My brother and I have had many lively discussions over the past few years. I’m trained as a pastor-theologian. He’s trained as an epidemiologist. The COVID-19 pandemic, shelter-in-place orders, mask mandates, vaccinations, religious exemptions, and gathering as a church body have captured our attention. We’re blood relatives as well as brothers in Christ, but we have different perspectives and emphases.
Those conversations have given me perspective on the larger fissures and fractures, sifting and sorting, and debates and divisions among evangelicals. We live in increasingly divided times. Some pull to the left and others to the right. What caused our division? And can a unified evangelical faith survive these threats?
3 Threats to Faith
In his book Engaging with the Holy Spirit, Graham A. Cole identifies three threats to the gospel: subtraction, addition, and emphasis. These threats could be the reasons for the cracks in our evangelical movement today.
We live in increasingly divided times. Some pull to the left and others to the right. What caused our division?
Cole first points to subtraction. It’s the response of theological liberals who are tempted to deny the Bible’s clear teaching on matters from human sexuality to the Scripture’s inerrancy. Doctrines like these are issues of status confessionis, issues we must affirm if we’re to stand on truth and the centrality of the gospel. When a church or denominational group calls into question its own confession of faith and denies biblical truths, it’s not surprising when division occurs—when congregants step away or churches choose to join other denominations or even break off to birth new ones. This is a necessary division. We must divide from those who subtract key doctrines to make the gospel message more palatable.
Divisions are necessary with matters that relate to a church’s health and practice. A committed Baptist and a confessional Presbyterian, for instance, shouldn’t serve on the same church staff. Their differences on baptism and church polity would only cause strife and confusion for the congregation. But can they serve the homeless together in their community? What if the two are invited to speak at the same conference?
Some neofundamentalist leaders would argue that any association or fellowship with a differing Christian, church, network, or denominational group requires not only the affirmation of the gospel but also perfect agreement on all the gospel’s implications. They make specific applications of the gospel into litmus tests, not only for ordination into a particular church or denominational community but also ash shibboleths to determine who is a “real,” “right,” or “serious” Christian.
Addition places matters of wisdom and Christian freedom into either-or categories, making whether or not you wear a mask, for example, into a way of signaling theological or political affiliation. Such an approach denies groups of people who see things differently and becomes a form of “cancel culture” in the church. It must be rejected.
Finally, over- or underemphasizing an entailment of the gospel can undermine the gospel. This is the challenge for most who affiliate with a group like The Gospel Coalition. At times, a cultural moment requires church leaders to emphasize a particular message. We might ask, for example, how we should think about autonomy and authority considering what churches have experienced at the hands of governments during the pandemic. It’s important we have the right emphasis at the right moment without making that response final or absolute. We study the Scriptures, history, and present-day challenges to respond to new concerns winsomely and biblically.
But the emphasis for one moment isn’t necessarily the emphasis we should have for all time. Paul and James, for example, were in fundamental agreement on justification by faith, but they can sound at odds because they addressed different churches with differing issues. Understanding how their original contexts affected their emphases helps us not to miss the point. Perhaps we should have a similar approach with fellow believers.
Division by Disproportion
Often when a new emphasis is required, we’re responding to an issue on one side of a pendulum. We may give a strong push in the opposite direction because a strong response is required. But we must be careful not to make that polemical theological response our constant posture. As J. C. Ryle once wrote,
You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the parts of truth, and truth soon becomes downright error! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.
How do we avoid giving secondary matters undue emphasis? We must begin by understanding what primary and secondary matters are, by understanding the difference between the gospel and its entailments. The gospel is the ground of our faith. The fruit it bears is its entailments. Those entailments are a result of the gospel in life, but they’re not the gospel itself.
I’ve been excited about TGC’s new Good Faith Debates. Here’s the goal of the series: “When we keep the gospel central, we can disagree on lesser but still important matters in good faith. In the Good Faith Debates, we hope to model this—showing that it’s possible for two Christians united around the gospel to engage in charitable conversation even amid substantive disagreement.”
When we over- or underemphasize a particular entailment of the gospel, we can undermine the gospel.
I’d encourage pastors, elders, and other leaders in the church to watch these videos together and learn. Not only will this help them understand the issues treated more broadly, but the debates also model healthy disagreement among Christians—disagreement that keeps the gospel preeminent and entailments in their proper place.
I’d also encourage you to engage less in social media arguments and more in face-to-face conversations like the ones I’ve had with my brother. With his training in epidemiology, his present vocation as a professor, and his ministry as an elder in his local church, he brings me a perspective I couldn’t otherwise see. I hope I give the same gift to him. Together, we’re iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17). We help one another remember the gospel is the ground that unites us even amid our differences.