Tuesday, October 29, 2013


In a New York Times editorial Ross Douthat[1] comments on recent pronouncements of Pope Francis, which he interprets as being first steps in moving the Roman Catholic Church from the traditional to a more central position, central not being liberal or modern, but being not as traditional. The situation facing the Church, he says, is similar to that facing Judaism and other religious groups. He notes that the numbers of Jews in New York has risen 10 percent between 2002 and 2011, but that growth is predominately among Orthodox Jews, while Conservative and Reform population continues to decline. Thus, he concludes, this is a model for what is happening to religious groups in the West over the past 40 years, that is, the more liberal or modern a group becomes, the more it loses “membership, money and morale” but, the more traditional a religious group remains, the more resilient it remains.[2]
What about the evangelical movement? Where are we? For about forty years we seemed to live with the existence of what some described as a big tent, a time of true missional focus that resulted in the great missional activity around the world. I believe it is clear that the center has now weakened as evangelicals in droves head for one polarization or the other. For example, on one hand, a resurgent liberalism that in doctrine, language and tone is quite reminiscent of the writings of early liberals in the late 19th century. On the other hand a right wing which has added on layers of teaching that have nothing to do with classic orthodoxy or even classic fundamentalism, and having staked out this new territory defines itself as the truly orthodox.
While what I desire to think of as central evangelicalism still exists, and is still strong, it faces a burning question: how can a position of opposition to late modernity be maintained without collapsing into neo-extremism?
Quite simply, we must do the hard work of exegesis and theology, and stop simply talking to those who already agree with us. I would make the following, tentative suggestions, realizing that more should be added.
We must do the hard work of exegesis, clearly identifying the biblical position on various issues that are before us. Many, or at least some, positions are not biblical; they are instead expressions of modernity. Let me raise the issue of women in ministry as an example. Throughout church history there have been strands of movements that have opposed, to one extent or another, the involvement of women in ministry. However, current opposition, cloaked as biblical fidelity, is an attempt at both organizational and personal control that is modern to the core. This appears in the portrayal of family life as something that should revolve around power and authority and should conform itself to strictures that are laid out in diagrams. No grey areas, no vagueness, every question is answered. It is the emphasis on power that signals the presence of modernity, surprisingly in the midst of the group that claims to be against modernity.
What is lacking in the discussion of women in ministry is on-going exegetical work, and then after exegesis theology. By doing this hard work evangelicals can escape the pre-set conclusions of current thinking by staking out positions that are truly biblical.
For help in what such a project might look like I would turn to the issue of abortion. The Pope has said that the Roman Catholic Church must do more than oppose abortion. This has been taken as a signal that the church may soften or modify its opposition to abortion. This is doubtful, but if the Roman Catholic Church did somehow modify its stance, what might that look like? Perhaps it would look at least something like the traditional Protestant stance, which is, opposition to abortion, but an understanding of the life of the mother as valuable and as having a greater claim in an ethical decision. While this distinction exists, at the same time both Catholic and Evangelical churches have responded to the abortion issue by establishing ministries of support for pregnant women, mothers and children. Perhaps most gratifying is the change in attitude in evangelical churches towards women who are pregnant but single, shifting from what can only be described as a shunning culture to one of care and comfort.
Is this ethical and compassionate stance on abortion a landing in a “center” which Douthat says has failed to hold in every western faith? I think rather that it has indeed strengthened the protestant evangelical church and allowed for evangelism. Can the evangelical church, in very solid ways, move forward on other issues in a manner that is strongly biblical, and which also forsakes the modern requirement of power and authority, turning again to the Savior and seeking to allow him to live his life out through us?  I believe the period of greatest vitality and greatest growth happened in the past forty years when we struggled to do precisely that. And, I believe a revival of such an effort would result in an evangelicalism that would truly be a light to the nations.

[1] Ross Douthat, Promise and Peril of a Pope, The New York Times International Weekly, (Toronto Star Supplement) Sunday October 13, 2013, p. 15.
[2] Of especially note is that Douthat says that if there is a religious middle it is occupied by non-denominational ministries “spiritual but not religious.”

1 comment:

Chris Smith said...

Thanks Franklin, this was insightful. I can't help but agree with you wholeheartedly on this.