Evangelical Alignment and the Question of Battle-Lines image

Evangelical Alignment and the Question of Battle-Lines

I can't think of anyone on earth who agrees with me on every single theological issue. My wife doesn't. My team of elders don't. There may be some people in my church, or online, who think they do - although I doubt it - but that's only because they don't know what I believe about pacifism or evolution or Revelation 20 or Hebrews 6 or Mark 13. In other words, I disagree with everyone about something.

Yet those disagreements are not equally weighted. There are many people for whom my theological quibbles make no difference at all to our relationship, our partnership in the gospel, or our unity. There are others for whom they make a massive difference. And the odd thing is, it is not necessarily a question of quantity (the number things we disagree about). There are some people - Kevin DeYoung springs to mind - with whom I suspect I would have dozens and dozens of disagreements on all sorts of very significant issues (gifts of the Spirit, baptism, church government, the atonement, the meaning of Romans, creationism, eschatology ...) and yet feel enormously united with theologically; there are few people whose work I encourage people to read more. There are other people, whom I won’t name for obvious reasons, with whom I agree on far more doctrines, yet concerning whose work I have a far greater degree of nervousness. (Here’s how I can tell: if someone in my church said they were getting into Kevin’s theology and loving it, I would celebrate; if they said they were enjoying getting deep into the theology of many others, I would be far more concerned, even if I could tick more of their boxes than I could of Kevin’s.)

Why is that?

It is not a question of quantity, as I’ve said. Nor is it merely a question of the relative significance of the doctrines over which we disagree; there are many paedobaptist cessationist complementarians (e.g. Tim Keller) with whom I feel more theological affinity than I do with many baptist charismatic egalitarians, even though I am certain that baptism and the gifts of the Spirit are more theologically important than the roles of men and women. The same is true in reverse, incidentally. There are lots of people I’ve encountered online who agree with me about almost everything, but still have significant concerns about me because of the issue over which we disagree, even if that issue is demonstrably less important than the issues over which we see eye-to-eye. What is going on here, then?

I can’t say for sure, but my suspicion is that it arises from our perception of what the key evangelical battle-lines are (a horribly combative phrase, but you know what I mean), and whether we perceive the other person to be one our side of the line or not. So, for example, many feminist theologians regard the right of women to be elders (or equivalent), and/or not to have to submit to their husbands, as the most important contemporary issue there is, and consequently regard people as opponents or allies on the basis of their view of the roles of men and women. I have had the odd experience of having people with whom I share a huge amount of theological common ground, but who believe feminism is the most pressing cause of our day, refuse to read or review apologetics books I have written simply because I am a complementarian. Many other egalitarians, on the other hand, have been happy not only to read and review my books, but commission articles, invite me to speak at their conferences or participate in projects alongside them, and most importantly build friendship with me. And I suspect that the difference is not mainly about personality, nor even about the strength of conviction involved (I have many friends whose egalitarian conviction is as strong as it could be), but about whether each individual regards the issue as the main battle-line of our day. The ones who don’t will be happy to agree to disagree. The ones who do will find themselves defined by it.

I’m the same, of course; it’s just that in my case the defining issue is the truthfulness of the scriptures, rather than the roles of men and women. When I see someone as on the same “team” as me on the doctrine of scripture, I give them the benefit of the doubt on all sorts of areas in which we might disagree, and seek to assure others that they are one of the good guys. When I read someone as being on the other “team”, I react with suspicion to new things they say, get nervous when I hear new believers are getting into their theology, and pick up their books with a critical, rather than a receptive, attitude. (In all this I’m trying to be honest about the way these things work, rather than either defending this sort of teamthink in all its forms, or indeed decrying it. There comes a point at which you switch from talking like Paul does in Galatians 2:11-14 to the way he does in 5:7-12, but I admit that it’s not always easy to tell where the line is). That, as I reflect on my approach to someone like Kevin DeYoung (or for that matter Mark Driscoll), is probably at the heart of it.

I suspect it’s also at the heart of one of the greatest oddities (at least to me) within evangelical alignment: the extreme wariness with which many of my Reformed American friends treat Tom Wright, in contrast to the very enthusiastic way in which I do. If the battle-line is seen as Reformed soteriology, or the validity of the Westminster Confession, then Wright will obviously fall on the wrong side of it, from the point of view of many in the Reformed camp. (My personal view is that he cultivates that perception somewhat, since it deflects attention from how conservative his theology is, but that’s another story). For me, on the other hand, the issue is biblical authority, and as such I see Wright as an ally for whom to be grateful rather than an opponent of whom to be suspicious. To many of my American friends, he looks like a slightly more conservative Pete Enns; to me, he looks like a slightly less conservative John Piper. And my guess is, that’s driven by what we think the key battle-line is.

Does anyone else recognise this type of alignment? If so, what do you make of it?

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