Saturday, July 08, 2017

On Not Showing Up to the Conversation

I’ve watched with interest the back-and-forth over at assemblyHUB around Nathan Abdy’s multi-part online defense of ecumenicalism.

Abdy is a Bible College student who feels the churches in which he circulates are out of touch with the broader Christian community: “If the greater Evangelical Christian world is a party, then ‘the Brethren’ are in the corner twiddling their thumbs, waiting for it to be over.”

Now, in some quarters them’s fightin’ words, and the feedback reflects it: “It’s so sad to read articles like this,” or “Today, [evangelicalism] is a big mess.” Other comments are cautiously approving or even enthusiastic.

Abdy’s original post concentrates on two areas of concern: theological isolation and lack of an ecumenical spirit. Neither is unique to the (small ‘b’) brethren with whom Nathan makes his church home. Theological differences are the main reason we have denominations, and in my experience most denominations are clannish to some extent. As for an ecumenical spirit, I think many Christians agree in principle that it is important to reflect the spiritual unity of the entire Body of Christ. Fewer, though, are able to easily find visible, practical ways to express this conviction.

Firing Up the Conversation

It will probably not surprise you that I agree with Nathan on the need to avoid a sectarian spirit or an attitude of superiority. That’s one reason that our writers here generally make an effort to use the language of the broader evangelical community rather than the tropes of our particular church traditions. Our hope is to be able to speak intelligibly to any believer in Jesus Christ from any church background regardless of whether we differ about the meaning of baptism, the interpersonal dynamics of the Godhead or the interpretation of Ezekiel. I have had close Baptist friends and Pentecostal friends and Anglican friends and Catholic friends over the years, so I’m all for “ecumenicalism” and “conversation” if that sort of thing is what Nathan has in mind.

But I’m not entirely sure it is.

First, Abdy expresses concern that the theological minds in his group are not part of ongoing discussions about things like the New Perspective on Paul or scholarly debates on subordination within the Trinity.

I think there are two issues here: first, awareness; and second, a visible presence at the discussion table, so to speak.

The Awareness Issue

As far as awareness goes, I’m afraid I’m just not seeing the problem Nathan sees.

In fact, I find most theologically-minded older men I know are right on top of the intellectual trends within evangelicalism, even if they may not have the branding or online presence (and definitely not the following) of a Piper, a Grudem or a Wilson. Whether it’s a hot new book to be discussed or a sea change in the teaching of the seminaries, these men know what’s being said, what they believe about it, and where it accords with or departs from scripture. In the appropriate company, much is shared about such issues and trends.

What these men are NOT necessarily doing is bringing these matters before their churches and making them part of some kind of extended platform dialogue, which may be why Nathan and perhaps others perceive them to be sitting in the corner twiddling their thumbs.

Important, or Just Trendy?

There are various reasons for this silence. What is being taught in the seminaries or the broader evangelical community may well be divisive, unprofitable, or just plain irrelevant in their own local setting. Much more often it’s simply esoteric, meaning that the church at large can hardly be expected to follow the intellectual twists and turns required to process the perambulations of scholars. Most don’t have the vocabulary for it, let alone the patience. Little is lost by giving such issues low priority in the gatherings of our local churches, and much confusion is avoided.

The job of elders, after all, is to feed sheep and protect them from food that isn’t good for them, not to introduce them to spiritual novelties they might otherwise never even encounter.

Further, while young men are inclined to regard the evangelical controversy-flashpoints of their youth as meaningful and important (and we’re glad for their enthusiasm), a few years and some perspective often demonstrate that many of these Very Important Issues turn out to be tempests in teapots. They fall out of fashion and disappear, and nobody ever hears from their proponents again. Thus a disinclination to jump into the middle of every theological debate as it is in the process of evolving may be more a product of wisdom than indifference or lack of awareness.

A Voice in the Broader Discussion

As to visible presence, I’m not sure all theological differences of opinion require feedback from every far-flung corner of evangelicalism. The political world is big on at least pretending that all voices are represented and every faction and sub-faction gets a seat at the table, and perhaps that’s necessary when you’re playing identity politics and everyone wants his piece of the pie. But most public debates over the interpretation of scripture are of rather a different character.

On sovereignty, for instance, you may be a Calvinist, you may be an Open Theist, or you might come down somewhere in the middle, but there are certainly not fifty voices required in the debate; three will probably do just fine. I am reluctant to jump into an ongoing public discussion unless it’s clear to me that I have a unique position to set forth that may help bring the other parties together or clear the air. Many other Christians who are capable defenders of the faith are of the same inclination.

After all, if my take on the teaching of scripture on a particular contentious issue is substantially the same as the Lutheran guy, the Presbyterian guy or the Reformed guy, then what’s the point of sticking my nose in? I have no pressing need to be heard. The MacArthur/Sproul baptism debate of 2012 would not have benefited from my presence, though I’m happy to learn what I can from it. Let the big dogs have at it and we’ll see where the discussion takes us. If it’s anywhere good, we can think about how to reframe it in the language of our fellow believers.

One Sane, Scriptural Voice

All to say, I’m far from convinced that a uniquely ‘brethren’ voice (assuming one could get it heard in the first place) adds anything substantive to the public back-and-forth on most evangelical issues of the day (Dispensationalism being the notable exception). I mean, where there is already one sane, scriptural voice in the discussion, who needs another, especially if the second voice is only introduced because of its specific denominational affiliation?

That’s an idea that’s consistent with the principle of one Body, is it not?

(I’ve got more to say on Mr. Abdy’s posts, and will come back to them when time permits.)

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