The Great Evangelical Divide: Part 2 of 2

Hawaii Overlook

“There is a great and- I would argue- illegitimate divide within the Evangelical Church today. A schism that if left unchecked will continue to eat away at our witness and stifle our worship…. The debate always seems to come up between learning about God and experience of God, between truth and unity, between head and heart and Word and Spirit, etc.” – From Part 1

Is there a way for these camps to come together? Can knowledge of God and experience of God, head and heart, Word and Spirit be joined in our worship of God? Can this false- but very painful- dichotomy that exists within the Evangelical Church be healed? I believe the answer is- and must be- a resounding, “yes!”

Jesus, when He was praying for His disciples said, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23). Likewise, years later, the Apostle Peter wrote to the early Christian church, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). Paul too, repeatedly affirmed the need for Gospel centered unity in the body of Christ, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13-15). My friend, Jim Rudd, recently put it this way, “If you’re so spiritual that you can’t get along with other people, you might want to rethink you’re definition of ‘spiritual.'”

In the church today many of us are far too quick to accuse, judge, and even condemn fellow believers, their doctrines, and their practices in the name of truth, while others of us are far too quick to accept, embrace, and indulge unhealthy believers, teachers, and  their doctrines, in the name of unity. Neither of these two extremes are Biblical. The overwhelming consensus of Scripture calls for the church of God to grow up together in Christ Jesus, not by sacrificing either truth or unity, but by embracing them both in the bonds of Christian love (Ephesians 4:1-16). In other words, Christian unity will not be found in bludgeoning brothers and sisters who disagree with, or do not appreciate, our particular stream of theology. However, neither will Christlike unity be found in embracing each, and every, wave of aberrant doctrine that promotes itself as Christian, in order to maintain “fellowship.” As Warren Wiersbe so aptly put it, “truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” So, if Scripture commands us to walk in both truth and unity, how do we do it? How do we obey Scripture and hold these two mandates in tension. I would venture to say that this kind of Christian unity will only come by way of Gospel centered humility (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Only at the foot of the Cross can we possibly hope to embrace truth and love, because it is only through the Cross that we, ourselves, were embraced by the Author of truth and love! If there was anyone who ever understood this principle it was the Apostle Paul. When he wrote to the Roman church he set the stage for everything that would follow with these words, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:15-17). For Paul, there was no other place to start but with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was going to encourage and exhort the Roman church and he was going to challenge and, possibly, offend them too, but he knew the only ground he had to stand on was the Gospel. His authority was not his own, his words were not his own, even his heart for them, was not his own. He had been saved from sin and death, he had been purchased at great price, and had been given a calling that depended, not on his own strength, but was wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit within Him. Likewise, to the church in Corinth he wrote, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Paul’s ministry and mission were founded not on argument, nor on emotional hype, but on the proclamation of the Cross of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And this emphasis is not Paul’s alone, throughout the New Testament, the writers continually hone in on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for the Christian life, both personally and corporately (Hebrews 1:1-3, 4:14-16, 12:1-2; James 1:21; I Peter 1:3-12, 3:18; I John 2:1-6, Revelation 5). At times they come with great fire and righteous anger, but even these moments, are tempered by a deep love for the church and a burning desire to see their brothers and sisters in Christ grow up into full maturity. It has been said before, but it bears repeating here, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” All the theological understanding and insight in the world, is nothing if not given over to love of God and people. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

In a famous scene from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was being questioned by the religious elite of the day. Now, they were not seeking to learn from Him, they were hoping to trap Him- to get Him to say something that they could use against Him. So one of them asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus answer was nothing new, this command had been given 1400 years earlier (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), but He wanted remind the religious leaders of His day- as well as all leaders, pastors, teachers, etc., yet to come- that love of God and love of people is the template for Christian discipleship and maturity.

Relationship with God, both today and for all eternity, is- or should be- the goal to which all sound Biblical theology points us. At the same time, relationship with God, should arouse a desire within the heart and mind for the pursuit of sound Biblical theology. If our theology is aberrant, or even shallow, then our relationship with Christ will suffer as we will not know how to rightly relate to Him. How many people sit in our churches, Sunday after Sunday, and think that they have to do something- achieve some ethereal level of obedience or submission- in order to really be acceptable to God? How many people sit there, week after week, thinking that there are two sets of Christians, those who are saved- as if by the skin of their teeth- and those how are really full of Christ- part of the inner circle? How many of our brothers and sisters need to hear the Gospel anew, need to hear again that they have been saved by the grace of God alone, through faith in the person and work of Christ alone, and are now filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped for every good work that God has placed before them?! On the other hand, if we allow our pursuit of theology, to supplant our personal intimacy with Christ, then we will soon grow cold, arrogant, and divisive. In the words of Timothy Keller, “We must be able to existentially access our doctrinal convictions. If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will eventually lead to nominal Christianity—that is, in name only—and eventually to nonbelief. The irony is that many conservative Christians, most concerned about conserving true and sound doctrine, neglect the importance of prayer and make no effort to experience God, and this can lead to the eventual loss of sound doctrine…. Christianity without real experience of God will eventually be no Christianity at all” (‘Prayer‘).

Pursue truth, as Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Pursue unity, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). These are not options, they are commands. We are not called to settle for one or the other, we are commanded, and compelled, to pursue both! Anything less will lead us astray and will damage the witness and worship of the church! But taken together, pursued, in the love of God and love for one another, we will grow up into the likeness of Christ. I love the way Matt Smethurst put it in his article, ‘How to Criticize Other Christians without Being Mean‘: “May the Lord grant us the wisdom and grace to mingle clarity of conviction with untiring affection for sinning saints. Despite our differences, all Christians are fellow travelers, siblings, soldiers, sufferers, and heirs. May our witness reflect the deep unity we share. As we strive to be marked by gospel truth, let’s labor just as untiringly to be marked by gospel love.”

In the end, no author- no pastor or theologian- can put it better than the Word of God itself. In his letter the the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul urged the church to pursue in unity in Christ- the only way it can really be attained- in truth and in love. In closing, I want to encourage us to let the weight of this passage impact us and transform how we interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ. “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16).

-Soli Deo Gloria

The Great Evangelical Divide: Part 1 of 2

The study of theology does not equal relationship with God any more than than the study of a person equals relationship with that person. I’m pretty sure some of you just cheered a rousing, “amen,” after that first sentence, while others of you just went on high alert, your hackles got all… hackled, and you have just entered into your best ninja fighting crouch. All I ask is that before you assume I am on one side or another, please allow me the opportunity to encourage and exhort (or, depending on how it goes, alienate and offend) both sides before you pass judgement.

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A picturesque divide on the Island of Hawaii.

There is a great and- I would argue- illegitimate divide within the Evangelical Church today. A schism that if left unchecked will continue to eat away at our witness and stifle our worship. In almost every church I have been a part of (not to mention Christian College, seminary, discipleship program, etc.) the debate always seems to come up between learning about God and experience of God, between truth and unity, between head and heart and Word and Spirit, etc. Rarely, if ever, does either side of this debate think they are proposing an either/or scenario, rather they believe they are seeking a good balance, or right ordering of priorities. However, in an effort to make their case, both sides often talk past one another, almost as if speaking different dialects of the same language, and so using words in a way that completely throws the other party for a loop. I am not sure if I can avoid this language barrier here, but here goes….

First off, let me lay all my cards on the table. I love theology! I am student, practitioner, and, at times, teacher of theology. If I am not talking about theology, I am probably reading about it, if I am not reading about it, I am probably thinking about it (or I’m watching a movie… I do like movies….). To be honest, I find it ironic- and somewhat humorous- when I hear Christians saying they do not like theology. I do not believe it is possible to be a Christian and truly dislike theology (generally when a believer says that they do not like theology what they mean is they do not like a certain aspect of, or perspective on, theology). Many believers think that somehow theology gets in the way of real relationship with God. But is that really the case? I do not think so. Theology is, according to Webster’s, “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” So, for a Christian to say, “I love God, but not theology,” would be akin to a husband saying, “I love my wife, but don’t want to know anything about her.”

I am turning forty this January and for the last couple months my wife has been asking me what I would like to do for this milestone birthday. A couple weeks ago the subject came up again, but this time she asked, “babe, would you like to go to San Diego Comic Con this Summer for your birthday present?” Words can hardly express what I felt in that moment… my inner nerd (Who am I kidding? My outer nerd!) was doing back flips. Not only did my wife know me, she was willing to celebrate this knowledge of me for my birthday! I love that my wife knows enough about me and loves me (perhaps in spite of that knowledge… remember all analogies break down) so much that she would even make such an offer!

Growth in theology is growth in knowledge about God. It is a necessary- and hopefully very exciting- part of our relationship with Him! Theology deeply affects how we see God the Father, how we understand the Person and work of Christ, and how we experience the work of the Holy Spirit. Depending on my theology I may have a right or wrong (better or worse, etc.) view of God’s love and justice, mercy and wrath, grace and law. But… but… it is not the end-all-be-all of our relationship with God! In the words of Greg Dutcher, “theology is not an end in itself. It is simply a window to the awe-inspiring universe of God’s truth, filled with glory, beauty, and grace” (‘Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology’). I love that! Theology is the window, or lens, through which we glimpse and begin to comprehend the glorious revelation of God in His Word, through the Person and Work of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor, A. W. Tozer, was no stranger to this struggle. In his classic book, ‘The Pursuit of God,’ he spoke to both sides of this argument when he wrote, “Sound Bible exposition is an imperative ‘must’ in the church of the living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God.”

That being said, I think part of the reason why so many Bible believing, Jesus loving, Spirit indwelt believers, have such an aversion to the study of theology is that they have seen it presented- more often then not- as the end of, and not a means to strengthen, our relationship with Christ. On this point, I must concede that all too often we theological types, we students of Calvin, Bavnick, Machen, and Sproul, can tend to get so caught up arguing over the trees of doctrinal peculiarity, we miss the forest of our shared relationship with God in Christ.

Conversely, we relational types (and yes, I put myself squarely in both camps…) can tend to be so focused on our shared experience of God, that we do not stop to realize that certain trees do not belong in this forest and that certain vines- if allowed to continue growing- may choke out the healthy trees. So, while one group cannot get past the Oak tree in the middle of the forest, they are so in awe of its size and beauty, the other group is in danger of getting a bad case of poison ivy, while dining on berries that will eventually make them sick. Sadly, both of these groups are wandering separately through a forest that they were created to enjoy together. Instead of being encouraged and enriched by one another, they stand at a distance staring suspiciously at each other and wondering if the other will ever really “get it.”

Is there a way for both of these camps to come together? Can knowledge of God and experience of God, head and heart, Word and Spirit be joined in our worship of God? Can this false- but very painful- dichotomy that exists within the Evangelical Church be healed? I believe the answer is- and must be- a resounding, “yes!”

We’ll pick up this “yes” next Monday. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

-Soli Deo Gloria