of the need to share the essential Christ with others in humility and grace. Therefore, it is not so much “what you think” as it is “the way you think it” (you knew it was going to come down to theology, didn’t you?).
Our list of criteria for “ins and outs” should be very small. This does not mean that we have few convictions, but it does mean that we are theologically prepared and bent toward representing the essential message of the Gospel. Unfortunately, that is not the perception that being Evangelical has today. Our brightest lights are our essential convictions, humility, and grace. If we are going to be rejected by the world, let us do so for the real reasons.
What do you think? Is today’s Evangelicalism retro-fundamentalism?