I teach at Biola University and I have good friends who teach at other Christian universities across the nation. And it seems that a common trend nowadays is young evangelicals/Protestants converting to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or if they want to remain evangelical/Protestant their choice is Anglican—but whatever the case, it’s a trend toward high church.
Some of this has to do with role model influences: some evangelical Christian universities have faculty members who are Catholic or Orthodox, and students follow their lead, especially if the professor is popular and well-respected. The thinking is, “If Professor so-and-so is Catholic or Orthodox, and they seem really put-together and intelligent, there must be something to it.” Which makes me wonder why all the evangelical Protestant professors don’t seem as put-together and intelligent to the students (but that’s a rabbit trail I won’t go down…)
But I suspect there is another reason: as students are often required to attend chapel at these Christian universities, and the “feel” of the chapel is very low-church, there is a reaction against this perceived “immaturity.” The thinking is, “All this happy-clappy Christianity seems very childish.” Or “I don’t just want to sing emotional ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs.” Then students start thinking that, to become really mature Christians, they must go high church. That somehow there is something more “adult” about high liturgy.
But here’s my take: liturgy can have its own set of vices. Sure there are a lot of good things about it, such as an appeal to history (“this is the way that the church immemorial has done it, and it connects me to the saints of old”) and a sense of unity (“this is the way that Catholics/Orthodox/Anglicans around the world does it, and it connects me to the Church universal”) but liturgy can become very mechanical and rote. It can become unthinking, especially if the same thing is said/done every Sunday without change. I realize there is something beneficial about consistency but I think you can be consistent in the message while still delivering the message in fresh new ways. (I do realize that even low church has liturgy, but the difference is that though the order of service is the same from week-to-week, it is not an exact photocopy of the previous weeks). If there is something truly bad about mechanical repetition, it is nominalism. It can turn people into unthinking automatons who just go through the motions and don’t really have a vibrant faith—they think they’re followers of Jesus just because they’ve mouthed the words and made the hand motions. I’m sorry, but to think that high church = mature Christian, and low church = immature Christian, is a false correlation. When I see the robes and the chanting and the incense and the rosaries, I wonder if Jesus and his twelve disciples would have recognized such an expression of the faith. They were a ragtag band of radical world-changers who went out and blew apart the religious establishment—the Pharisees, who felt that their precious tradition made them real believers. Jesus said they look good on the outside but are rotting on the inside. It is so easy to hide behind mechanical action, because nobody can tell the difference between you and your neighbor because you’re all mimicking the same actions. Jesus said in Matt. 23:23-28 (cf. Luke 11:42):
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
I think the solution to weak low church is not high church; the solution to weak low church is strong low church. Let’s change those emotion-only “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” worship songs to songs with real theological substance. By that I don’t mean (necessarily) sixteenth-century Reformation hymns. That’s making the same mistake as before: thinking that just because something is old it must therefore be good. There are a lot of old songs that are bad, just as there are a lot of new songs that are good, while acknowledging that there are a lot of old songs that are good just as there are a lot of new songs that are bad. Old and new should not be our criteria; good and bad should be our litmus test.
I get the appeal of a historic Mother Church and the unity that seems so absent among Protestants: people are bewildered by the variety of Protestant denominations and it seems devoid of unity. But that’s a misunderstanding of the nature of Protestantism, which is divided among the nonessentials of the faith but is still unified in the essentials of the faith. The problem with Catholicism, for example, is that while it is unified on the essentials of the faith, it is also unified on the nonessentials of the faith. Yes I like that they have a unified stance on things like the doctrine of God and their pro-life position; but it is also unified on things like Mary and their prohibition of birth control and infant baptism and the Pope, things which I actually disagree with (though I do admit I love Pope Francis as a person). So if you accept the unity of the Catholic Church, you have to accept it all, hook-line-and-sinker. You can’t order à la carte; it is a prix fixe meal with no substitutions. Also, you have to accept their cultural uniformity. Wherever the Catholic (or Orthodox or Anglican) church goes around the world, they replicate their European culture in how the worship service looks. Don’t kid yourself; the way the worship service looks is more influenced by European culture than by theology. When I have visited Anglican churches in Kenya or Hong Kong, the songs and vestments and liturgy are transplanted directly from England. It doesn’t feel the least bit African or Chinese to me. It is cultural hegemony, confusing culture with Christianity. It doesn’t allow the locals to develop their own indigenous way of worshiping. It is uniformity disguised as unity. It is unity at the expense of the locals being able to think for themselves.
This is why I am Protestant: because it has unity in the essentials, combined with the ability to decide on the nonessentials. This is what the priesthood of all believers is all about: to trust that the Holy Spirit can guide us, via the reading of Scripture, to decide on certain things for ourselves. It has unity but also freedom. High church often has unity with no freedom to think for yourself, you just have to accept what is handed down to you from on high.
Here’s an analogy: would you rather live in New York City or Beijing? The former is dirty and has more danger and crime. The latter is orderly, clean, and safe. But the former has freedom; and the latter is a controlling dictatorial state. With freedom comes the possibility of danger; that’s just inherent in the definition of the word. With free will comes the ability to sin. With democracy comes the increased incidence of crime (crime would be much reduced if you had armed guards stationed at every corner, and security cameras invading our privacy in every building like Big Brother). Therefore some people prefer the security of Beijing because the murder and theft rate is much lower than NYC. And likewise some people like the unity of high church because it prevents heresy or syncretism. But honestly, I’d rather live in New York than Beijing. I think the giving up of freedom is too great a cost for the benefit of extra safety and security. So I prefer Protestantism, which has a greater danger of heresy but has greater freedom to decide for yourself on certain debatable issues (because not everything in the Bible is crystal-clear). And it’s not like Protestantism is without checks-and-balances. It’s like Wikipedia: if lots of people are contributing, let me assure you that if you write something incorrect, you will have a million “editors” jumping all over you telling you that you are wrong and your error will not stand for very long. Let the people (the Church) decide, not just one person. That was the nature of the historical ecumenical councils: they jumped all over heretics like Arius and Pelagius and Nestorius.
And there’s the added danger of the leadership being composed of fallible sinful human beings. What happens when the leadership itself goes astray? What happens when the Chinese government doesn’t only flex its muscle with regard to criminals, but clamps down on good citizens who just want to worship their God in freedom? Give me New York City in that case. What happens when the Catholic church doesn’t just fight abortion, but also excommunicates you when you disagree with something that the church leadership actually gets wrong, like Martin Luther who fought against indulgences and works righteousness, or Galileo who posited a heliocentric view of the universe? Give me Protestantism in that case.
Here’s a chapter from my book Routes and Radishes and Other Things to Talk About at the Evangelical Crossroads (Zondervan, 2010) which unpacks what I mean by essentials vs. nonessentials of the faith:
Kevlar theology: Essentials vs. Nonessentials
It is a common joke to make fun of churches whose members fight over the color of the carpet. Most people recognize (at least I hope!) that the color of the carpet is an extremely unimportant thing in the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan for the world (or even in the not-so-grand scheme of mundane daily life in general!). The usual pious response to such silly bickering among the saints is the following adage, in folklore attributed to St. Augustine: “In things essential, unity. In things nonessential, liberty. And in all things, charity.” Though a bit cliché, I actually think that such a response is correct, and has proven itself by withstanding the test of time. However, it is one thing to say it; it is quite another thing to live it out. Evangelical Christians often make a big fuss about nonessentials, rather than just agreeing to disagree. It is nonessentials that distinguish different denominations and different churches. It is essentials that distinguish different sects and cults and religions. Therefore, a local Baptist church should not be calling a local Presbyterian church heretical, or vice-versa, because of their differences in theology about baptism. Though there is a recognition that paedo-baptism and credo-baptism cannot pragmatically exist under the same roof, each can still acknowledge the other as sincerely and devoutly Christian. The danger is when we start making our nonessentials into essentials—in those situations, ironically the ones who are more hard-line about their theology (e.g. insisting on only one type of baptism as TRUTH) are more heretical than the ones they are accusing of heresy, by virtue of the fact that they are making nonessentials into essentials and thereby distorting the Gospel. To put it succinctly: if you can’t keep the main thing the main thing, then you haven’t got the heart of Jesus’s message.
When I was in seminary, I focused on the study of missiology. One of my missions professors, Dr. Peter Kuzmič, gave a humorous illustration of what he called “cultural hamartiology” (hamartiology is a fancy word meaning “the theology of sin”). Dr. Kuzmič said: there was an American Christian who was upset with a German Christian because the latter drank beer. The German Christian, in turn, had a problem with the American Christian because she wore jewelry and makeup. Meanwhile, there was a Dutch Christian who was so shocked that the German Christian drank beer and the American Christian wore jewelry and makeup, that the cigarette fell out of his mouth!
Perhaps this principle might be best stated as: “cultural sin” is in the eye of the beholder. Let me stress that I am not talking about actual sin, but rather perceived sin. But this begs the question: how does one determine what is actual and what is perceived? To the American, drinking beer was an actual sin. To the German, alcohol was only a perceived sin. The solution, as I see it, is what I call “Kevlar theology,” that our theology should be as unbreakable and as elastic as a bulletproof vest.
Conservative vs. Liberal
When I went to study at Oxford University, the fact that I believed in the authority of Scripture caused me to be labeled a “fundo-crazy” (yes, his exact words) by one of my theology professors. Later, at one of the churches I attended, the view of the pastors and elders was complementarian with regard to women’s ordination and preaching. Similar to the American Christian’s attitude in the cultural hamartiology illustration, I was indignant at the church’s view because I myself am egalitarian. I thought of the church as too “conservative.” Meanwhile, talking with the leadership of that same church, they themselves were indignant that the Southern Baptist Convention was cessationist when it came to the gifts of the Spirit. They thought of the SBC as “fundamentalist.” And meanwhile, someone from the SBC might see Bob Jones University as even more “conservative” because they forbade interracial dating until the year 2001. If one were to map this out on a continuum: at Oxford, I was considered a “conservative” because of my view of Scripture. I, in turn, saw the church I attended as “conservative” because of their view of women in ministry. Meanwhile, the church saw the SBC denomination as “conservative” because of their view on the gifts of the Spirit. And the SBC saw Bob Jones University as “conservative” because of their interracial dating ban.
If one may ascribe a numerical designation to these positions, from 1-10 (1 being most conservative and 10 being most liberal), perhaps Bob Jones is a 1, the SBC is a 2, my church is a 3, I am a 4, and Oxford hovers around 8 (at least Oxford still claims to be Christian! A place like Harvard Divinity School takes the 10 spot, because they have a Unitarian Universalist heritage and are proud of it). Clearly, unless you stand on the extreme ends of the spectrum (1 or 10), you will at times be called a liberal, and at times a conservative, depending on whom you are talking with and what particular issue you are discussing. But some friends of mine have raised the objection: when in doubt, surely it is better to err on the conservative side rather than the liberal side? Isn’t it safer to be a 2 rather than a 4? After all, a 4 is dangerously close to stepping over the line to a 6. My response to that is: I am not trying to be conservative or liberal, I am trying to be biblical. My theology and life is reflective of what I see in the Bible. To me, a 1 is just as unbiblical as a 10. Conservative heresy and liberal heresy amount to the same thing, as far as I’m concerned: they are both wrong. Making a nonessential into an essential is one example of a conservative heresy.
The words “conservative” and “liberal,” by the way, are all relative terms. American evangelicals like to identify with the conservative side of things—this usually has a political connotation, often related to the Republican Party. However, the basic definition of conservative is keeping the status quo, and the basic definition of liberal is moving away from that status quo. But it all depends on what that status quo is! If it is biblical, let’s keep it (i.e. let’s be “conservative”). If it is not, let’s dispense with it (i.e. let’s be “liberal”). To any American Protestant who claims to be “conservative,” allow me to point out: if not for your non-conservative forebears, you would not be here today. Both the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, the two major movements upon which you build your identity, were radical anti-authoritarian movements that were civilly disobedient. The reality is, what was once non-conservative has become conservative today. All that means is, being American and/or Protestant used to be against the mainstream, but today they are no longer. All American Protestants owe these two essential parts of their “conservative” identity to extremely radical people who dared to stand against the tide!
Barbara Brown Taylor expressed this conservative/liberal tendency as “center” vs. “edge.” Having in mind historical figures such as Matthew Fox, Hans Küng, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Meister Eckhart, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Galileo, Copernicus, Peter Abelard, John Scotus Erigena, Tertullian, Origen, and Jesus, she observed that all were at some point called heretics because they did not conform to the established doctrines of the time. Taylor wrote about them:
“All of these people made unauthorized choices in their love of God. They saw things they were not supposed to see or said things they were not supposed to say. They wondered about things they were not supposed to wonder about, and when Mother Church told them to stop they did not obey her. Some of them died for their disobedience while others were locked in their rooms. Still others were sent out of the house and told to never come back. Many of them are spiritual heroes now. At least one of them is revered as the Son of God, but none of them got where they were going without passing through the wilderness first. Given their amazing comebacks, might it be time for people of good faith to allow that God’s map is vast, with room on it for both a center and an edge? While the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened.”
[Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), p. 177]
All this being said, it is not being “conservative” or “liberal” that defines evangelicalism, but being biblical. Being biblical can be “conservative” if it means being pro-life. Being biblical can be “liberal” if it means helping the poor. (If you are a one-issue voter, and pro-life is your big thing, have you ever thought that both political parties are pro-life but in different ways? I define “pro-life” more broadly than just anti-abortion. Pro-life is not just about life before birth, it is about life after birth. Republicans are pro-life when they are against abortion. Democrats are pro-life when they are against poverty, starvation, AIDS, malaria, and water-borne diseases. Why don’t Democrats care about life before birth and see abortion for the tragedy it is, and why don’t Republicans care about life after birth with their death penalty and military spending instead of funding food and medicine? Why do these things have to be mutually exclusive?!) Biblicism can include standing for heterosexual marriage (“conservative”) and being a proponent for environmental issues (“liberal”). (Etymologically, the words “conservative” and “conservation” are from the same root word—so why is environmental conservationism considered “liberal” when it means keeping the earth the status quo, the way God intended it to be?) Being biblical, however, is sometimes unclear. There are the clear parts of Scripture which I have called the essentials. And there are the unclear parts which I have called the nonessentials. It is right and good to have a position on the nonessentials, but it also requires a lot of grace to not make a nonessential into a negatively divisive issue.
So in light of all this, I feel a caveat is necessary about my view of the church that I attended: I now have to admit that I was wrong—not necessarily about content, but about style. I was so upset that the church, with regard to complementarianism/egalitarianism, did not follow the principle of “In things nonessential, liberty” (because in my opinion they were making a nonessential into an essential), that I myself neglected the principle, “In all things, charity.” Whatever I may believe about any theological issue, the fact is, if I choose to attend a particular church, I should submit to the leadership of that church rather than fight them. I am always free to go to another church which holds the same views as my own on a given doctrine. But if I choose to stay at a certain church, then I should seek to live peaceably and charitably with the leaders and the congregation. This is not to say that egregious errors need to go uncorrected. Certainly if heresy or sin creeps in, they need to be called out. But for things nonessential, liberty (and charity) should be the modus operandi.
Essentials vs. Nonessentials
Again, this begs the question, how does one define a nonessential? In the cultural hamartiology illustration, the German Christian saw alcohol as a nonessential but the American Christian saw it as an essential. In my own personal illustration, the SBC saw cessationism as an essential, while my church saw it as a nonessential. And I saw the authority of Scripture as an essential, while my Oxford theology professor saw it as a nonessential. I think a good rule of thumb (though by no means a scientific gauge) is just to ask ourselves the question, “Would I consider someone a heretic/non-Christian if they believe differently from me on this matter?” If yes, that is an essential. If no, that is a nonessential. Even the most die-hard paedo-baptists, if really pressed to answer if the local Baptist church across the street is apostate or not, most likely would not go so far as to say that! They would, however, say that they disagree with their interpretation of Scripture—which is a perfectly legitimate response among Evangelicals!
In my view, a (non-exhaustive) list of evangelical essentials includes:
- the authority of Scripture
- the dual nature of Christ
- the Trinity
- the exclusivity of Christ with regard to accessing God the Father
- promoting the Gospel as a duty of all believers
- conversion (being born again) as a prerequisite for all genuine believers
- the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection
A similarly partial list of evangelical nonessentials includes:
- predestination: Calvinism vs. Arminianism
- role of women: egalitarianism vs. complementarianism
- baptism: infant/paedo-baptism vs. believers’/credo-baptism
- eschatology: premillennialism vs. amillennialism vs. postmillennialism
- Eucharist: symbol vs. real presence vs. consubstantiation
- church polity: Episcopal vs. Presbyterian vs. Congregational
So what makes an evangelical? In my personal theological journey, just to take a few of these points, I grew up complementarian but have slowly become more egalitarian as I’ve grown older. I used to be Arminian but have moved away from that toward Calvinism. And I’ve always been a believers’ Baptist. So, after examining Scripture, I have settled on being an egalitarian Calvinist credo-baptist. However, even if I meet a complementarian Arminian paedo-baptist, I will call them an evangelical brother or sister if they agree on the “essentials” (as listed above). But what happens if I meet someone who moves one of the items on my “nonessentials” list into their “essentials” list? How do we handle issues of differences? The Apostle Paul addresses this issue in Romans 14 – 15.
In this passage, Paul is addressing Christian nonessentials—in his day, they often had to do with dietary restrictions (14:2; 14:17), but I think it is hermeneutically acceptable to extend this to include other nonessentials among Christians today (take alcohol or dancing as examples). Paul divides the debaters into two camps, to which he applies surprisingly transparent value-laden labels: “weak” and “strong” (14:2; 15:1). He defines the strong as those with more freedom of conscience, and the weak as those with more restrictions (14:2; 14:6). Yet, though Paul himself takes sides with the “strong” (14:14; 15:1), he urges each side to live in peace and unity with the other (15:2; 15:7). He cautions the strong not to despise the weak, and the weak not to judge the strong (14:3). Ultimately, Paul says that these nonessentials are truly unimportant in the long run (14:17). What matters most is righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit (14:19) and unity that leads to glorifying God (15:5-6). Regarding how one must deal with these differences of opinion about the nonessentials, Paul had two injunctions: the strong should yield to, and be careful not to stumble, the weak (14:15; 14:21); and rather than bickering we should all hold one’s own counsel about the nonessentials (14:22) and accept one another (15:7). My paraphrase: don’t major on the minor points of theology, but rather divert your energies toward encouragement instead of debate, toward unity instead of divisiveness, and toward the glory of God. The Apostle Paul understood well the divisive power of nonessentials, and was even able to use this cleverly to his advantage against the Pharisees and Sadducees when he threw a “nonessential” into their midst (their differing views of the resurrection of the dead), sat back, and let chaos break loose among them (Acts 23:6-10).
So again, back to the basic question: how do we define what is an essential vs. a nonessential? Contrary to most Western evangelicalism, I want to argue that being an evangelical is not just adherence to a set of tenets, but rather it hermeneutics that ultimately matters. It’s not only what one believes that makes one an evangelical, it is also the way one goes about interpreting Scripture. Of course, I would also hasten to add that it is not only hermeneutics that matters. If someone says they believe in the authority of Scripture but don’t believe in the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, I would call them a non-evangelical. It is hermeneutics and doctrine working together that defines the modern-day evangelical.
What might evangelical hermeneutics look like? For one, the Bible must remain a priority and the highest authority—not tradition, not the Pope, not the situation, and certainly not the reader! Secondly, Biblicism does not mean slavish literalism. There must be a recognition of different ways of interpreting Scripture, according to the different genres of writing in the Bible (see Doug Stuart and Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, where they show how vastly different interpretive lenses are needed to properly exegete Law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature, Gospels, history, and apocalyptic literature). Thirdly, Biblicism does not mean bibliolatry. The Bible points to Christ, but it is not Christ. Certainly Christ is the living Word, but we worship Christ, not the Bible. To take a missiological comparison with Islam, many people think of the Bible as being equivalent to the Koran, and Jesus as being equivalent to Mohamed. However, the proper comparison is Jesus with the Koran. Muslims don’t see Mohamed as divine, but they revere their holy book as such—it cannot be translated, it cannot touch the ground, it is the literal word of Allah. In contrast, we Christians do not (or should not) take a Koranic view of the Bible. There is no problem for the Bible to be translated. And if someone desecrates a Bible, we may be extremely disappointed, but we recognize that it is not the physical pages of the Bible that are holy, but what that content represents and points to. It is Jesus that we would be upset about if he were defiled—and he was, at the cross! It is not the Bible we worship, but he whom the Bible testifies to. Fourthly, we approach the Bible with what Duke Divinity School professor Richard Hays calls a hermeneutic of trust (rather than what liberation theologians call a hermeneutic of suspicion). We do not immediately come to the text with our guard up, thinking that the authors who wrote it were racist or sexist or classist. We trust that the Bible is indeed the Word of God, that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, that that same Holy Spirit enables us (as the priesthood of all believers) to interpret and read the Scriptures, and that ancient Word still has relevance for our lives today, though it sometimes needs to be translated across time and culture. These are four (though by no means the only) hermeneutical principles that show our evangelical stripes.
Not just Essentials and Nonessentials, but Ideals
Some of my friends would put egalitarianism as an essential of evangelicalism. Although I myself am egalitarian, I would respectfully disagree with them, in that I would hesitate to adopt that as an “essential.” Many people equate the gradual historic acceptance of racial equality and socio-economic equality as a natural social progression, with gender equality being the next great horizon to conquer. Whether or not one adopts such a view, I would actually put these ethical issues into a third category—not essential, nor nonessential, but ideal.
In my view, here is a non-exhaustive list of evangelical ideals:
- Racial equality
- Socio-economic equality
- Environmental concern
- Gender equality
Certainly, there once was a time when racism was prevalent among American evangelicals; thankfully they are a small minority today. Yet, even though I strongly disagree with them about their views on race, I would still call them evangelicals. I’d call them a disgrace to evangelicals, but evangelicals nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a case of already and not yet. Some of these ethical issues are part of the “not yet” which is why they are “ideals” and not “essentials.” Ideals are what we would like evangelicalism to be, though we haven’t seen their complete fulfillment yet. In contrast, essentials had to have been in place since the earliest days of Christianity to count as essentials. It would be nonsensical and arrogant to presume that none of the early Christians held on to the essentials, but we have finally got it. Essentials do not evolve, they are there from the beginning. Ideals, however, can change and do change. Maybe, by this definition, egalitarianism is more of an ideal than a nonessential. Not that ideals aren’t immediately relevant now; they can certainly be so, but we are still waiting for their complete fulfillment. The early Christians probably weren’t egalitarian, or environmentalists, or multicultural in the way think of it today. Some of these issues, like environmentalism, are clearly a product of our time, and it is unsurprising that this wasn’t a concern to the early church. Other issues, like multiculturalism, were on the radar of the early church (the Apostle Paul addresses them quite strongly) and yet, 2000 years later, we are still as segregated as ever (multiethnic churches are the exception rather than the rule today). And finally, egalitarianism is still a matter of debate—there are so many good evangelicals on both sides of the issue. However, some take the egalitarianism/complementarianism debate to be a matter of nonessentials, such as myself. Others elevate this debate to the essentials.
Culture as a Necessity of Christianity
As a student of missiology, I take the principles of Prof. Lamin Sanneh from Yale Divinity School. One of the foremost missiologists in the world today, his book Translating the Message was seminal in rethinking culture and Christianity. He basically argues that culture is inseparable from Christianity. Culture is not moral (good), nor immoral (bad), it is amoral (neutral)—and it all depends what you do with it. It is like a vessel carrying water. The Gospel is like the water, it must be carried in something, but it takes the shape of the vessel it’s carried in. Still, that does not change the nature of the water, merely its shape. Culture is the vessel in which the “water” of the Gospel is carried. Unlike Islam which is untranslatable (the Koran is always in Arabic, Sharia law is imposed wherever the religion goes, and the structure is top-down), Christianity is eminently translatable (the Bible is translated into the vernacular, worship songs are sung in the local cultural style, it is bottom-up), in fact Christianity thrives best when it is translated. Even a theological statement as seemingly neutral as “Jesus is Lord” is actually a cultural statement. After all, what is a Lord? Do we have Lords in our modern American democracy? That word implies a feudal medieval system. Shall we say “Jesus is our King”? But we don’t live in a monarchy. How about “Jesus is our President”? But that brings up a lot of other political implications which we don’t necessarily want. My point with this illustration is, there is no such thing as theology in a vacuum.
Even Jesus himself came down to earth in a culturally specific form—as a first century Aramaic-speaking Jew in Roman-occupied Israel. He was a universal Savior in culturally-specific packaging. That is what the living Word is, and that is also what the written Word (the Bible) is as well: universal truths in culturally-specific form, which often needs to be unpacked or translated. But translation is good and necessary to the vitality of Christianity. In fact, even the original manuscripts of the New Testament were translated. Christianity has the distinction of being the only religion in the world in which the Scriptures are not written in the language of its founder (if that’s not a clue as to the translatability of Christianity, I don’t know what is!). Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the New Testament was written in Greek! So even if we had the original autographs, it is already, from the get-go, a translation of Jesus’ words (with a few exceptions: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” [Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34], which actually records Jesus’s exact words in Aramaic, but those are rare occurrences, and they exist in this original form because Jesus was quoting Psalms 22:1).
This is just my speculation, but I believe that the reason there are four Gospels (instead of one) and the fact that we have so few of Jesus’s actual words in Aramaic, are God’s ways of preventing bibliolatry. If there were only one Gospel, that book would be so revered above all others, and we would only be reading that book rather than the whole counsel of God. Or if we had all of Jesus’s actual words preserved in Aramaic, we would be quoting those verbatim like Muslims quote the Koran in Arabic, and end up elevating Aramaic to a sacred level, much like the Roman Catholic Church elevates Latin (their justification for this, by the way, is that Latin was one of the three languages used on the sign on the cross which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. This sign became their justification for using Latin throughout the entire RCC!). Having four Gospels, and having them written in Greek instead of Aramaic, are some safeguards that God has put upon Christianity to keep it translatable, and to keep us worshiping the living Word rather than the written Word.
So should we take the Bible as our sole authority? Should we allow women to preach? Should we drink beer or not? Should we be doing infant or believers’ baptism? Should Christians be eco-friendly? Should we be OK with speaking in tongues? Should women be allowed to wear makeup and jewelry? Should we allow interracial dating? What color should the church carpet be? Which of these are legitimate questions, and which are just plain silly? Nothing is absolutely black-and-white when it comes to this spectrum. At each of the far ends, it is easier to see the errors unambiguously. In the middle—well, that’s where it gets a bit fuzzy. How do we determine what are the essentials on which all evangelicals can disagree, vs. the nonessentials on which we should agree to disagree? Which are the ideals which we would love all evangelicals to appropriate in the future? And how do we move toward the ideals, if that is indeed our goal? It is much easier to be black-and-white if theology is unadulterated by culture, but we as Christians are all infused by culture, and we cannot escape it. But as Lamin Sanneh proposes, we need not try to escape it. An acceptance of culture helps us to be evangelical not just in our doctrine but in our hermeneutics. To be evangelical is not just ascribing to a set list of beliefs (because, the question inevitably arises, how does one determine what belongs on that list?), but it also includes a way of approaching the world and Scripture. Culture is God’s gift to us, to use for good or ill, and let us not be afraid of it, but to use it for the glory of his Kingdom!
I called this chapter “Kevlar theology” because there is an unbreakable elasticity we must have with our theology. We need to have a strong adherence to the essentials such as the Trinity, and open-mindedness about the nonessentials such as egalitarianism vs. complementarianism. There is room for debate about the non-essentials, while being unbreakable about the essentials. This is not to say that we ought to lack a theological backbone; on the contrary, we should have an educated opinion on everything from eschatology to women’s ordination. However, it is not wishy-washy to agree to disagree on certain issues. Strength does not mean dogmatic adherence; flexibility—the ability to bend but not break (a characteristic of Kevlar)— is stronger than brittle rigidity (such as stone) which can crack with too much tension. So it ought to be with our theology, and correspondingly with our evangelicalism. Let’s have a Kevlar theology instead of a set-in-stone theology. Perhaps this is what Martin Luther meant by semper reformanda, to be “always reforming” (present participle) rather than merely reformed (past participle). I’m also not saying that heresy is acceptable; but often we get so afraid of the sin that we become just as wrong in the opposite direction. Some are so afraid of alcoholism that they become teetotalers; some are so afraid of feminism that they become misogynists; some are so afraid of homosexuality that they become homophobic; some are so afraid of the physical that they become Gnostic (accepting only the spiritual as good). I do not agree with alcoholism, feminism (to me, that’s the same as male chauvinism but on the flip side), homosexual behavior, or materialists. But this does not mean we need to become teetotaler misogynist homophobic Gnostics.
In my last chapter, I wrote that perhaps the “Evangelical Future” is actually returning to the “Evangelical Past.” However, I am not suggesting we return to an Acts 2 model of church. We can take the heart of Acts 2 (or rather, Acts 11 which is Antioch, a better model of early church than Acts 2 because it was multiethnic) but apply it in our current situation. That is the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics—the former is about what the Bible said at the time (it’s descriptive); the latter is about how the Bible applies to us today in a 21st-century Western context (it’s prescriptive). People tend to confuse the two. If we are to be a truly evangelical community, we need to have evangelical hermeneutics: centered on the essentials, comfortable with disagreements on the nonessentials, showing charity and graciousness to everyone regardless of disagreements. Then, perhaps, the color of the carpet won’t matter so much anymore.