From: PSCF 38 (December 1086): 258-265.
The primary aim of this article is not (directly at least) any of the following, though each of them might be a good objective under the same title:
(a) To identify the basic beliefs we share as evangelicals.
(b) To hammer out a common strategy for the defence of evangelical doctrine.(c) To consider bow to make our common viewpoint more persuasive, vis A vis either unbelievers or nonevangelicals.
(d) To pinpoint the main thrusts of current attacks on and opposition to our evangelical faith.
(e) To consider ways of alerting the next generation to the essentials of the faith that must be safeguarded.
What I have in mind is something different from all of these, though not unrelated. I would like to focus not on what we believe, say or do, but on what we are as a body of interdependent members, and the sorts of things that can go wrong organically with the corporate life of an evangelical body. We in recent times have seen more than one movement, launched with the brightest of evangelical hopes, turn sick and die out within a few generations. Why? What went wrong? Are there discernible common factors in such cases? What were the earliest symptoms that can be seen (with hindsight) to have been ominous in the light of later events? Can we discern the main factors that seem to favour the growth of spiritual disease? Were any dentifiable health precautions neglected? Did the organic structure of the evangelical body suffer any vital damage by cleavage, or blockage of healthy mutual feedback, which facilitated the local spread of disease unnoticed and unchecked? Were there any identifiable vitamin deficiencies in the regular diet?
Above all-do any of these have dangerous parallels today? Why should not the same happen to us? Does recent history suggest any "dietetic" or "hygienic" precautions that we evangelicals-all of us-ought to be observing and urgently commending here and now? Can we in our situation recognize-across whatever differences in emphasis may divide us-remediable deficiencies in the structure of our mutual dependence: the ways in which and the extent to which we express our loving care and shared responsibility for one another, day by day or year by year? Are there any signs of incipient failure or neglect of communication, damaging to the body as a whole and frustrating to the life of the Spirit in it? Do different members of the body perhaps suffer from dietary deficiencies of opposite kinds, each equally damaging in its own way to health and usefulness?
I have scratched my head in vain for a single term to
encompass the aim I have in mind. Diagnostic, epidemiological, hygienic, dietetic-it is all of these and more.
Our central question is-what factors make for corporate health and resistance to disease in our evangelical
body, and what factors expose it to disease and drag it down? We need not expect to come up with exhaustive
answers, still less with a foolproof prescription for
health; but I believe it is timely for us to do what we can
by God's grace, and the attempt should be good for us.
2. Unstable Equilibrium?
Perhaps I should 'come clean' as to what I had in mind in my introductory note. Consider then the Free Kirk of Scotland in 1843, resounding with the compassionate evangelical orthodoxy of Chalmers. Who would have predicted that by 1893 the same Kirk would be riddled with German liberalism? Look at the evangelical Student Volunteer Movement of last century. Could its founders have foreseen how it would be gradually transformed into the Student Christian Movement (SCM) that extruded InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF) into independent existence, and how it would latterly repudiate the very concept of Christian mission that gave rise to it? Or ask Dutch evangelicals what has happened to the Gereformeerde Kerk of the stalwart Abraham Kuyper.
Consider now the present day. Evangelicalism in some respects is once again thriving. Whereas not many decades ago the evangelical witness on university campuses was small, weak and despised, nowadays one of the biggest and liveliest of all British student societies is often the Christian Union (CU). Whereas once both the supply of and demand for evangelical literature was slight, our church bookstalls now bulge with attractive paperbacks from IVP, Banner of Truth and others, including the best of classical as well as contemporary authors. Whereas once it was thought almost a sign of unsoundness for an evangelical to take too serious an interest in human arts and culture, in our time we have had Francis Schaeffer and others to encourage the opposite view from an impeccably evangelical standpoint. Whereas once it was almost obligatory for an evangelical to be anti-evolutionist, now there are those who show perhaps too little critical discernment towards current scientific fashion. Whereas once the evangelical voice was seldom heard outside its own fold, now leading evangelicals are becoming increasingly influential, even courted, in "ecumenical" circles.
Opinions may differ as to which of these changes are good in themselves. My point at the moment is only that all of them tend to create an impression that evangelicalism is now in good shape, more popular, easier to belong to than some decades ago. Can this, I wonder, be a stable situation? Has such a phase of "respectability" ever before lasted healthily more than a decade or two? If not, why not?
I believe we are usually tempted to look for answers to these questions at too superficial a level. We note that people in the earlier situations began to overemphasize the social at the expense of the spiritual; to indulge in speculative critical theories that set Scripture at odds with Scripture; to soft-pedal or abandon the miraculous for fear of being unscientific; to re-write the doctrine of redemption to eliminate 'repugnant' elements; and in general to reject or devitalize the concept of biblical authority. These, we say, are some of the fatal mistakes we must avoid. And we are right.
But this, I fear, is to focus on symptoms rather than on the disease itself. The main question we need to ask, I believe, goes deeper. What was it about the evangelical body as an organism that made it vulnerable to these disorders? There are always germs around; but a healthy evangelical movement presumably develops 11 resistance" to them. What were the factors at the organic level that gave the germs such an easy time?
I would love to see a group of competent historians spend time on this question, trying to identify major organic weaknesses still relevant today. At some risk to our medical metaphor, the question can be split into three parts:
A. What factors make for reproductive infertility, whereby the second and later generations fail to "breed
Donald M. MacKay, D.Sc., F. Inst. P., was born in Lybster, Scotland in 1922 and graduated in Natural Philosophy (Physics) at St. Andrews University in 1943. His WWII radar research with the British Admiralty led him to develop a theory of communication, computing, and control which he has employed for 35 years in understanding brain mechanisms for vision, hearing and touch. Following a teaching appointment in Physics at Kings College London he moved to the University of Keele in Staffordshire to found an interdisciplinary department of Communication and Neuroscience. Professor MacKay has been an eloquent spokesman for the Christian faith in Europe and America. His concern for developing a Christian perspective has been articulated in such works as The Clockwork Image; Brains, Machines and Persons and Human Science and Human Dignity.
B. What factors make for ill-health, leading to imbalanced and disordered corporate witness? Are there antidotes?
C. What factors make for disease-proneness? Are there precautions we can take?
The Christian view of God is especially satisfying because He has both the will to act and sufficient power.
(2) The individualistic protestant father (literal or metaphorical) who "has his own strong views" may fail to exhibit and inculcate adequately the virtue of corrigibility. Is there any evidence of this as a danger yesterday and today? if so, can we think of any structural compensation that could be built-in against it?
(3) Does the constant need for polemical writing tend selectively to favour types of leaders who are stronger in thinking and arguing than in personal piety and devotion to Christ? If so ...
(4) The more intellectually respectable a position becomes, the less searching is the challenge that must be accepted on the intellectual front by potential adherents. Does this selectively favour the accession of half-believers? Are there other challenges that should be made more explicit in compensation? (Cf. Gideon's tactics, Jesus and the rich young ruler, etc.) B. Ill-Health
(2) How can we inculcate courageously free but responsible thinking as opposed to foolhardy liberal speculation? Do we lay sufficient emphasis on intellectual integrity as a God-ward duty? Do we teach young people to distinguish sharply enough between the spirit of inquiry that invites God into the sphere of one's puzzlement, and the spirit of the serpent's question in Eden, which invites one to seek knowledge apart from God?
(3) Does even conservative apologetics sometimes get the emphasis on freedom in the wrong place? For example, I recently read an evangelical discussion of 11 seven possible freedoms which the Bible gives us as we consider the cosmos." One sees what is meant, of course; but if Scripture is God's revealed truth, and if there are some questions on which Scripture is silent or can be honestly read in several ways, isn't it odd (and perhaps revealing) to call the consequence "freedom," rather than just "ignorance?" Liberty is normally thought of as a boon to be desired; but who, in science or anywhere else, would prefer liberty to knowing what is true?
Are there any signs of incipient failure or neglect of communication, damaging to the body as a whole and frustrating to the life of the Spirit in it?
(2) Conversely, when laymen-especially students-have problems, do they (know how to) find the theological help they need? Is there a need for still more evangelical literature giving critiques of antibiblical presuppositions current in various disciplines and professions?
I hope to be forgiven if these brief and scrappy examples seem naive and misguided, and to learn better. For the remainder of this paper I would like to concentrate on one further suggestion that seems to me vital. Tracing back along the chain-mesh of causes of disease-proneness ("For want of a nail. . . "), I wonder whether one of the first may not be a neglect of the interpersonal relationships that should be natural between members of the evangelical body. In particular, well before the worst symptoms are florid, it seems possible that the relationship of mutual dependence between leading individuals may have broken down, so that the church body is no longer a body but becomes an agglomerate, the hand saying to the foot (by implication and practice) "I have no need of thee." Leaders and their cliques on opposite "sides" take to doing their own thing, fortifying themselves against the qualms of conscience by cherishing and propagating positive caricatures of themselves and negative ones of their opponents, and ceasing to communicate, in the full New Testament sense of the word (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 12). This is what John Stott (Balanced Christianity) deplores as 11 unnecessary polarisation. " Spiritually disastrous though it is, this tendency has a powerful sociological function in promoting group cohesion and the authority of the group leader, so that it is generally selfreinforcing, and requires positive efforts in the opposite direction if it is to be avoided.
I may be wrong-I wish I were-but my reason for suggesting that it is time for us to put our heads together is a conviction that we today are reaching a point where the devil could easily manoeuvre us into this same dangerous condition. In a system having momentum and inertia, whether mechanical or social, the time to take corrective precautions would be well ahead of the time at which the actual position has become unacceptable. Most of the leaders across the evangelical spectrum, I believe, still love and respect one another as brethren in and through each of whom the spirit of Christ lives and works, whatever reservations each may have. All, I believe, are united in wishing to see the evangelical witness preserved against any decline from biblical standards, either into a lifeless orthodoxy or into woolly liberalism.
The question I want to raise is how we can each best serve one another in the joint task of keeping the whole body on track, in the best of disease-resistant health. I propose to call this the problem of mutual corrigibility.
My point ... is ... that evangelicalism is now in good shape, more popular, easier to belong to than some decades ago.... Has such a phase of "respectability" ever before lasted healthily more than a decade or two?
The trouble here is that two issues easily get confused. We want to walk in Christlike humility, and fear the pride that feeds on putting other people right as a deadly disease. But as Christ's own example shows, the alternative he would commend is miles away from a mealy-mouthed policy of disclaiming any settled convictions when questions of truth are at stake. To be sure, when short of data we may have a duty to "keep mind open and mouth shut. " But unconcern as to whether we are right in what we do believe or say is a sin against the God of truth, just as much as pride. Indeed, in some personalities it can be a manifestation of pride, designed to safeguard them against the hurtful experience of being proved wrong in argument.
As Christians, we should be able to take for granted in one another the desire to be right in what we believe and preach and write and live by. That such a desire could also issue from petty pride, and so be a dangerous symptom, cannot excuse us from nurturing it as the fruit of our love for the One who has given us such truth as we have to live by.
It can help to avoid trouble here if we bear in mind a distinction in elementary logic, illustrated by contrasting the two statements:(a) He always thinks he is right.
We need one another, not as a substitute for the Holy Spirit of God, but as the very channels through whom He has appointed that we shall receive much of His guidance and encouragement and correction.
(i) Whereas (b) is incorrigible, (a) can and should co-exist with an eager readiness to cross-check where
Does the constant need for polemical writing tend selectively to favour types of leaders who are stronger in thinking and arguing than in personal piety and devotion to Christ?
(ii) Whereas (b) tends to isolate a man from his fellows in the common cause, (a) should create an active bond between all who share it. They respect and trust each other because they know that none of them would wittingly lower what he believes to be God's standards of truth for the sake of peace, unity or anything else; but by the same token they express this respect and trust by actively counting on one another's help in the continual business of cross-checking. They are bound in a comradeship that should naturally rely upon one another for any helpful feedback they can give.
(iii) Whereas (b) tends to be authoritarian in a dictatorial sense, (a) is the spirit of "a man set under authority. " Certainly this is no woolly liberalism; and it will be equally offensive to the egocentric strain of radicalism that emphasizes "doing one's own thing," but if the authority in question is that of God in Christ, as revealed in Scripture, then this is the spirit of true freedom.
I have underlined this distinction because I believe that the kind of unity possible in the spirit of (a) is the closest and healthiest that sinful and fallible evangelical believers can hope to enjoy on earth; and that it is one of the divinely-intended protections against some of Satan's most potent assaults on the corporate health of the evangelical body. This is surely a sine qua non of fellowship as the New Testament understands it: not the carping criticism of the mote-puller whose satisfaction is inputting other people right, but the comradely feedback of the team-mate whose joy is to serve you if he can, and to rely on receiving the like service from you as occasion arises. I think of soldiers in the front line, relying on each other to report any apparent weakness in one another's armour. I think of a team of doctors coping with an epidemic, each lovingly alert to any signs that a colleague may have caught the disease. Why, I wonder, is it so difficult for Christian teammates to be equally realistic and dedicated in their love for one another? Are we so confused as to what Matthew 7:1-4 is really talking about? Do we not see the dangers and the self-contradictions in withholding useful feedback from people in danger whom we profess to love?
Are there insufficient opportunities for purposeful dialogue between theologians and professionally qualified laymen? Does this explain, . . . the frequent past failures of evangelical leadership to reckon promptly and adequately with scientific and other secular developments?
no standard form of agreement whereby fellow-Christians normally pledge themselves to express their
mutual love by faithfully offering feedback in this
(all-too-rare) spirit, and being equally grateful to
receive it. Instead, "dealing faithfully" with a brother is
too often a euphemism for tearing strips off him, in just
the censorious spirit Christ condemned. One immediate objection might be that most of us feel quite
ill-equipped to serve one another at all reliably in the
role of team-mate. We do not know one another well
enough, and could not possibly make proper allowances
for one another's differing knowledge and circumstances. To this two short replies are possible. First, such
considerations do not seem to deter some of us from
engaging in long-range public criticism of the views
and actions of our brethren! Secondly, it is no part of
the compact between team-mates that all feedback,
whether of encouragement or criticism, should be
absorbed uncritically. On the contrary, since the only
aim is to upbuild one another in truth, it would have to
be mutually agreed that the main function of such
feedback is only to raise questions that might otherwise
remain unasked in the recipient's mind; and that the
answers to these must always be sought by each of us on
our knees before God in the light of His Word. If it
were not so, which one of us could dare to offer any
feedback at all to another from our limited and sindimmed personal perspective? But given this understanding, I cannot see why the exchange of feedback should not become a relaxed and natural token of real comradeship, even where the outcome leaves the parties agreeing to differ.
But unconcern as to whether we are right in what we do believe or say is a sin against the God of truth, just as much as pride.
A second objection, however, might be that some of us are already so aware of our limitations that we could easily be psychologically crushed by the pressure of candid criticism, even if offered in love. But let us ask -what is the alternative? Is it better to discover secondhand that a brother Christian has been sniping at you publicly in an address or in the pages of some magazine you seldom read, or to receive a letter from the same brother raising (but not demanding an anwer to) the same questions in a spirit of comradely affection, and inviting a similar service on your part if you ever have it to offer? Even in matters of sin, let alone mere differences of opinion, our Lord's command (Matt. 18:15) is to give priority to a personal approach before making public accusations, There is no doubt in my mind as to which would produce the lesser psychological strain. More important, our Lord leaves no doubt as to which would more nearly express Christian brotherly love.
Is it easier in practice to show real love to unbelievers than to fellow-members of Christ's body from whom we differ? I hate to ask this, because of all the implications that seem to follow if the answer is yes. But-is it? And if it is, what does this mean? Remember that we are not talking here about softness, but about tough, realistic love that considers the best interests of the other (and those around him) as far as we can see them, and acts accordingly. How many of us consistently show this kind of love towards those of our fellow evangelicals whom we see in danger of "going off the rails" in the direction of narrow legalism, selfish pietism, shallow liberalism, gospel-socialism or whatever?
I know we have excuses. We have heard that X is crusty, obtuse and resentful of criticism. We may have tried Y once and been rebuffed. Z may for years have been attacking a garbled version of our own views to his followers without a whisper directly to us. For all we know, others may see us as X, Y and Z all rolled into one. Is it not totally hopeless to try to break this vicious circle? It is, if our own heart's desire is not really for the right relationship. But if our eyes are once opened to the hideous self-contradiction of the alternative, and the health-giving naturalness of "submitting yourselves [for feedback] one to another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:2 1), then there is nothing to stop us, for our part, from praying and practicing accordingly, once we know that the other expects it of us.
As Christians, we should be able to take for granted in one another the desire to be right in what we believe and preach and write and live by.
5. True Koinonia
Why am I hammering so much on this one point? For two main reasons. First, I believe that all ritual criteria of koinonia fade into insignificance beside this test: do you treat your brother as a front-line comrade? Maybe you eat bread with him and even share platforms with him-but what is that by comparison? Maybe you pray for him, after a fashion. But is it prayer in spirit (a) or spirit (b)? If it is (a), then how is it possible that you do not show the genuineness of your prayer by the natural actions and reactions of comradeship? Is it exclusively your brother's fault? Are you sure?
Secondly, as mentioned already, I suspect that what must have accelerated the fragmentation of earlier movements more than anything else was that people stopped really listening to one another in this comradely spirit. I am not referring to the later phase in which unbelief made itself so manifest that one group could reasonably doubt whether the others were indeed members of the same team. I am thinking of a quite early stage, uncomfortably similar in some respects to that of evangelicalism today, where presumably nobody denied that the others were pledged to the same Lord and had received His spirit, but polarisation had begun to set in so that opposing parties increasingly ignored one another except for public or formal exchanges at long range. Already at that point, if I am right, the rot had set in; and it had set in among undoubted fellow-believers, whose Sunday protestations committed them all-on the surface-to the bonds of loving concern for one another's health as members of the same body.
But what do you do, you may ask, with a group whose members seem to have begun to flirt with rationalistic liberalism or some other equally antibiblical spirit of the age, and who dismiss with a smile your orthodox protestations as the nervous twitterings of an obscurantist? Here let me not pretend to know what our forebears should have done. Let me only suggest what I hope could happen today if this situation were to recur. Assuming that "we" means the heirs and would-be supporters of main-stream biblical evangelicalism, our first move, I believe, must be to institutionalise, however informally, a pact of brotherhood with all of those from whom we differ who are willing to participate. This would begin by frankly acknowledging the depth and seriousness of the issues that divide us for the time being, but also our common wish that God would open eyes on all sides to whatever is true, and whatever may be false, in what each affirms. It would testify to our recognition of one another as team-mates with inescapable obligations to one another arising out of our organic membership of Christ's body; and it would proceed to agree on simple, practical steps to be taken and faithfully followed up for the maintenance at all costs of open and recognized channels of mutual feedback, solemnly promised to one another in the spirit outlined above.
To be sure, there are hypocrites who will mouth the language of love while driving in daggers of hate. There are wolves in sheep's clothing who will receive all feedback with smiles and heed none of it. But if
If the authority in question is that of God in Christ, as revealed in Scripture, then this is the spirit Of true freedom.
One might even be tempted to predict that sectors of the evangelical constituency might be somewhat abashed were a habitually defensive and critical stance toward other sectors to give way to a desire to interact in an honest but brotherly fashion.
I have written this paper as a cri de coeur that I hope will find echoes in all our hearts. We need one another, not as a substitute for the Holy Spirit of God, but as the very channels through whom He has appointed that we shall receive much of His guidance and encouragement and correction. Fallible as we are, we cannot rely on dead reckoning. Like a car on a straight road we depend on a constant succession of small corrections if we are not to veer off the track. We have a recurring need to be asked the right questions. Some of these questions we can expect the world to ask us: are we compassionate enough, honest enough, diligent enough ... ? Others we can expect nobody but fellow believers to be in a position to ask. These are the 'prods' I am anxious to make so much a natural part of evangelical inter-dependence that (like the continual small movements of a car's steering wheel) they can be frequent and small enough to be almost unnoticed. (It is only in cases where the driver's negligence makes feedback too infrequent, or where the wheel is too stiff, that correction makes the car lurch violently from side to side of the track.) Such exchanges are possible only where each knows that the other expects them to occur.
I do my best to think and write in obedience to God's revelation in one particular area of apologetics. I need my brother who sees me as running dangerously close to heresy or incoherence to tell me when be has misgivings-not as a censor or pope, but as a comrade who fears for my health and that of those who read what I write. I need to weigh questions offered in this spirit, not as "attacks" but as helpful feedback to be evaluated as realistically as possible before God. if I find misunderstandings in what he describes as my position or its implications, I should point them out not just to defend myself but as part of my service to him, taking it for granted that he does not wish to cherish any false caricature of my position, because he too claims to serve the God of truth and will be glad to be corrected. Any idea of scoring points in a debate should be utterly abhorrent.
Is it impossible-is it not vital ?_that the diverse leadership of the evangelical movement today, "left," 11 right" and "centre," should resolve corporately from henceforth to use this and only this as the basis and spirit of all future relationships? Don't let us pretend that it always has been or that it now is. All of us, I am sure, know glaring exceptions at first hand. One might even be tempted to predict that sectors of the evangelical constituency might be somewhat abashed were a habitually defensive and critical stance toward other sectors to give way to a desire to interact in an honest but brotherly fashion.
That is the measure of the seriousness of our condition. Have we already bred a generation of separate evangelical constituencies who have effectively ceased to see, love and pray for one another as team-mates in a common enterprise against world, flesh and devil? I do not know. I would love to think that if the right lead were given, the rank and file of every sector of evangelicalism would gladly and thankfully rise to the challenge to develop more constructive, more realistic, less God-dishonouring relationships, and that the editorial policy of every evangelical journal would insist on corresponding standards for published materials. If this is not the case, it means that some at least have become addicted to a poison fatal to our corporate (if not individual) health.