I am a convictional Protestant. I affirm all 5 of the Reformation Solas. If it wouldn’t offend my mother, I would have the face of Charles Spurgeon tattooed on my chest.
I’m in. All in. But that isn’t to say I’m on board with everything I see in contemporary evangelicalism.
Things are getting squirrely out there and the neighbours are starting to notice. Thankfully, the leaders within evangelicalism are starting to notice as well. John MacArthur went on the record over a year ago declaring that the word “evangelical” was no longer useful as a general descriptive term for our movement. It means so much that it means basically nothing. More recently, Russell Moore has questioned whether the term is worth keeping given how broad and untethered the evangelical armada has now become. This isn’t your grandfather’s evangelicalism. This is not “Big Tent Billy Graham” evangelicalism. This is a rolling tire fire. Our movement has become a mob, and it’s time to take that seriously.
I’ve had a number of conversations recently with former evangelicals who have left our tribe and joined up with the Roman Catholics. What each of those people have in common is a critical concern with the amount of unfettered theological and ethical diversity on display within the evangelical movement.
That’s a fair criticism, and while I accept their diagnosis, I reject their prescription. I’m not ready to get back on the Big Catholic Bus. I am however ready to repent and to call for another reformation.
Along with my spiritual grandparents, I still believe that back is the way forward. Yes we are a mess now, but just a few generations ago we were enjoying the favour of God. Let’s go back! Let’s not abandon the project – let’s just admit that we’ve made a few bad turns.
Let’s return to the Rock from which we were hewn and the Quarry from which we were dug. In specific, I’m calling on my people – my tribe – to do the following:
Let’s Recommit to Whole Bible Reading, Studying and Preaching
The principle of Sola Scriptura only works if you actually read the Bible! Our Catholic friends are right! Evangelicalism is not a movement without a Pope, it is a movement overrun with Popes! Every person seems to be pulling new doctrines straight out of the air! Long gone are the days when we were humble and contrite and trembling before the Word of God.
Now we have pastors who mock other pastors for preaching from the Bible!
Now we have 10 sermons on whatever I’m interested in today!
Now we have “Jesus Calling” and the Kansas City Prophets, but where are the people of the book?!
What happened to “when the Bible speaks, God speaks”?
How did we get from there to here?
I don’t know that, but I do know this: I know the way back! Back is easy! All we have to do is read, study and preach the Word of God! Let’s do that again and let the chips fall where they may.
Let’s take the Bible at face value. Let’s assume that God knows how to get his message out. Let’s assume that human frailty can be overcome by Divine Inspiration. Let’s assume that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful. Of course we are going to ask questions about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and of course we are going to study the original context and learn the original languages – of course! Of course! Of course! But at the end of the day if the text says yes, then let it be yes! And if the text says no then let it be no, regardless the reaction of the crowd.
Let’s go back there.
Let’s commit again to whole Bible reading, studying and preaching.
Listen, friend – if you won’t read your Bible, if you won’t study your Bible, if you won’t sit for the preaching of the Bible then PLEASE get back on the Catholic bus. Better to sit on a wayward bus than to drive your scooter into the crowd.
Let’s Recommit to the Study of History and Tradition
Sola Scriptura means “by Scripture alone”, it does not mean “Scripture alone”. That may not seem like a big difference but it is. The early Protestants valued the tradition of the church. Luther and Calvin were experts on the Church Fathers and they were steeped in the early Christian Creeds. What they meant when they said “Sola Scriptura” was that the Christian faith must be formed, normed and reformed ‘by Scripture alone’. Of course we can be ‘informed’ by many other sources; we can and should read science. We can and should read philosophy. We can and should read literature and we can and should read history; particularly our own.
The Letter to the Hebrews says:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings (Hebrews 13:7–9 ESV)
The Apostle commended the study of the founders as a guard against doctrinal novelty. So should we. It should concern us if we are seeing something or saying something that our forefathers neither saw nor said. Tradition should function as a stall and a caution. It should function as a ballast and a brake against the winds and tides of culture.
Very practically, it should concern the evangelical church that we have pastors and people saying and teaching things about gender and sexuality that no one had ever said or taught in our midst until 50 years ago.
That should terrify us.
That should caution us.
That should drive us back into the text.
Tradition can serve the study of Scripture. It did in the early days of our movement, and it needs to do so again today.
Let’s Recommit to Non-Defensive Listening
Evangelicalism has become a giant echo chamber; we all have our favourite websites and internet gurus, and we almost never expose ourselves to contrary views.
When I was doing my undergraduate degree at York University, I had a professor who was also very involved with the Greek Orthodox Church. He was the first legitimate believer I had ever met from a non-evangelical context. He was the real deal. Born into a Jewish family, he made a huge sacrifice when he converted; his conversion was not an accident of culture or birth. He chose to identify with Jesus Christ – albeit in a context and tradition that was very foreign to me. Listening to him did not make me abandon my evangelical convictions, but it did make me see them from the perspective of an outsider. He saw weaknesses in my movement that I was not positioned to see. That was a gift that keeps on giving.
The current mass migration of Christians out of the Middle East may well be the greatest human tragedy of the 21st century. It may also be a gift of God to the Evangelical church. We need to dialogue with believers from different cultures and different contexts. We need to understand how we are perceived from the outside; we need to listen and receive that feedback in a non-defensive way.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend.
Let’s Recommit to Robust Congregational Polity
Sola Scriptura only works if people read the Bible and churches practice discipline. My Catholic friends ask a good question: “What is to keep an individual Protestant from starting their own movement every time they disagree with the teaching or doctrine of their church?” The answer of course is church discipline! If churches were more robust in their practice of church discipline, the sort of unfettered nonsense that we are seeing today would be greatly curtailed.
When was the last time your church investigated your beliefs? When was the last time you were asked to explain a Facebook post, a Sunday School lesson or a moral decision of any kind? Is anybody watching? Does anybody care? Is there any confusion as to why we have evangelicals believing and behaving badly in the public square?
Sola Scriptura does not need to lead to theological and ethical anarchy. Evangelicals used to believe that Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose to the church. We never agreed with the Catholic on the specifics, but we did agree on the principle. Evangelicals used to believe in “telling it to the church”. We used to believe that if the church declared a person in the wrong and that person refused to repent, then that person should be treated like a Gentile and a tax collector.
We used to believe that because it’s in the Bible. Jesus said: “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:17–18 ESV).
We used to believe that – more importantly, we used to practice that. We used to require our people to believe and behave in accordance with the Scriptures. If they didn’t, then we treated them like outsiders. That isn’t to say that we were mean to them – far from it! It meant that we reached out to them with the saving and changing Gospel of Jesus Christ! That’s what evangelicals used to do when faced with unbelievers.
We need to do it again.
We need to do a bunch of really hard things that we haven’t done in a really long time.
Or we need to admit that we have become a lazy, rebellious and ridiculous people, and we need to turn in our scooters and get back on the Big Catholic Bus.
That’s the choice because what we’re doing now is neither safe, faithful or fair. People are getting hurt, and the name of Christ is being blasphemed among the nations because of us. Our Catholic friends have been kind enough to point that out. I think we should listen.
They have a fair point.
We have an awful mess.
We need another Reformation.
And may God alone be glorified!
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.