Is Evangelicalism Confusion By Design?
Posted by Job on November 5, 2009
There are a lot of criticisms of evangelical Christianity. Some are legitimate issues aired by those motivated by or searching for doctrinal truth – particularly those which come from current or former evangelicals – but others represent sniping by agenda motivated or ill informed sectarians. I admit that in my criticisms of “evangelicalism” (to employ the derisive term, at least when it is wielded by sectarians that is) I was the latter of the latter: an ill-informed sectarian. I am still sectarian, but I would hope that I am now better informed.
My issue: evangelicalism’s melting pot nature. You have free will Christians and predestinarians. Pentecostals and cessationists. Premillennials and amillennials. Believer-immersers and baby-sprinklers. State churchers and free churchers. Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Anglicans oh my, and now even a Quaker or Messianic Jew or two!
Of course, this primarily exists for unity in the Body of Christ, fellowship and cooperation among all Bible-believing born again Christians. And that is very good. However, we should never forget that these denominations, for all their merits and good works, exist for a reason.
Now I am not talking about such things as denominational splits over whether to use electric instruments or not. Instead, these various Christian groups and movements all represent serious differences on very important areas of doctrine. Maybe they are not quite what Al Mohler calls the theological triage (http://www.albertmohler.com/?cat=Commentary&cdate=2004-05-20) but instead real differences that can have significant implications on what Christians believe and how we live out the faith.
Recall the “melting pot” analogy. In a nation of diverse cultures, that is a good thing, as it results in a blending of peoples that makes the whole more vibrant and cohesive. However, in religion it is not so good. Among different religions, it is the snare (to Christians anyway) of syncretism. But even among disparate Christian traditions – which again have legitimate reasons for existing – it results in a sort of leveling, a settling to the bottom (if not quite a race to the bottom) that shifts and pushes out whatever it was that made these disparate traditions special in the first place. Compare it to eating at restaurants. Instead of a really good Italian, Chinese or American restaurant that serves excellent and near authentic meals, you get this greasy buffet or cafeteria style cuisine where you can mash your spaghetti, french fries and stir-fried vegetables all onto the same platter without knowing or caring that they really don’t belong together so long as it goes down easy with your soft drink and your antacids keep it from coming back up again later.
I suppose that if you want to remain on the externals of the faith, the basics, or even if you penetrate somewhat deeper, that is fine. But if you really want to delve into the faith, then you are really in for it! On one hand, you have the teachers, preachers and theologians who simply want to stay “in the evangelical mainstream”, so they simply avoid topics that may offend the Methodists (or the Lutherans or the Baptists etc.) However, even those who maintain their distinctiveness can tie you in knots. You may attend a Presbyterian church, read a Baptist devotional, listen to a Methodist radio show, subscribe to an Anglican podcast and hear all of these doctrines, theologies, interpretations, systems etc. and it is a mishmash. No coherency of thought, no unity of message, but rather you start on one path, pick up another denominational thought mid-stream, then you hop on the other boat that you have no idea where it is taking you or why, and you wind up trapped in a labyrinth of religious ideas that is impossible to organize. The problem isn’t that you have all the pieces of a puzzle that you have to put together, for that is a challenge that, while daunting, is still achievable. The problem is also not that you have all the pieces of several puzzles that you have to put together to make several pictures, because even though the degree of difficulty may be several magnitudes greater, it is still theoretically feasible.
Instead, the problem is that you have pieces of DIFFERENT puzzles that you have to assemble together TO MAKE ONE PICTURE! Further, you don’t even possess all of the pieces required to make a single picture. Instead, you have some pieces of Arminianism, some pieces of Wesleyanism, some pieces of Lutheranism, some pieces of dispensationalism, some pieces of Pentecostalism etc. that you have to fit together, a goal that is not so much impossible – for with God all things are possible – as it is suspect. It is confusion, and God is not the author of confusion. It results in our simply having to omit and not talk about things – important things! – for the sake of unity (or rather simply to avoid interminable arguments), and because of the gaps and discontinuities, so little deep and wide Bible knowledge exists. Instead, there are just fragments, pieces – and a lot of them! – that float around unorganized. That may be precisely why political and cultural issues – worldly things – are such a draw, because they provide a structure, some sort of framework or interpretative filter, for all of these religious and doctrinal ideas that otherwise do not exist. (We may not be able to agree on sanctification or the atonement, but we can at least all agree to vote pro-family, because, hey, it is something that we can understand so that what really counts!)
Incidentally, many of our leading seminaries only add to this issue. So many are “interdenominational evangelical” by design. Still others profess denominational distinctives but think nothing of hiring faculty from other denominations (i.e. Albert Mohler’s Southern Baptist seminary hiring Presbyterians) or using the standard “evangelical” textbooks that are either shorn of doctrinal distinctives or present surface level summaries of all the “major and mainstream” evangelical viewpoints without endorsing one or the other. Result: the Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Church of Christ etc. product of such a seminary will hardly be able to articulate why he adheres to a particular denominational tradition unless he was already firmly rooted in such convictions before he entered.
Now of course, no one denomination has a monopoly on the truth. So, my intent is not to promote my own particular tradition as the only true way and demand that all you heretics end your rebellious ways and join it lest you perish. Instead, I am forming the opinion that it is very important for a person to stick with a particular denomination or line of doctrinal thought and learn all the truth that he possibly can in the context of that one tradition. It is not that a person cannot learn truth from another tradition, but rather that if a person is not fully grounded in a single system, does not fully understand the great doctrines as presented in an organized coherent whole by one denomination or tradition, he won’t be so much as learning from another tradition as he is adding more layers to his religious patchwork hash. It is the equivalent of trying to teach French and Polish to a child that hasn’t mastered English yet.
And yes, there is a discernment angle, an apologetics angle, to this. With passing time I see more and more efforts by evangelicals to dialogue with and reach out to Roman Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses (ok, Jehovah’s Witnesses not so much) etc. Interfaith exchanges, ecumenism, and so forth are the passion of the day, especially when the goals of such exchanges are cooperation in doing good works (and of course fighting political and cultural battles). Is it because we are so hesitant to unequivocably state our differences with each other that we also lose the courage to state our differences with other faiths?
Honestly, I say no. I am not at all stating that because evangelical Presbyterian hesitates in boldly telling an evangelical Episcopalian, Methodist and Baptist why he is Presbyterian that he is similarly unwilling to demarcate himself from a Mormon, Jew or Catholic. Instead, I am proposing that because of the evangelical melting pot, the evangelical homogeneity, the evangelical confusion such a Presbyterian may not comprehend the distinctive depths of his own tradition – and thereby be hindered from using tradition to interpret the Biblical faith – well enough to know why pursuing such endeavors as “Evangelicals And Catholics Together” or “Christians United For Israel” is insanity. There is a distinction between Presbyterians, Baptists and Pentecostals worshiping the same Jesus Christ a different way and Christians and Roman Catholics worshiping a different Jesus Christ altogether. You can have real fellowship and communion with the former, but you should have nothing to do with the latter except evangelism. That is one of the many areas that so many evangelicals do not understand because they don’t know enough about their own tradition, which is a real barrier to a deep and wide knowledge of Biblical Christianity.
We cannot learn the faith piecemeal, with bits and snippets assembled here and there. The faith must be presented and understood orderly and systematically. The best way – perhaps the only way – may well be to get out of the evangelical melting pot and committing oneself to studying the faith in an organized, coherent manner.
This is not to be confused as a manifesto for denominationalism, for it does not promote a particular denomination. Instead, this merely advocates finding a particular tradition that trains people in Biblical Christianity and learning all that one can through it.