Four Desires for the Future of Evangelicalism: Doing Theology In Love

evangelicalismWhat does the future hold? It’s the perennial question of life. Every 12 months we ask it in earnest and as the new year rolled over I began to think about what I would love to see with regard to the future of the Evangelical church. There are many things I love about Evangelicalism, and yet there are specific areas where we are exceedingly weak and need improvement. So, though I know no one of influence will read and regard this post, here’s my list of things I’d love to see Evangelicalism improve on: four desires for the future of Evangelicalism.

The first of these desires focuses more on the heart attitudes of our communities than on our activities. In terms of actions I think Evangelicals do a lot of good. We are highly engaged in social ministries, crisis care, and disaster relief. We do not, however, always reflect the most compassionate and people-first attitudes. This is even true among Evangelicals, as we isolate ourselves within our specific tribe and launch rhetorical hand-grenades at one another. A major area of growth, then, needs to be in how we do theology as a various tribes under this one umbrella of Evangelicalism. I firmly believe, we need to do our theology in love. The way we do theology should lead us to love one another better, even as we disagree.

The Bible states clearly that we are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). So, love is an essential component of what it means to speak truth, to do theology. We tend to pit truth and love against one another, as if you can really only do one or the other. Robert Kellemen said:

The Bible never pits truth against love. It never lays them out on a graduation or ranking system. The Bible presents equal couplets: truth/love, Scripture/soul, Bible/relationship, truth/grace. (Gospel Conversations, 33)

We create the separation, but the Bible emphasizes that in fact truth is always to be done in love. This ought to impact, then, the way we think about our theological practice. Does our theologizing communicate the love of God in Christ?

The world, even the Evangelical world, is full of divisions. The church is incredibly fissiparous. We divide over everything and we create little theological tribes of like-minded believers. We establish the boundaries: if you’re not like me then you are my enemy. One wonders how such an approach to the life of the church and the doctrines of God fit with Jesus’ prayer in John 17. How can such a divided church honor Jesus’ final prayers? Furthermore, Jesus teaches that the world will know we are His followers by our “love” (John 13:35). If we hate, belittle, demean, and divide over non-essentials we will fail to testify to the truths of the gospel, whatever else we may say and do. Love matters!

I had the privilege of serving on a church that reflected the unity within diversity that reflects doing theology in love. At a previous church I was one of six pastors on staff, and each had his own background and theological convictions. One came from a Church of Christ background, another from Wesleyan Methodism. We had a former Presbyterian, Oneness Pentecostal, Free Will Baptist, and Southern Baptist among our staff. There were divergent views on God’s sovereignty, End Times, and spiritual gifts. This created no small amount of tension at times, but we loved each other and we worked to build a united church. The church too reflected these differences and yet there was love and mutual support within the body. It was not a perfect church by any means, but in this component I found myself profoundly challenged and encouraged.

This is not a call to be naive. We do have real theological differences and those differences matter. We should not fabricate some illusion of false uniformity where these differences create real tension. But uniformity and unity are not the same thing. We can disagree and still love, support, and encourage one another. We can still, I would be inclined to argue, even worship together. John Frame has made a very compelling argument for what he calls an Evangelical Reunion. In his book by the same name he suggests a number of things that can start this process, but he admits to the uncertain terrain moving forward. I believe two key attitudes can help us do our theology in love, do it in way that promotes unity among the diversity.

The first attitude is legitimate self-criticism. Theology done in humility recognizes that while the Scripture are infallible, we are not! We can be wrong. Our heroes can be wrong! Our pastors can be wrong! We need to be honest about this and willing to engage these errors with wisdom, grace, and yet boldness. We need the humility to hold some non-essential doctrines loosely. Not every doctrine is worth dividing over. Can we recognize the Scriptural arguments for an opposing viewpoint? Are we willing to let the Spirit guide us all into more knowledge? Are we willing to sharpen our interpretation of a passage by engaging with those who disagree? We need to be willing to identify weaknesses, holes, and gaps in our thoughts and theological systems. No system is perfect; therefore there will always be deficiencies in our beliefs or understandings. We can be honest about those things, don’t be afraid of that. There are some who will insist that any criticism of our own tribe, or group, or church, or denomination is evidence that we are moving in a liberal direction. We cannot give into such peer pressure. If we can’t critique ourselves then we can never grow. If we can’t critique ourselves than our affection is not for truth, but for safety. Doing theology in love means being willing to see where we might be wrong.

The second attitude is fairness. We are often quick to denounce everyone who is different from us, and in so doing we often create straw men-false representations of another’s view. These extreme interpretations of another’s theology are not fair or accurate. Such an approach may help to confirm our opinion, but it is not kind and certainly not doing theology in love. Doing theology in love seeks to identify any common ground that might exist between me and those I disagree with. It seeks to understand them as they intend to be understood. Strive to find overlaps, and build on what is good in their system. Critique with kindness, as Iron sharpens Iron…not as enemies fight enemies. Frame, with whom I disagree on Baptism, has brilliantly said:

Often a theologian will correctly identify a weakness in the view of another but will play that weakness for farmore than it is really worth. Thus minor differences are elevated to major differences, and theological disputes become church divisions. How contrary to the teaching of Scripture (see John 17:11, 22f.; 1 Cor. 1:11ff; 3; 12; Eph. 4:3-6)! We have a responsibility before God not to exaggerate the importance of our differences. Some doctrinal differences (for example, over vegetarianism, observance of days, idol food –see Rom. 14:1; 1 Cor. 8-10) are treated very mildly in the New Testament, both parties being urged to live together in love, without any reference to formal discipline. Other issues (for example, Judaizing as Paul attacks it in Galatians) are much more serious, because they compromise the heart of the gospel. It is theologically and spiritually important to be able to recognize that difference and to behave appropriately. (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 327)
I desperately want to see a church that reflects more of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. I want to see an Evangelicalism that can appreciate our differences, even as we disagree, and can build bridges to more cooperation and charity.
Maybe a full-blown Evangelical reunion is a pipe-dream, idealism and wishful thinking. Maybe I am under-selling the challenges of a church full of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals. Maybe such unity within diversity is only a potentiality in heaven. I don’t think it is, but maybe I am naive. If nothing else, however, I’d love to see a church that reintroduces love into our theology, such that our doctrinal differences don’t negate our cooperation and appreciation for one another. That’s my desire for the future of Evangelicalism.

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