A thought about being evangelical.
OK. Both of my readers will probably agree that I've used it too often. Perhaps it's a little old school. Passe to some. Perhaps even trite. But, it is etched on the hard slab of my memory with sharp precision. It was during my term as President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Perhaps forty or so of us were gathered for a significant committee meeting in Columbia. Characteristic of Baptists the gathering got a little contentious at times. During the discussion Pastor Curt Bradford asked to speak. He rose and waited for the room to settle down a bit. Then he said, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, we don't have to be twins to be brothers". He attributed that sage advice to Dr. Herschel Hobbs, a distinguished retired Baptist pastor, author, and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was one of those "ah ha" moments that I consider a vivid spiritual marker in my thirty-five year pastoral service. It settled the entire meeting. Over and over since 2011 that one momentous spiritual truth has brought clarity to many of the troubling issues of life. In all of our decision making and church discussion, and even theological debate, we don't have to be twins. We Christians are a diverse group gathered around distinct biblical doctrine. But, we're not exactly alike.
Our current dismay over the meaning of the term "evangelical" should be governed by such an apparent truth. We are a unique assortment, us Baptists, and us evangelicals. We cover a wide spread of geographical, social, and cultural territory. Our churches are traditional, contemporary, cowboy flavored, motor-cycle enhanced, moderate, and extremely conservative. The term "evangelical" encompasses strong theological themes, practices that run the gamut of church life in America, great historical precedents, and even some political leanings. This kind of diversity is a cheering point for many of our tribe, especially in our unique world. But, suddenly, we're looking for some kind of definitive system that links us more succinctly. There's talk of re-defining "evangelical", even designing a creed to secure our identity in such a secular and needful culture. The question for me is, can we actually be brothers without being twins? Can evangelicals, that is, those who cling to the traditional aspects of evangelical protestant faith, still maintain an influence in this kind of world? Can we do it without requiring a cookie-cutter pattern?
Maybe it's just me but this kind of sentiment really didn't achieve the current front page status until the election of 2016. It's true, evangelicals have a strong voting history, usually distinctly conservative. But, even the swings in the political climate over the years haven't created this level of adversity in our ranks, to the point of questioning the genuineness of our evangelical beliefs. Today, however, how we vote and the criteria we use to make those election decisions have become litmus tests for inclusion in the world of evangelical practice. And, at least in my limited opinion, this is sad. We evangelicals are certainly more than than another special interest group or voting block.
Christ's prayer (note John 17) that his future followers would be one weighs on me heavily. How is this kind of oneness possible in our denominational distinctions, theological declarations, and church practice? History proves that the Christian elements of our society have been able to overcome significant differences so that Christ's church can achieve the Apostle Paul's teaching that---"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28, ESV). Surely the lessons of Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit in us can bring a unity of faith that enables his church to make disciples of all nations without re-defining our identity.
Just as clearly, these uncertain times compel us to examine our declarations and insure biblical standards in our theology and practice. But, traditional evangelicalism, those systems of faith that have guided us in history, reflecting a broad standard commitment to the Gospel and mission, are adequate to maintain a strong spiritual influence for the nation. If voting standards are a prerequisite for evangelical inclusion then we've perhaps abandoned what it means to be evangelical in the first place.
Right now my heart turns to those two unifying biblical themes: the Gospel and the Great Commission.. The Good News of Jesus has been entrusted to his church in this disciple making assignment. We must be defined by our belief in and sharing of the glorious Gospel of Christ. Not some cultural by-product, new-age mysticism, or trendy pop religion. With the Apostle Paul we must live out this truth: " For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16, ESV). The Gospel and the Great Commission brings immersion, affusion, or aspersion churches to a Holy Communion even though we go through different motions in celebrating it.
Doctrine matters. Biblical theology matters. What we believe and teach is central to the disciple making commission Jesus entrusted to his church. But, friends, we don't have to be twins to do it. Being brothers in Christ is what united Paul and Peter and thousands of great servants in church history.
Brothers, not twins.
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