I was part of a group of 15 seminary professors and pastors who gathered in Richmond Virginia a week ago. We were invited together by The Ecclesia Network and The Baptist General Association of Virginia to talk about and mourn the fragmenting and polarization of North American evangelicalism over recent years. But more, we gathered to discuss how we might create a space for evangelicals who fall between the two marked paths of the neo-Reformed movements and the emerging church movements. Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight and Roger Olson were conversation catalysts for us. We gathered just after the firestorm around Rob Bell’s book Love Wins swept the Internet, churches, seminaries and bookstores. It was a good couple of days together. We will gather again. Here are some of my reflections on the state of evangelicalism and possible ways forward.
Evangelicalism is cracking up. That is the way some have defined the current environment. People are taking sides, or being labeled, or being banished. The options for some seem to be choosing to be a heretic or a hater. Evangelicals are fragmented, polarized and discontent.
The conversations we engage in are vitally important. We must not ignore the issues being raised. They have implications for our understanding of Scripture, conversion and the work of the cross, and our engagement in culture. But, can we develop a middle way, a new way to frame our discussions?
It is a sweeping generalization, but there are two ways to engage this conversation. We can talk about bounded sets and centered sets (Paul Hiebert). Bounded sets are concerned with boundaries, who is in and who is not. Centered sets are concerned with strengthening the core, the center. Bounded set people also hold to central convictions. The difference is how we approach the issues.
We talked about sheep. I am not a shepherd, but here goes: There are two ways to keep sheep contained. One way is to build fences (bounded sets). Sheep roam, but only roam as far as the fence will allow. The other way to contain sheep is to build deep watering wells. The sheep will roam, but they remain close to well.
Following the deep well model, here is a way to frame our discussions that can develop an orthodoxy that has deep convictions, and is also generous and humble. It seeks to create a space where theological concepts can be discussed and even debated. This conversation space allows for and encourages freedom of exploration, not fearing a phrase like “theological innovation.” The goal is “to stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). This is a gospel mission imperative.
Three elements are necessary for this theologically forming space:
1. This space emerges from a strong and distinctive theological identity. There is a middle way. This middle way is for disenfranchised fundamentalists and disillusioned liberals. This middle way rests on an identity as evangelicals that affirm the core convictions of the authority of Scripture, the necessary work of Jesus on the cross, the necessity of conversion, and gospel engagement in the world.
A way forward must be grounded in this critical identity that is biblically and historically rooted, and yet it allows for theological freedom. Dr. Jay Phelan, former president of North Park Theological Seminary speaking of the Evangelical Covenant Church writes: “In the Covenant we have a chance to offer to the world a grown-up faith that can handle ambiguity, a faith that can handle hard questions, a faith that can accept people even when they are wrong, a faith that permits disagreements and encourages discussion…” (John Phelan, The Covenant Church in the Postmodern World, Covenant Ministerium, 1998). This type of grown up faith only emerges from a strong core identity.
2. This space is rooted in relationships. The recent debates over books and theological positions are disheartening. Theological stances are important. We should vigorously discuss these matters. Along the way, however, we have forgotten that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. While we hold tightly to our convictions, we must also reach out to each other. A spirit of modesty and generosity is necessary. A sense of theological freedom must prevail. Pioneers in the Mission Friends movement that became the Evangelical Covenant Church said: “The doors of the church are wide enough to admit all who believe and narrow enough to exclude those who do not” (Covenant Affirmations, Covenant Publications, 2006). It is a more tenuous path, but our commitment to each other as members of the Body of Christ demands this risk taking.
3. This space lives out of a creative gospel dynamic. The gospel message is an old, old story. And yet, each time the gospel engages a new culture or a new era, that gospel story must be recast in ways that make it fresh and meaningful. Our theological task is not static. It is constantly changing, and that can be unnerving. Sometimes we get it right, other times we don’t. Yet we are confident that Spirit of God is at work among the people of God (Alan Roxburgh). This has always been true. It is still true today. We are engaged in a dynamic enterprise of proclaiming good news. We must make room for doubts and questions. Being different does not necessarily mean than someone is wrong. We are human. We muddle through.
We are to be people of great gospel conviction, and yet we must allow for ambiguity and mystery. We engage in this task together. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are to be a community of interpreters together. In dialogue with each other. We hold to the motto: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This is a generous orthodoxy.