In my previous two posts, I talked about a growing trend that I believe is taking place in which present-day evangelicals who maintain strong solidarity with the original heritage of the movement are experiencing what their fundamentalist counterparts originally encountered. Namely, they are seeing many departing their ranks because of significant disagreements. The only difference being that whereas mid-20th century evangelicals parted ways with fundamentalists mainly over matters of cultural engagement and trans-denominational cooperation, today the rifts appear to be emerging primarily over doctrinal matters.
And again, I think this is creating the perfect storm for significant changes in the future landscape of theological identity for evangelicals here in the U.S. Specifically, I claimed that on the one hand, conservative evangelicals will still retain some sort of uniqueness because they will not make strong alliances with present-day fundamentalist camps. The reason being that the latter’s definitions of Christian identity and praxis are typically too myopic. On the other hand, though, they will continue to resist the theological tractor beams created by the “progressivism” of the evangelical left.
So with these observations in place, without trying to foster a chicken little mentality and fully acknowledging that I am no prophet nor the cousin of one, can we ask the question as to what evangelicalism will possibly look like in the next 20 years and what doctrinal issues are currently setting the stage for the rupturing of assorted evangelical ranks.
Well, starting with the second concern first, I don’t think it takes much discernment to highlight a few issues that are top-list areas of heated disagreement. One is biblical inerrancy. Now here I am not referring to the mainstay debates about textual preservation, how the NT interprets the OT, or the dating/authorship of various biblical books. No doubt these issues will always be topics under discussion.
Yet I am referring to the growing polarization that is forming because of disagreement over how we should understand the nature of historical referents in biblical texts in light of the ways in which ancient literature communicated in their original settings. One perfect example of this question is the continuing dialogue over the historicity of Adam. The debate is not simply over how an historical Adam reconciles with modern scientific data. It is a question about how the Genesis narrative functioned for ancient readers. And here’s the thing, some professing evangelicals who are moving to the left on this issue still claim that they believe in inerrancy. Thus my point here is that inerrancy debates today are really focused on what is hermeneutically permissible when reading the biblical text, not simply what kind of authority the text has.
A second issue which is steadily creating strong friction between evangelicals is the topic of inclusivism. While literature on this question is not necessarily being cranked out as much as it was a few years ago, there appears to be a brooding vibe among many who are moving more to the theological left and embracing some nuanced form of Christian identity outside of explicit conversion to Christ (which is then almost automatically linked to the related affirmation of annihilationism, but that’s another story for another post). I think this trend will consistently grow and in turn, continue to separate the evangelical left from the rest of the conservative pack.
Third, an issue that just continues to mount significant levels of friction is the complementarian/egaliatarian divide. Because this issue not only pertains to gender roles but also to hermeneutics in general as well as our understanding of God and ethics, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight with regard to the impasse that evangelicals are experiencing herein. Consequently, it appears that complementarians will continue to be caricatured as patriarchal while egalitarians will continue to differ among themselves as to whether the Bible actually teaches their view or whether it should be interpreted in ways that ultimately lead to their view. Be this as it may, the disagreement over the roles of women in the family and the church are so entrenched in deeper views of hermeneutics and biblical authority that unless one side concedes, and I don’t see that happening any time soon, this divide will only expand.
The fourth and final issue that is coming to the forefront right now is the dizzying impact of questions related to homosexuality. As opposed to the previous topics which do have several areas where different evangelicals can sometimes nuance their positions in highly sophisticated ways to go either in a conservative or more progressive direction, this subject really has no third route on the map. It’s a two lane road with no shoulder to pull off to the side.
In fact, this issue could prove to be the dividing line on whether the term evangelical retains any real meaning. What would it mean for someone to embrace this term while actually arguing that homosexual behavior is biblically permissible? Even still, for many conservatives who will remain faithful under the growing pressure created by this subject, they will definitely be ostracized by many on the evangelical left and viewed more as theological fundamentalists than evangelicals (or perhaps the term fundy-gelical will become somewhat of a label). And that my friends leads to my conclusion.
As these kinds of theological lines continue to be drawn, assorted pockets of evangelicals most likely will feel forced to network with kindred spirits who share their theological commitments. And in doing so, it’s possible that more trans-denominational alliances will be formed. Perfect examples of this include groups like The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel. In these guilds, complementarianism and Calvinism are the theological axioms that unify these evangelicals from a multiplicity of denominations.
In the future, I think an ebb and flow of these kinds of groups will increase as conservatives strive to preserve their doctrinal commitments, stand as an alternative to the evangelical left, and avoid aligning with traditional fundamentalist regimes. Now how will such a trend affect denominations in general or local churches in particular? Who knows. But perhaps in the end, the original evangelical vision may have a better chance of being realized with a bit more doctrinal bite to it. We will have to wait and see….