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A Fork in the Road

April 12, 2014

A few days ago I did a post called When Holiness and Mercy Collide in which I pondered the twin urges we evangelicals feel the Bible commands us toward; that of holiness (separation from sin) and mercy (reaching out to sinners in love).  I’ve been thinking about that subject for a few days now and am beginning to think that this is a critical issue that is leading evangelicalism to a fork in the road.

There have been predictions about the end of evangelicalism for some time now.  Several years ago, the late blogger Michael Spencer wrote a widely read series called The Coming Evangelical Collapse that was highly disputed.  Since that time more people have agreed with him that our faith is in jeopardy, although many are sure he was entirely wrong.

For a while I’ve been worried that he was right, that evangelicalism as it is practiced in contemporary America is dying.  Of late I am coming to a different conclusion; it is not dying, it is about to split in two.  Let me give you my reasons for this feeling.

Anyone who follows the happenings in the evangelical church knows that controversies come with depressing regularity.  It seems that we can hardly go a week when some evangelical somewhere doesn’t say or do something that sets the internet, and public debate, on fire.  Some “celebrities” within evangelicalism, such as Mark Driscoll, seem to thrive on this and almost seek it.  Others, John Piper for example, while he doesn’t seem to seek it, manages to generate controversy with his public statements with alarming frequency.

As I’ve watched these mini-firestorms flare and die down at a rate of two or three a month I think I am seeing a pattern.  I’m going to set aside the outrage and input from non-evangelicals; that has always been with us and always will.  Their comments and criticism may be valid, I am not disputing that, but it is not only expected but beside the point.  It is the pattern of responses from those who consider themselves evangelical that intrigues me.

For the sake of this argument I am going to consider the definition of evangelical, admittedly something that is not universally agreed upon, to be conformity with the historic creeds and, more importantly, an emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible and an overarching focus on evangelism. Within those who hold to this belief I am seeing a pattern developing. The two “sides” of the debate always seem to be composed of the same people.

Debate and controversy has never been absent in the church.  But it has reached the point now where, on hearing what the latest issue is, I am sure even before I hear what they say, that I know how key evangelicals will respond; both among national figures and personal acquaintances.  My ability to predict these responses is not a gift; it is just a figuring out where people stand.

Let me say that this pattern of disputing has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with which side feels strongly about the inerrancy of the Bible; both do.  It is instead a difference in how the two sides interpret the Bible.  For one side, which I am going to call Bible Evangelicals, their guiding principle is a systematic understanding of the Bible with a heavy emphasis on the “teaching” books of the New Testament, primarily the works of Paul.  This side will almost always come down on the holiness side of a debate.  In the recent World Vision dustup for example, these are the folks who felt separating from WV’s “sinful” decision was paramount and they dropped their support of WV poverty kids by the thousands in an effort to stand for the truth as they see the Bible teaching.

The other side, which I am going to call Jesus Evangelicals, sees the life of Jesus, and the need to emulate him, as paramount.  They read the epistles in the light of Jesus.  So in the WV issue, they see mercy, the sustaining of the thousands of poverty-stricken children, as the primary need.  They don’t deny the teaching passages, they just say that if the way you read them contradicts the way Jesus acted you are probably reading them wrong.

Now, Bible Evangelicals do not deny the life of Jesus as a teaching tool; nor do Jesus Evangelicals deny the epistles.  But you might say the Bible Evangelicals (BEs) read the story of Jesus in the light of the teaching texts and the Jesus Evangelicals (JEs) read the texts in the light of Jesus.  I suspect many on both sides would deny they are doing any such thing but this is the way the issue develops.  The net result is that you will almost always see BEs being concerned about holiness, shunning and separation and JEs concerned about mercy and outreach.

With this measure you can see these controversies take shape.  Baking a cake for a same sex wedding?  BEs will say no, JEs will say yes.  Women in a variety of leadership roles?  BEs, citing the texts, will say there are limits, JEs, citing the way Jesus treated women, say differently.  The culture war?  BEs say we need to fight tooth and nail, JEs say no, we need to reach out with love and grace to those we disagree with.  Examples can go on and on.

The sad reality is that, while both sides cling to the idea that they value the Bible as a primary, and inerrant, text (although JEs are less inclined to use the word inerrant) they differ in consistent patterns.  Worse yet they, particularly the BEs, say the other side is denying the inerrancy of Scripture.

So here is my guess; I am not going to call it a prediction as I have no gift of prophecy.  This trend of splitting in two on the way to read and understand the Bible will grow more pronounced.  Since I see more and more young evangelicals lining up on the JE side, I think the dispute will gather steam as that side, now a minority, grows.

At some point, in some way, these two sides will essentially part ways.  How that parting goes, when it happens, and what happens to the term evangelical is anyone’s guess.  My intuition tells me the parting will be messy and acrimonious and that the sides will part with both sure the other is gravely wrong.

In summary I see this dispute is based on the primary way we are to read the Bible and that, as it plays out, you will see the holiness/mercy concerns being a tool for analyzing how disputes will take shape.  What do you think?  How do you see this issue?


From → Christianity

  1. Kyle permalink

    I think you’ve nailed it. The “split” (so-to-speak) has been clearly approaching for quite a while even if it has taken the last outpost of the culture war (treatment of homosexualaity) to bring it to the forefront. The demographics don’t lie– the vast majority of young evangelicals and Christians in general firmly stand in the “JE” camp. When we look back on this fork in the road in 20 or 30 years, I think we’ll all see how this transition was a truly necessary step forward and a positive change.

    • TomC permalink


      This kind of snuck up on me relating to the issue of homosexual marriage. I think I have been pretty smug in my belief that homosexual actions are inherently wrong, so should be illegal and “homosexual marriage” is a contradiction in terms. I still believe that, but I don’t think I’ve been loving toward gay people in general or in particular.

      Like the wedding-cake baker approached by a gay couple getting married. Wouldn’t a more-nearly-right answer be something like, “I’m sorry to have to say this, but I really don’t believe in what you’re doing. My heart wouldn’t be in it and I don’t think I’d make as good a cake as somebody else would. But if you can’t find anybody else, come back and I’ll do the best I can.” Wouldn’t that show a deep compassion, in a personal way, without abandoning what we believe? Everything I’ve read seems to view it in an all-or-nothing way: either embrace gay marriage or utterly reject it. But I say, regardless of how you might react, I think if you’re not in touch with that deep compassion for the other people, you should be very careful what you say or just remain silent.

      I relate this to your JE and BE divide. I find myself thinking more and more on the JE side, or at least that I’ve been too far and too long on the BE side, sometimes without realizing it.

      We still have to stand for what’s true and right, but somehow we also have to do it in a compassionate way.

      TomC “not the blogger”

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