by Trevin Wax
What is an evangelical? It’s a simple question, but one that raises a number of various approaches. Depending on who you ask, you may hear evangelicals described as…
- A religious political force within the Republican party.
- Christians who are really serious about their faith.
- A movement centered around the gospel as recovered and proclaimed in the Reformation and subsequent revivals.
- Christians with recognizable lingo (“personal relationship with Jesus”) who emphasize conversion and life transformation.
The debate over evangelical identity is nothing new. “Evangelicalism” has always been a contested concept, and it’s unlikely that the current debate will result in a consensus for future generations. Still, the question of evangelical identity is important and worthy of thoughtful discussion, for it brings us back to the gospel and its role in uniting Christians across denominational lines.
In light of this discussion’s importance, I will summarize the arguments presented in an important new book: Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2011). Editors Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have asked four Christian leaders for their views on the spectrum of evangelical identity.
- Kevin Bauder (Fundamentalist)
- Al Mohler (Confessional Evangelical)
- John Stackhouse (Generic Evangelical)
- Roger Olson (Postconservative Evangelical)
Reading the back-and-forth between these four men is a helpful exercise in discerning the importance of Christian truth and its relevance in decisions of cooperation and fellowship. In the next few days, I will briefly summarize the various points of view and offer a few reflections of my own.
Representing the fundamentalist position is Kevin Bauder, research professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Bauder begins by showing how doctrine is what unites Christians (in varying degrees):
The question with which fundamentalism begins is, “What unites Christians? What do Christians hold in common?” Since Christian unity and fellowship may be greater or less, this question has both a minimal and a maximal answer. At the minimal level, some criterion must exist for differentiating Christians from other people. (21)
In responding to this question of Christian unity, Bauder points back to the gospel (22). Apart from the gospel, there is no unity.
The fundamental unity of the church is invisible and intangible. It is an inward unity that comes with belief in the gospel. This observation does not imply that outward, visible unity is unimportant. Outward unity, however, can be enjoyed only where inner unity already exists. In sum, unity is always a function of what unites. Fellowship always involves something that is held in common. (23)
Bauder’s view of unity and fellowship looks something like this: Gospel >> Inner unity >> Outward fellowship. Or going at it from the other direction, our fellowship is dependent upon the inner unity we have in believing the gospel. Though Bauder emphasizes doctrinal unity as the basis for fellowship, he takes care to articulate a position that focuses on one’s profession.
God alone knows who genuinely possesses faith. What Christians can know, however, and what they must evaluate, is who professes faith. (24)
In Bauder’s view, we are unable to determine who possesses genuine faith, but we are required to evaluate a person’s profession of faith. This evaluation is primarily doctrinal. “To trust Christ as Savior is to trust a doctrinal Christ,” he writes. “To reject the doctrines is tantamount to rejecting Christ himself.” (29)
How does Bauder’s view play out in terms of Christian fellowship? Not surprisingly, the fundamentalist position emphasizes fundamental doctrines for understanding the proper boundaries of fellowship. “Since the gospel functions as the boundary of Christian fellowship, fundamental doctrines are part of that boundary,” he writes (29). And here’s the application:
Those who profess the true gospel are to be accorded fellowship as Christians. Those who deny the gospel are to be excluded from Christian fellowship. (31)
Next, Bauder lays out some ways that Christians can fellowship together despite the frequent “frustration” of this fellowship by doctrinal disagreements. Because we are not in total agreement on all points of doctrine, some level of frustration is inevitable. There will always be some degree of separation until Christ returns.
The question is not whether we should sometimes separate from each other. In fact, we cannot possibly cooperate with every other believer for every kind of Christian endeavor. The real question is how we can make God-honoring decisions about fellowship and separation. (37)
This brings us back to the issue of fundamentalist cooperation with evangelicals. According to Bauder, it is possible to have fellowship with evangelicals who are right on the gospel. But he is concerned about the message communicated by evangelicals who fellowship with people who deny the gospel. “Though they personally believe and preach the gospel, evangelicals who fellowship with apostates undermine the gospel’s function and demean its importance,” he writes (40).
Responses to Kevin Bauder
Al Mohler responds to Kevin Bauder with a pertinent question:
Should our goal be maximal fellowship through agreement concerning “the whole counsel of God”? That allows for no disagreement on any theological issue, as if all are of equal importance. (53)
John Stackhouse calls into question Bauder’s exclusive focus on doctrine:
Why focus so much – in fact, almost exclusively – on Christian doctrine? Where are the traditional Christian – indeed, the traditional evangelical – emphases on mission and piety? Why is there no equal emphasis on orthopraxy (correct practice) and what I’m calling orthopathy (right affections)? (57)
Roger Olson responds by affirming Bauder’s view that one should not fellowship with apostates or heretics. But Olson puts his finger on the bigger issue behind Bauder’s essay, “Who decides?”
Even I do not have Christian fellowship with those I believe to be apostate or heretical. The difference seems to me to lie in who is considered apostate and heretical and how one should treat them. (63)
Kevin Bauder’s emphasis on the gospel as the center of Christian unity is spot-on. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with his affirmation of the gospel as the necessary boundary for Christian fellowship. Would any evangelical say that we should openly endorse heresy and apostasy? I doubt it.
But here’s where things get tricky. Who decides what is the gospel? Who decides what doctrines are so fundamentally tied to the gospel that to deny the doctrine is to deny the gospel? Who determines what is “heresy” and “apostasy?”
As Reformation Christians, we return to the Scriptures as the supreme authority for answers to these questions. We also keep in mind the testimony and witness of the church through the years. Yet even among sola scripturaChristians, we find significant differences of interpretation as to how the Scriptures answer these questions.
The problem with Bauder’s fundamentalist position is that it lends itself toward the creation of a magisterium. Dynamic, charismatic leaders end up making these doctrinal decisions and the people in the pews are expected to fall in line. Though fundamentalist doctrine and practice is worlds away from Roman Catholicism, you wind up with some of the same dynamics at work.
Mark Galli’s recent article in Christianity Today about evangelicals attracted to Roman Catholicism is instructive in the discussion about fundamentalism:
Of course the center will hold, because at the center is not a doctrine, nor some human authority figure, nor a complete and inerrant statement of faith. There is only the Center, Jesus Christ. We don’t need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.
In short, we don’t need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth we need, when we need it.
One other problem with the fundamentalist position is the difficulty of deciding what issues are essential to the gospel (and therefore to Christian fellowship) and what issues are important and yet secondary. Many of us who come from fundamentalist backgrounds understand how quickly this confusion takes place. When the pre-tribulational rapture is put on par with the Trinity in terms of “fundamentals” (the position of some early fundamentalists), we are well on our way to a “maximal” Christian fellowship that makes everything “of first importance.” Oddly enough, this development winds up diluting the importance of the essentials.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Al Mohler’s “confessional evangelical” answer to the question of evangelical identity.