Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: Building Ox Carts to Reach the Conclusions They Desire
Recent reactions to the Together for the Gospel (T4G) meeting in Louisville expose the fundamental error for evangelicalism and fundamentalism. One of the most popular and well-read bloggers in evangelicalism, Tim Challies, covered T4G, obviously at its invitation, and afterward explained what he thought was so good about the T4G brand of togetherness. I’ll break down his argument later, but Ben Wright, one of the bloggers on the SharperIron blogroll, revealed (probably unintentionally) the thinking of fundamentalists and evangelicals on togetherness, unity, and fellowship. He writes concerning Challies’ argument: “There may be another argument that reaches his conclusion, but I don’t think he gets us all the way there.” You see, the “conclusion” and “getting all the way there,” that is, to this utopian evangelical unity, is what is important to evangelicals and fundamentalists. They come with the arguments later. This, by the way, is pragmatism. You start with a desired conclusion and assume an argument. The conclusion is big enough and important enough to them to pervert scripture to get there.
And pragmatism was David’s ox cart in 2 Samuel 6. He needed the ark to get from point A to point B, that is, to reach his desired conclusion, and that desire led him to the ox cart. It was the best, fastest, and easiest way to get the ark from point A to point B, so the cart was the means that David justified for transportation. It wasn’t the scriptural means to get there. It wasn’t a godly method. It wasn’t how God wanted things done. But it would work. It was utilitarian. All that was proved wrong when Uzzah touched the ark and died. David got out of the ox cart business. You would think that professing believers would end their ox cart fascination for ever after that. But ox carts will be built if the conclusion is what guides the argument. You want to get to point B after all.
Now some might argue that Ben Wright, featured at SharperIron, is just a young man, one of the restless, petulant, and angry reformed, regularly disrespectful and impudent to older separatists whom he doesn’t like, using the faux authority that SI provides him as a reward for his ejection to the big tent of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is true that his blog reads mainly as a bitter evangelical rant against his personal distaste with traditional fundamentalism, but I think his point does speak for evangelicalism and now a sizable segment of fundamentalism (why he gets SI promotion). You have a conclusion, unity, and better, significance or bigness, and so now you just have to start looking for the arguments to get you there.
Challies’ arguments for T4G togetherness do represent the kind of stretch that evangelicals and fundamentalists invent to reach their desired ends. They also generally approve of these types of attempts, as long as whatever the reasoning, faulty or not, directs them to their theologically correct conclusion. “Just keep trying, Tim, you’ll finally get us to our goal.”
The first Challies’ argument is in essence that not all doctrinal error is sin, so you don’t have to correct the error and can still be in unity, even for a difference like infant sprinkling versus believer’s baptism. Now Challies says that some doctrinal error is sin, like preaching that Jesus isn’t God or saying that homosexuality is permissible. Why? No reason in particular. Those doctrinal errors won’t threaten the T4G coalition. However, he says we should not see all doctrinal error as sin because doctrinal error is merely the consequence of sin, just like illness is the consequence of sin. His basis for this in scripture? Nothing. And then I think we get a second argument, which is that conscience is the guide in the doctrines that divide godly men. Since two men who differ in doctrine both are persuaded in their own conscience that they are right, neither should they “abuse” the other’s conscience by dividing over those differences. Challies ends by writing this:
I am encouraged to see Christians uniting across lines that were once considered too wide to cross. Together for the Gospel is an excellent example of Christian leaders being willing and eager to put aside secondary differences for the sake of the gospel. While they disagree on many fine points of doctrine and even many very important points of doctrine, they all hold tightly to what matters most–the gospel message. This is one line that would be too great to cross but one, within which, there is opportunity to practice humility and fraternity. They join together not to condemn, not to argue, but to affirm the common bond of gospel unity. Though never downplaying differences, neither do they seek to bind one another’s conscience. And this, I think, is how God wants us to be as just a foretaste of that greater, more complete, perfect unity to come.
The conscience is a God created warning device within us that is trained by what we know and believe. Challies is arguing that keeping a properly operating conscience is more important than believing right on “secondary differences.” In other words, what informs the conscience is less important to Challies than the conscience itself. For instance, a conscience may be informed by false doctrine that infant sprinkling is correct, but it is better for T4G and evangelicals to preserve the smooth function of the conscience than to tell the conscience what is true. The conscience has been raised in this argument above Scripture and above the Holy Spirit. That kind of thinking is permissible to evangelicals and won’t send you off the T4G reservation, because it is an ox cart that can bring them to their desired destination.
SharperIron linked to Challies’ post without disclaimer, as if this were an important bit of interaction for the contemporary fundamentalist thinker. The concluding paragraph of Challies presents numbers of awful points. He’s happy that men are coming from widely divergent points of view in order to “unite.” He disintegrates a biblical doctrine of unity. In the last line of his essay, he says that the unity that we have now is different than the one we’ll have together in heaven. The unity I seek, the one in Scripture, is the same as the one in heaven and the one Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Challies explodes a scriptural understanding of humility and fraternity. He implies, of course, that people who emphasize doctrine for unity are proud. On the other hand, those who put aside difference to get together are the humble ones. The problem is that they don’t “downplay” differences, they just ignore them. Challies also says that arguing about differences wouldn’t be humble and would “bind one another’s conscience.” What that is, I don’t know. Feeding a conscience with the truth won’t bind a conscience. The reality is that the conscience operating correctly should be warning someone that something is terribly wrong at the T4G conference. All of this combined devastates discernment in the people that need it the most, Christian leaders. We could rename the conference, Together for Devastating Discernment—T4DD.
What I hadn’t heard during that week was that there was one more conference during the same time as T4G and IBFI, that is, Wheaton’s Theology Conference, featuring the British theologian, N. T. Wright. Christianity Today quotes Wright saying, “Nothing justifies schism.” Brett McCracken breaks down the idea in his CT article that these two massive and sold-out conferences should be getting together to fulfill a New Testament understanding of unity. I don’t agree with any of this, but McCracken writes concerning T4G and the Wheaton conference:
Are we on the same page on the core issues? Can we agree on the claims of the creeds? Yes? Then let’s hash out the details of theological minutia (which is definitely important) in a spirited, friendly debate as the people of God exercising the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
He concludes his article:
What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved? That would be a unity the rulers of the world would truly be afraid of.
This two evangelical factions seem to know what the conclusion should be. Now if they can just find the ox cart that will get them there. Ask Tim Challies. He’s already got one built.
If you see the evangelical or fundamentalist ox cart on its way somewhere, wait for someone else from whom to thumb a ride. Unity is found in the assembly, the church. Outside of the church, it is found in churches of like faith and practice. Same belief and practice are the basis of the unity, just like we see in the Bible (Eph 4:1-3). And that’s the only unity that pleases God. The ark of the covenant was the presence of God. The presence of God is purity, holiness, and righteousness, both doctrinally and morally. His presence was not meant for our ox carts.