Christians Behaving Badly Over Theology

March 31, 2011

In the last few days, a couple of bloggers I read, Roger Olson and David Fitch, have noted the important disjunction between doctrine and behavior. This disjunction had produced a sour tone in both gentlemen.

Now, what I mean here by “sour tone” is not that they are inciting others to rant or to flame those they oppose and others. They are getting tired of it all, yet both observe that there is something at stake here in the conversations, blogs, articles, and books that they have with those they contend with.

I get it, as well. Some people are just cantankerous in North America, and doctrine is yet another setting in which they feel they must participate in a smack-down battle with other Christians who differ from them regarding doctrine.

One of the matters here is whether I have a dog in this hunt. I don’t. I find myself an interested observer on the sidelines. Although, I want to develop below a clue that Fitch left in his post for our sense of community-in-mission, especially as it relates to witness on the university campus: and that moves me onto the field of play.

Yet, like the two bloggers I mentioned above, I, too, sense there is much at stake. But, I want to both affirm all that they are concerned about: and nudge the conversation further along beyond the present participants, i.e., beyond the current ethnic composition of the conversation and contention.

Olson rightly observes the rough distinction between “neo-fundamentalists” and “postconservative evangelicals”, as did several of those who commented. For Olson-and I would largely agree- the distinction has two parts: (1) How do hold your convictions and (2) How do you negotiate your conflicts with others regarding your convictions? The vignettes shared by Olson make great content for a horror story; given the rather inane story lines in many “slasher” films, the stuff Olson shares would make for a significant upgrade for many movies.

I could go on: but, I could not help but think of the many students I know who trust the kinds of leaders that Olson mentioned (they do reproduce, unfortunately), and sit under their preaching (and therefore, their theological reflection): and rarely am I hearing any sense of engagement or critical appropriation by the students. Both are the kind of people I could stand to pray more for.

Fitch takes a slightly different tack, in that he focuses upon the “young, restless, and reformed” (YRR), and uses The Gospel Coalition as a foil for his comments.  He expresses his concern “that the approach of the Gospel Coalition is ill-suited to engage the cultural challenges of post-Christendom.” I want to engage that below. He makes a list of five statements that he believes the TGC implicitly makes, although has yet to make explicit. I am not sufficiently familiar with TGC to say, “Amen,” to Fitch but I do know of others for whom one or more of the statements would be the occasion to fall on their sword.

One statement of Fitch in particular is worthy of consideration, and I will do so in an incomplete fashion here! “If we purify our doctrine, the rest will follow.” I could not agree with the critique of Fitch here more strongly. If all our missional weakness, cultural disconnects, and ecclesial fractures could be depicted as contaminated theology, and therefore the solution would naturally be to extract and rinse the toxins from our doctrine, the real presenting problem would be one of will-power/faith: for according to people who would claim to know doctrine in its pure form the solution would be to then faithfully enact the doctrine: and everything would follow.


As Fitch observed, the Reformation possessed a cultural, ethnic, and historic location. And, we are not living at that same address. What I sense in the statement implied by the “YRR”, is that the theological outcomes of the Reformation are now a tradition that is supra-cultural, and must be adhered to in order to participate in the mission of God in our local and global context. With all due respect, I disagree. (I know: I have set-up the straw man.)

Let’s honor the Reformed tradition by participating in some of the same practices that, frankly, preceded Luther & Calvin et al and certainly have followed them: reading the Scripture, recalling with honor how the church enacted its mission in response to God’s Word, and yet being prayerfully mindful that God has more light to break forth on His Word for our cultural context. We may end up with different outcomes theologically, but find ourselves in continuity with the traditions of the Reformation through such practices.

Let me be among the many to state the obvious: I am a child of the Reformation; my comments are not intended to claim that such practices will result in a jettison of Luther or Calvin: far from it. I don’t intend to abandon my family! And this is a great word, “family”, to return to the clue that Fitch left in his post.

Fitch wondered if, by a commitment to doctrinal purity, that TGC would become “a coalition for entrenchment as opposed to an expedition for mission.” Again, I would have to agree strongly with this concern, with one small caveat. So much of the NT depicts the community-in-mission, the church, as a family; Robert Banks pointed this out to me and my classmates several years ago in a study of Paul: the vocabulary represents the majority usage, whereas the vocabulary related to conflict, battle, etc., represents the minority usage. Except for extreme situations, one does not abandon or intentionally separate one’s self from one’s family. Families journey through life together. They may not share the same address or even zip code, but it is no stretch to say that I am on a journey right now with my parents and with my children although none of us are in the same residence or city. There is a tacit narrative that we are all part of, and it coheres well with the phrase Fitch uses: “a expedition of mission.” Such journeys generate narratives. But, here’s the caveat.

I would want to affirm and imagine that there is an ethno-cultural element of humanity that TGC could fruitfully and faithfully proclaim the Gospel among: and they should. But TGC and the “YRR” ought not to assume that their theological commitments are a “one-size, fits-all” doctrine. To do so has enormous blind-spots regarding culture, not the least of which is their own. But, I do want to assert that there are slices of humanity for whom the version of Reformed Theology that TGC & “YRR” represent will hear them presenting the Gospel as Good News. And the narrative of their missional journey is important but no more valuable than those generated in the barrios of Tijuana or the Third Ward of Houston: We need them all to be included and to mutually inform our participation in Christ.

And, this is where I would like to ask of Olson, Fitch, and those who represent the TGC & YRR: Who are you listening to from Africa? Asia? Latin American? Central Asia and Eastern edges of Europe? Or, for that matter, those from within North America who are ethnically-dissimilar from yourselves?

I hope to present some of those voices here in the weeks ahead.