I love theology.
I think it’s a profoundly important and inescapable component of the church.
Theology shapes our identity. It tells who we are, or a least who we should be. It also reminds us about who we should not be.
So, when I say that I think evangelicalism has problem with dogmatism, I am not suggesting that the church (something separate from evangelicalism) should abandoning theological claims.
Dogma is not always a terrible thing.
The church began with a particular and absolute claim “Jesus is Lord”. With this declaration the church drew a line in the sand. There is no Lord other than Jesus.
While it might be easy to suggest that the church should somehow revert to the simplicity of this claim (if that simplicity ever really existed), I’m not sure that’s either possible or desirable. There are countless questions and issues that stem from this seemingly simple claim. To abandon the answers that have been offered to those question by ancient creeds and historical confessions would be, I think, both an arrogant and profoundly naive move to make.
That we may not always like the historical theology of the church, does not render it invalid. Likewise, to think that we could “reverse course”, simplify things, and believe they would always stay that way is, frankly, absurd. The world is becoming more complex, not less so. The church should lean on her vast theological resources to address the questions and issues that arise from that complexity, not toss them aside and unnecessarily attempt to reinvent the wheel.
However, this is not a call to theological retrenchment.
I believe the church should abandon the dogmatism of evangelicalism. But I do not believe that it is an “either/or” proposition between retrenchment and theological relativism. I believe that the church can and should find a way to maintain her historical, orthodox faith while finding ways to engage an incredibly diverse global society. This can be done because for the church has been doing it, although not always perfectly, for 2,000 years.
If the church is to chart that path forward, then I believe there are 2 remnants of evangelical dogmatism that she must abandon.
The first is evangelicalism’s love affair with the dogmatic litmus test. Visit an evangelical church long enough, read enough Christian literature, or simply listen to a few celebrity preachers and you will very quickly learn that there is a theological litmus test that you must pass in order to be a “real Christian.” To be fair, the notion that there are demarcation lines in the faith that separate Christianity from, say, Buddhism are not a terrible thing. The church needs guidelines, direction, and sometimes even lines in the sand to say “this far you may go and no further.”
However, the current obsession with the dogmatic litmus test is problematic for several reasons. To begin, many of the people administering the test often have no authority to due so. Take for example, our friend Mark Driscoll. By his own confession he ordained himself. Which means, regardless of what he may want to say otherwise, his ultimate authority, like so many of his other autonomous clergy friends, is himself. This frees them all to make definitive theological claims with no regard to any historical church tradition. They are free to pick and choose at their leisure what is “essential” for the faith, or rather, what the dogmatic litmus test is. As a result, any self-ordained prophet can decided for his (rarely her) church what they “must believe” and then label those who dissent as “wolves among the sheep.”
What we see then are theological tenets that have never been the markers of orthodoxy, turned into the heart of Christianity. For example, for many evangelicals today the dogmatic litmus test requires a person to reject evolution, affirm Biblical inerrency, never allow a woman in a position of leadership, and subscribe to a particular view of the atonement (usually penal substitution). However, there is no historical creed or church council (at least when there was such a thing as “one church”) that affirmed these things as the demarcation lines for orthodoxy. They are simply theological gut feelings and personal Biblical interpretation.
And I think that’s what the church must remember. Just because we believe something in our heart or are convinced that the “Bible plainly says so” does not mean it is true, particularly when our truth claims have never been affirmed by the church. We may think they have, but that is only because our perspective of what is or is not Christianity only goes back, at best, one or two hundred years.
American evangelicalism is profoundly, and tragically, influenced by the rise of Christian fundamentalism. These religious zealots have so infiltrated the church that it is hard for many of us to know what really does define the faith. These are not always the fiery tent preachers of yesteryear. Often times, they dress the part of hipster, play the latest worship music, and occupy the trendiest of spaces, but their message is the same: conform or leave; turn or burn.
The result of this infiltration is, what I think is the other great reason for the church to abandon evangelicalism: There is no beauty or imagination in fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism, to which I think evangelicalism is inextricably tied, is not interested in understanding the world. It simply wants to reshape the world in its own dogmatic image and burn anything that gets in its way. The goal is a monochromatic faith in which everyone blindly follows the leader and any opposition is quickly and harshly dealt with.
When fundamentalism is allowed to reign, the Christian faith is reduced to a crude caricature. In fundamentalism, there is no room for beauty and diversity, only conformity. If other Christians don’t look, act, speak, think, vote, and dress exactly like me, then they must not be true Christians. In fundamentalism, there is no space for imagination and artistic expression, only secular rejection and mimicry. Any art that is not particularly religious in nature and conforming to a particular sense of taste is tossed aside or condemned. When art is produced, so much of it is lacking in originality, nothing more than a cheap parody of something that was successful in the “secular world.”
The church must rediscover her capacity for diversity, beauty, and imagination.
To achieve this, I think the church must relearn her ability to allow for diversity on non-essentials. To do this, however, we will need to gain a bit of perspective and realize that many of the things evangelicalism tends to cling so tightly to were not held by other Christians for most of the church’s history. This is true particularly those of us in American Protestantism. We must find a way to understand that Christianity is not a white, middle-class, American faith. It is a faith which has been incarnated across countless generations, cultures, and languages. If anything, Christianity has very little to do with white, middle-class, America. That is not to say that our particular demographic has nothing to contribute. Rather, we should know our place in the history of the church and it is a profoundly small one.
Despite the seemingly infinite diversity of expressions of Christianity over 2,000 years she has managed to not only survive, but thrive, all the while maintaining at least the semblance of orthodoxy. I think the church should learn from this and abandon the fear mongering of fundamentalist, dogmatic evangelicalism. Jesus has continued to be known over the centuries and the gospel has continued to be preached no matter what pressures of time or culture it has faced. Simply put, God doesn’t need us to defend God. God is not afraid of questions or doubts and God is certainly not afraid of diversity. To say that God is Triune is to affirm that fundamentally God is in a diverse relationship.
If we are truly people made in the image of that God, then we must learn to embrace the beauty of that diversity. In doing so, the church can boldly face the future knowing that the diversity and complexity she will encounter will only make her stronger. And in turn it will give her the imagination she needs to proclaim the gospel in unforeseen ways for generations to come.
Grace and peace,