Evangelicalism as a movement appears increasingly fractured and polarized, especially in regard to our political and theological debates.
Those on the evangelical right recognize the problems of progressivism and liberalism, while centrist or left-leaning evangelicals recognize the dangers of fundamentalism and isolationism. The nature of our fears, combined with the confidence we feel when engaged in theological dispute, cause us to gravitate toward conflicts where we feel we are most effective. In the end, we grow strong in fighting off dangers coming from only one direction while remaining vulnerable to dangers that threaten the church from elsewhere.
We are trained in sword fights wielded in only one direction. As a result, we never turn around to get a fuller picture of the battle. What we need are leaders who can identify problems, engage with challenges, and oppose dangers that come from multiple points.
Example of Multi-Directional Leadership
Last century, John Stott promoted a view of the mission of the church that sought to avoid dangers from multiple directions: ignoring social ministry (a temptation he saw in conservative circles) or allowing social ministry to swallow up the urgency for verbal proclamation of the gospel (a tendency he saw in centrist and liberationist circles). Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World sought to chart a course of biblical comprehensiveness that would reject false choices and reductionism.
We should certainly debate the merits of Stott’s proposal regarding the mission of the church. That conversation has since moved forward into more nuanced conversations between scholars like Christopher Wright and Jonathan Leeman, and the crux of that debate informs some of the current controversies surrounding the gospel and justice.
Even if, like me, you believe aspects of Stott’s vision need critique and revision (and, irenic as he was, he invited feedback and disagreement), don’t miss my main reason for lifting up Stott. My point is this: Stott was an evangelical statesman well trained in recognizing and avoiding dangers that come from multiple directions. He was neither a conservative warrior trained to spot only the dangers of liberalism, nor a progressive proponent trained to fight only the follies of fundamentalism. His scriptural commitments alerted him to problems he saw coming at the church from multiple angles.
Consider this. In 1968, when invited to address the World Council of Churches, Stott chastised the attendees for what he perceived to be a dangerous imbalance in prioritizing social ministry to the exclusion or diminishment of verbal evangelism:
Stott went toe-to-toe with those who were watering down the mission into social work. But in the years that followed, Stott also faced head-on those who thought the Great Commission was primarily or exclusively about evangelism without sufficient attention given to the church’s social ministry, including Billy Graham through an address at Lausanne at 1974 and a sharp debate in a committee meeting that followed in 1975.
Again, my point is not to promote the particulars of Stott’s position but instead to lift him up as an example of a statesman who was able to foresee and respond to threats to the church’s witness that came from different directions. In one assembly, he could push hard against a reductionist social gospel, and in another assembly, he could push hard against a reductionist fundamentalism.
Fighting in One Direction
My worry today is that evangelical leaders have sharpened their skills in fighting threats to the church that come from only one direction. What’s worse, many evangelicals seem to prefer leaders who will point out the dangers coming from only one direction while never offering a warning or uncovering the blind spots that may originate closer to home.
The result is this: Evangelical leaders afraid of slipping into political quietism or theological fundamentalism remain alert to anything that could be a slippery slope to the right while they quietly take steps backward with no awareness of the traps and pitfalls awaiting them on the left. Meanwhile, conservative leaders fearful of the social gospel or theological liberalism avoid any voices or partnerships that could be a slippery slope to the left while they back their way, unknowingly, toward nationalistic and isolationist ideological pitfalls. (Collin Hansen’s Blind Spots warns about this tendency in more depth.)
What we need are leaders skilled in fending off threats from more than one direction. We need leaders willing to hold up the Scriptures and fearlessly proclaim truths that get to the root of our sins, failures, and dysfunctions, no matter what political or theological categories get crossed. We need leaders who will not let fear dictate their theological statements or determine their cultural posture. We need leaders with the dexterity and discipline to challenge problematic positions no matter where they come from.
Unfortunately, many aspects of evangelical culture today conspire against the formation and celebration of this kind of leader—our tribalism, our institutional loyalties, our social location, our online habits, our social media presence, and our desire to stay safely ensconced in a community. We seek out voices that cater to our sensibilities and then lift up as “prophets” anyone who can score points for our “side.” Meanwhile, the multifaceted dangers threatening the church from multiple directions lurk in the shadows behind us, unopposed and unnoticed, and we leave the Bride vulnerable to other manifestations of the spirit of the age.
Winston Churchill described a kind of dexterity—which on the surface may baffle the observer unless it is seen as the outworking of a deeper consistency—that crosses artificial lines and wards off opposing dangers because of the leader’s singular purpose.
A statesman, in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course, may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case, when contrasted, can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged, his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.
We need leaders who lean their weight now to one side and then the other, emphasizing a particular theological truth during a particular season and then a different truth in another. Christian leadership requires an imagination formed by the Scriptures as well as a deep understanding of the current cultural moment, so that we know what to say and when, what to emphasize and how, and what challenges to face and where. We need leaders who know the Bible and their times well enough to see threats coming from more than one direction.