So that we don’t squander hope, you and I need a new narrative to understand our debates in the church and engagement with the world. Since at least the late 1800s and early 1900s, American Christians have been preoccupied with the battle between fundamentalists and modernists. This struggle has sought to situate Christians along a spectrum where they tend toward one side or the other. Depending on your perspective, modernists either update Christianity as necessary for a changing world or sell out the fundamentals of the faith for popularity. As for fundamentalists, they either defend Christianity in a hostile world or consign their neighbors to judgment. You could try to make peace in the no-man’s-land at the middle of this battle, but that only means both sides shoot at you as they aim for their enemies.
I can’t muster much sympathy for the modernists, whose project has destroyed the very churches it has purported to save. When you lose the distinctive doctrines of Christianity—starting with the resurrection of Jesus—you lose everything. But I reject the narrative that offers only these two solutions to our problems. And I resent the skepticism that pushes Christians toward one pole or the other. Consider the outcome as we look back on this battle for the soul of Christianity. The fundamentalist/modernist war left a legacy whereby, in some churches, you’re branded a liberal heretic if you take away their hymnals. And in other churches a minister will sooner marry a man and his avatar than allow you to cite Ephesians 5 at a wedding.
As I survey the contemporary evangelical church, I now see three main responses to the world. You might use different names to describe them or even add additional characteristics—you could claim, for example, that a fourth group prioritizes “experience” of God over any other virtue. I have aimed to root my analysis in Scripture but don’t claim that my three categories cover everything important to the Christian life. Rather, with an eye toward the limitations of the earlier fundamentalist/modernity divide, I want to show that none of these responses on its own reflects the depth and breadth of the way Jesus taught and the apostles followed. We tend to cluster around Christians with similar personalities, who reinforce our strengths but turn a blind eye to our weaknesses.
Courageous, Compassionate, Commissioned
Many Christians are like me: we grew up in stable communities with strong extended families. We went to church because that was the right thing to do. We honored authorities and tradition because we believed they safeguarded the ways of wisdom. So if you’re like me, you tend to see the church’s problems as a failure of courage to walk the time-worn paths.
But a lot of Christians have different stories. If you scraped by in childhood and suffered abuse from leaders who should have protected you, you may see compassion as the great need of our day.
And if you’ve been weaned on the power of technology to effect needed change, you might think the only thing hindering unprecedented church growth is our resolve to fulfill the Great Commission through creative new methods.
We tend to cluster around Christians with similar personalities, who reinforce our strengths but turn a blind eye to our weaknesses.
None of us is entirely wrong. But you and I tend to reason from the personal to the universal and judge each other for our different experiences and perspectives. For every illness you see in the world you write the same prescription. And I do likewise, only with my preferred cure-all solution. Then you and I turn against each other in the church when we don’t get our way. The problem is, we tend to separate what God has joined together. And he put you and me in the same church to build up one another according to our different gifts (1 Cor. 12:7). He wants to illumine our blind spots so we can see our differences as opportunity.
Where, then, do you fit in this description? Fill in this blank: The greatest problem with the church today is _______. Ask yourself, Where do I invest the bulk of my time, money, and other resources?
God variously calls us to champion certain causes. Such differences should be celebrated where we see them in our local churches, among evangelical churches in the same city, and even across movements of Bible-believing churches. Don’t be concerned about “single-issue Christians,” those believers with particular passion to end abortion, relieve poverty, adopt orphans, or close the 10/40 Window by sending missionaries to unreached people groups. Even if you don’t share their interest or gifting, you can pray for them, support them, encourage them. But look out for “only-issue Christians,” those believers who don’t just want your help. They demand you to fall in line behind their agenda. They do not tolerate other priorities.
You can learn to decipher between God-given difference and sinful divisiveness. Here’s how you know you’re divisive: you thank God you’re not like those theology-obsessed fundamentalists. Or those bleeding-heart liberals. Or those pragmatic megachurch pastors. You already know the enemy before you know the details. You know the solution before you even know the specific problem. Furthermore, you don’t pray for these opponents in the church. If anything, you pray against them.
But Jesus himself told us to pray for our enemies. Can you do so? Can you understand that different approaches may be needed in different scenarios, like a counselor exercising discernment and care? Even better, can you admit that we need all the compassionate, courageous, and commissioned Christians we can muster to work together out of respect for God’s gifting and in obedience to Jesus? The magnitude of our challenges today ought to dispel the illusion that any one wing of the divided church can go it alone.