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Thursday, November 03, 2016

Here, Let Me Fix That For You

The always-delightful Doug Wilson (and I say that without a trace of sarcasm) engages with the work of Russell Moore in this piece about building “collaborative majorities” in the Christian community for the purpose of politically engaging the broader culture, as the U.S. religious right has (often unsuccessfully) attempted to do.

As I have mentioned many times before, Doug, despite being postmillennialist Calvinist Reformed (is any of that redundant?) is one of my favourite Christian bloggers. He’s been on a tear lately about unity in the Body of Christ; a very reasonable concern that is close, I suggest, to the heart of our Saviour.

Building Collaborative Majorities

Now, in theory at least, building “collaborative majorities” involves a degree of doctrinal unity. Unity on one theological point or more is inherent in the notion of collaboration. If you can’t agree on anything, you don’t collaborate.

But before we talk about unity, let me just point out one minor problem with such proposals; a problem to which Doug (probably unconsciously) draws attention through his repeated use of the word “group”.

Let’s let Doug illustrate:
“So the question is this. By what standard? How do we determine what groups are out, and what groups are in? How do we build our coalitions in the generation to come? How do we define ally, and how do we define cobelligerent? Because I can guarantee you this — if we proceed with the imprecise language that Moore has thus far outlined, we are going to find ourselves in exactly the same embarrassed position that the establishment religious right is currently in. Some of the groups that are currently jockeying for position, willing to line up with our next generation of ‘gospel-centered’ activists, have the potential to be every bit as tawdry as Trump.”
Doug uses italics to emphasize what matters to him. But his presuppositions are right in there between the lines. “Groups.” “Groups.” “Groups.” Sounds like a pond full of bullfrogs around midnight.

What’s A ‘Group’ Anyway?

A “group” is a collection of Christian individuals bigger than a local church but smaller than the Church Universal. It is almost surely a euphemism for “denomination”, an entity we do not find anywhere in the New Testament; and, if we are honest, a collective distinguished by the sort of sectarian thinking deplored by the apostle Paul. Like any serious disciple of Jesus Christ on his (or her) better days, I try very hard to be neither of Paul nor of Apollos.

A practical man, Doug asks what seems to him to be a perfectly reasonable question: What groups are out, and what groups are in? I find myself balking at the ease with which we have subdivided the kingdom of heaven along lines heaven itself staunchly refuses to recognize. Still, the question might be a valid one if we could assume: (1) genuine continuity of belief within each group; and (2) that we can find someone who legitimately speaks for each group of Christians and can agree on the group’s behalf to engage in ongoing collaboration.

Blurring the Lines

But can we? Nothing is ever that clear-cut. The word “Baptist” is wholly inadequate to describe the disparate collection of believers in Jesus Christ that gather under that umbrella. The words “Pentecostal”, “Reformed”, “Presbyterian” and even “Catholic” are equally hopeless appellations. I know Roman Catholics that reject many of the pronouncements that issue from the modern Vatican, and yet insist on keeping the name. Not only Catholics but every “group” of Christians that gathers anywhere has within it those who find themselves dissenting from whatever statements of faith may have been drawn up for them, assuming they have read them or would understand them if they did. These are people whose attachment to the local church with which they fellowship is neither denominational nor particularly doctrinal.

That doesn’t make these folks unchristian, and it doesn’t make them unsuitable for collaboration with other believers. (They might actually be more suitable, depending on the issue concerning which collaboration is sought.) It just means that denominational distinctives are rarely as representative of the actual heartfelt beliefs of any particular group of congregants as those who have committed them to paper would like to think.

Wheat and Weeds

Further, as the Lord himself taught, in its current incarnation the kingdom of heaven is an admixture of wheat and weeds. How many in any given “group” are actually unsaved? How many are really savage wolves among the sheep? How many don’t actually know what they believe? I suggest the numbers are large.

To respond to the Lord’s expressed desire that they may all be one”, I suggest, requires agreed-upon definitions of both “they” and “one”. Who are we talking about? “One” in what sense?

Am I helping? Probably not. Still, I trust it is clear that we cannot address the collaboration issue until we: (1) accurately define our terms; and (2) figure out who is actually supposed to collaborate with whom.

But there’s a bigger problem. Always has been, and always will be.

An Embarrassed Position

To identify ourselves with any “group” anywhere that is a subset of the Body of Christ — be they Presbyterians, Baptists, Brethren or the Assemblies of God; be they the existing religious right or a new “collaborative majority” — is not only to make anti-biblical distinctions, but ultimately to risk the same sort of “embarrassed position” that Doug foresees for those Christians who align themselves behind Donald Trump. Sure, maybe not to quite the same degree. But embarrassment will be the end result of all such ventures.

Human beings make mistakes. They always have, and until the Lord returns and makes us anew, they always will. My advice? Identify as a follower of Jesus Christ. No more, no less.

The sort of conviction that needs a denomination or some other form of dubiously-arrived-at consensus to line up behind is not really conviction at all.

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