I have been thinking, as of late, about the various strategies in evangelicalism to navigate the marketplace of ideas. It seems to me that the typical evangelical strategy to “win” (sorry, I don’t mean this to be polemical (yet) but I can’t think of another word which is accurate), is simply to create something of a boys club. In other words, we surround ourselves with people who both agree with every word that comes our of our mouth and who won’t actually attack our views in any significant way. This is enough, in itself, to be idolatry, but it rarely stops there. The next step is to start a movement. A movement, in these terms, is nothing more than simply organizing leadership and adopting worldly strategies for kingdom building. Once teaching, leadership and dogma can be disseminated, there is a twofold turn outwards: First, a turn outwards to evangelize – not Christ as much as the movement itself - and, second, a turn outwards to attack anyone who thinks differently. The latter turn stems from the inherent fundamentalism in evangelicalism which equates difference with danger.
So, why this seemingly random rant about evangelical idolatry? Well, I have been thinking about what a healthy movement of the church might look like, and I didn’t have any examples. All the movements I can see, from my perspective, seem to be endlessly idolatrous. Which made me think about the emergent church conversation. It was the “conversation” piece that frustrated all these other movements. It seems unfair to just talk about things without calling anyone a heretic. As I was contemplating these realities, it struck me that the emergent church dialogue was truly a healthy endeavor. Now, there were certainly “movement” portions of it that were equally idolatrous, but the main thrust was that questions need to be asked, and the solution shouldn’t merely be reasserting what those around me simply assert. The emerging church conversation, it seems to me, was a prophetic call to the church against the idolatry of movements.
Therefore, I want to think through what a healthy “conversation” or “movement” could look like. These are random thoughts, I haven’t thought about this very much, so I am looking for some more input. What are the signs or fruit of a healthy theological conversation?
First, I believe self-criticism is necessary. In other words, if you can’t think of any possible problems with the given “movement,” denomination or conversation you are a part of then you are an idolater.
Second, it seems necessary that you can truly understand someone else is seeking to be as faithful to the biblical text as you are and still disagrees with you. There is a general thought among evangelicals, sadly, even educated evangelicals, that their view is just simply what the Bible clearly says. This, again, is idolatry.
Third, in light of the second, it is necessary, to be truly faithful, to stay away from rhetoric. What I mean by rhetoric is this: you don’t ever use “biblical” as an adjective of your own projects. I am astonished how quickly people label something they do “biblical.” This kind of rhetoric is a strategy employed by those who believe that God’s kingdom comes through their own rhetorical might, and is, again, idolatry. Rhetoric, in other words, is simply the use of a platform to self-will one’s own agenda and seek to commandeer God’s reign for one’s own use (almost always done so out of a belief that to do so is obviously “biblical”).
Fourth, there must not be a true telos to the conversation/movement. In other words, those who have a vision statement that spells out a well defined teleology do so out of a belief that they are God’s answer to the church. This, again, is idolatry. In the words of Eugene Peterson concerning pastoring, “I don’t know what God has for these people.” Likewise, we don’t know what God has for our agendas, movements, ideologies, etc.
Fifth, it seems necessary that the conversation/movement cannot be inbred. There must be ears to hear prophetic voices from without, from those whose views, ideas and theology may be foreign, may contradict our own or may even be perceived as dangerous. I am continually shocked at how many evangelicals, dare I say possibly the majority of the laity, believe that agreeing with something someone said necessitates agreeing with everything they say. By failing to listen to those outside of our own conversations, and truly listen for God’s voice, we assume the gospel can be read in its entirely through our own worldviews, and that, again, is idolatry.
Sixth, it seems that it is necessary that areas of interest widen rather than shrink. In other words, a truly healthy movement would seek deeper in the tradition, would continue to search for answers beyond its own assumptions, while an idolatrous movement considers its views solidified and now simply circles the wagons to protect those inside. What is inside, of course, is idolatry, and what is being protected is, in itself, wicked.
Seventh, and this goes along with the idea of self-critique. A movement/conversation must be weighed by the people it helps produce. In other words, if the broader church regards members of the conversation/movement (with good cause) as zealous without knowledge for instance, or, angry, arrogant and, ultimately, sub-Christian, then a leader must come to grips with their failure to truly lead to Christ, and therefore, necessarily, the cross. Evangelicals have turned ego-driven movements into a franchise network, so, likewise, we should recognize that God is the ultimate judge of our movement, and therefore he gets to draw up the qualifications for what “successful” is. Again, a movement believing they can do so without the larger church’s input is toying with idolatry.
Any other thoughts? What have I missed? I stayed away from naming names, which is probably a good idea, but I am certain this only scratches the surface.