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

A Charismatic Evangelical’s Reflection on the Strange Fire Conference – One Year later

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Strange Fire Conference. This was an event that came from the heart of a veteran pastor who- I truly believe- cares deeply for the maturity and well being of the Church of Christ and wants to guard it from wolves who would try to sneak in and destroy it. He brought together a group of like minded theologians and pastors, who love God and love His Word, to address some very real, and serious, concerns he was seeing in the church worldwide. But sadly, what could have been a powerful few days of calling Evangelical Christians together, in Gospel centered unity, to address the excesses, errors, and- in some cases- false teachings of the more extreme wing of the charismatic church, instead became a divisive platform for “calling out” all- or nearly all- charismatic Christians as heretics, as being on the road to heresy, or, at the very least, being under the influence of heretical teaching.

One year later I am still grieved by much of this conference, by the choice of tone and rhetoric used throughout it by my brothers in Christ, and by some of the straw man arguments that were put forth in an effort to discredit charismatic beliefs and individuals. I am saddened by the fact that when someone, like myself, speaks of being offended by nature of this conference, I am informed that the truth is often, if not always divisive. This is, of course true, however it is a logical fallacy to assume that just because something is divisive, it therefore must be true.

However, I am also sad because, in a very real way, this conference had to happen (albeit, I think it could have happened differently). It was brought on by, and addressed, some dangerous trends- even false teachings and abuses- that are found in the more extreme wing of Charismatic Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, Name it and Claim it, Radical Inclusivism, etc.). There are teachers and ministries that are accepted- or at least not openly opposed- in charismatic circles that do not preach Biblical Christianity and that push beyond the boundaries of historic orthodoxy. As a Charismatic, I will be the first to confess that we need to stand up against these excesses, errors, and false teachings and teachers. However, I cannot be convinced that the best way to do this is by throwing the whole movement (with the exception of two or three friends) under the bus. Many charismatic believers hold to the very same confessions, creeds, and doctrines as their cessationalist brothers and sisters, but with a different Scriptural interpretation of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church. To- essentially- posit that a Charismatic understanding of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the church today puts Christians on the slippery slope towards heresy is a bridge too far (In short; Charismatic Evangelicals believe that the Bible, being itself the final authoritative and inerrant Word of God to His church, teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue, that God still speaks today through other means than- but never in opposition to, or at cross purposes with- Scripture, and that there is a decidedly experiential side to the faith, or, to put it another way, we can, and should want to, experience God’s presence and activity today, both corporately and personally).

But, I think what breaks my heart the most, is that I agree with much of the critique that was offered at this conference one year ago and share many of their concerns. I see the same problems, the same errors, the same false teaching and sin (need I even mention my deep disagreement with those that teach Open Theism, Oneness theology of the Godhead, or a Trinity of Trinities?!?!). I would like nothing more then to partner with Christ centered men and women, like those that put on the Strange Fire Conference, to address these errors- and, in some cases, outright deceptions- and to, if at all possible, draw wandering believers back to the Scriptures and to help lead unbelievers, who may be caught in a web of false teaching, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, because of the manner in which the proponents of the Strange Fire Conference, and its aftermath, have seemingly dismissed all charismatics, I find myself in a defensive crouch against them- against my brothers and sisters in Christ. This should not be so! I look at my cessationalist brothers and sisters knowing that we share a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the sufficiency of Scripture, and the for the church, I am just not always sure that they see me the same way, and- to be perfectly honest- that is wearisome and disheartening.

That being said, I still have hope. I believe that the church of Christ- those of us who have been called out of sin and death, saved by the grace of God, through faith in the finished work of the Son, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit- can walk arm-in-arm as brothers and sisters. I believe this because, as much as truth divides, it is also a banner under which people of shared conviction can gather- and there is no greater conviction then that which is brought by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe the church can come together under this Gospel banner because, Jesus Himself prayed that we would be, “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).

In similar vain, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “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. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 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 4:1-16).

I have confidence that as we, the church, pursue the Christ, pursue His truth- as handed down to us in the Scriptures- the Holy Spirit will be faithful to draw us together in love and unity. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18-22).

-Soli Deo Gloria

Is Christ Divided?

Nearly two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul asked a rhetorical question to the church he had planted in the city of Corinth, “Is Christ divided?” Of course, the answer to him was obvious- just as he hoped it would be to the Corinthian believers- “No.” However, if history has shown us anything, it is that the answer to this question has been far from obvious to many believers down through the centuries…. Zwingli and Luther Case and point, October 1st-4th, 1529 AD, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the great instigators of the Protestant Reformation, met to see if they could work out their differences regarding the one article of faith about which they disagreed (the nature of the Lord’s Supper). It did not end well. They agreed on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone and they agreed on the authority of Scripture (all told, they agreed on 14 of 15 articles of the faith). But, on the nature of the Lord’s Supper, on the presence of Christ at the communion table, they could not see eye to eye, though they both rejected the Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation (that the bread and wine turn into body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass). Both men- passionate for Christ and his gospel- could not reconcile this point with one another. In conclusion, Martin Luther was reported to have said, “We are not of the same spirit.” How sad that, in hindsight, we can say- with near certainty- “yes, yes you were of the same spirit, but in your fervor for ‘truth’ you were both blinded to ‘the Truth’.” They were both so caught up in the nuance of the Lord’s table that they missed the significance of it! The communion table reminds us all that we are imperfect and sinful creatures, in constant need of a perfect and holy Savior. It points us back to what Christ did for us on the Cross, while at the same time reminding us of the great supper yet to come, when we will all sit down together with Christ in eternity to celebrate His great and glorious work of salvation. Communion should have brought these two men together in their shared heart for the gospel (John 17:17-26), but instead their own zeal drove them apart. How different might the landscape of Protestantism (which, ever since, has been prone to division) be today had these two men been able to come together, 485 years ago, in gospel centered unity? Unfortunately, we will never know, but we can learn from them. How many debates that are raging within the Evangelical church today are reminiscent of Luther and Zwingli? Before we draw swords on one another, Cessationalist vs. Charismatic, Baptist vs. Pentecostal, Calvinist vs. Arminian, we would to do well to remember the Professor of Wittenberg and the Pastor of Zurich. Let’s ask ourselves, are we fighting over essentials (the person and work of Christ, the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, etc.) or are we expending most of our energy waging intramural debates (about the use of hymns vs. contemporary songs in worship on Sunday mornings, the cognitive vs. experiential nature of Christianity, the exact nature of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry in the life of the believer and the church, etc.). If the former, then by all means let us continue to, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). However, if we find ourselves majoring on the latter, let’s heed the words of the Apostle Paul, which he wrote to the church in Corinth, “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” (I Corinthians 1:10).