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The Urgent Task of Holding the Center
Why we need evangelical institutions willing to avoid the twin errors of heterodoxy and divisiveness.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Protestant denominations underwent a series of significant disruptions often referred to by historians as the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate. The schism first centered in the Presbyterian church and then spilled out into almost every single denomination and institution. Modernists or liberals began questioning major tenets of Christian orthodoxy, such as the Virgin Birth, the miracles, and the resurrection of Christ. Liberals mostly kept control of the existing institutions and denominations, while conservatives formed new institutions and denominations. Two of the leading figures in this fight were J. Gresham Machen, who wrote Christianity and Liberalism, and Harry Emerson Fosdick, who preached a famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”
Ultimately this schism, however, didn’t just split the Protestant movement two ways, but three ways: liberalism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism. Evangelicalism was the project of men like Carl Henry, Harold John Ockenga, and Christianity Today. A seminal text was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. The desire was to reject liberalism and its denial of basic Christian doctrine but to also reject narrow fundamentalism which was defined not by a commitment to orthodoxy, but by a kind of theological McCarthyism. To be sure, on the theological issues, evangelicals and fundamentalists mostly agreed, but there was a stark difference in posture. Fundamentalists essentially became strict separatists, practicing secondary and tertiary separation from anyone who seemed compromising. And the list of non-negotiables extended beyond historic Christian orthodoxy into issues such as Bible translations and other matters of prudence. A good example of this would be that an evangelical would attend, support, and be grateful for Billy Graham. A fundamentalist would denounce Billy Graham. An evangelical would gladly send their kids to Moody Bible Institute or Wheaton College, a fundamentalist would consider that compromise and would only send their kid to a school like Pensacola or Bob Jones. An evangelical would read and learn from Francis Schaeffer or Chuck Colson, a fundamentalist would consider those men compromisers.
Though I grew up fundamentalist and have nothing but respect for all that it gave me—a love for the gospel, a heart for evangelism, the rich hymnody, a concern for holiness—I consider myself an evangelical in the Henry/Schaeffer/Colson tradition. This is the tradition that gave us Chuck Colson and John Stott and J.I. Packer and the evangelical institutions that have been so formative: our campus ministries, our publishing houses, our conservative denominations, our colleges, and seminaries.
My sense, however, is that the evangelical tradition is undergoing the same kind of disruption that happened in the mainline Protestant denominations a century ago. I fear both a drift leftward, especially on sexual ethics and at the same time I fear a new kind of fundamentalism that is concerned less about making an argument for orthodoxy to the culture and more about nitpicking those who are.
This is why I think we need a new and concerted effort like the project Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga underwent. We urgently need institutions willing to hold the center.
Holding the Center
To be sure, some may read this and assume I’m referring to a kind of rootless, conviction-free third-wayism. This is not at all what I mean about holding the center. So if I may, let me define in a series of points what this looks like.
First, there is a biblical warrant for holding the center.
In the pastoral epistles, Paul warned his young protege about “anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness (1 Timothy 6:3-5).” Over and over again, in almost every letter, Paul is urging the people of God to “stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, whether by what we said or what we wrote (2 Thessalonians 2:15).” Paul even uses words like “fight.”
At the same time, Paul tells Titus to “Slander no one” and to “Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning. For you know that such a person has gone astray and is sinning; he is self-condemned (Titus 3:2;10).” In another place, he urged two feuding church people to reconcile, refusing to take a side or let them separate based on an issue that didn’t rise to the level of orthodoxy (Phillippians 4:2). Christians are to give each other the benefit of the doubt (1 Corinthians 13:7). Christian leaders are to be characterized by a gentle spirit that resists a quarreling spirit, brawling, etc (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3).
To “hold the center”, I believe, is to resist both the temptation toward theological compromise and to resist the temptation toward theological McCarthyism.
Second, to hold the center is to understand theological triage
In 2005, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, articulated what he calls “theological triage.” It’s a way of describing how Christians might think about first, second, and third-order doctrines. There is a body of biblical truth that the Christian church has celebrated and defended for 2,000 years, core issues like the Virgin Birth of Christ, the exclusivity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and a host of others, typically formulated in the great creeds. These are the foundations the modernists in the 1920’s and the modernists in the 2020’s are willing to jettison in order to make Christianity less embarrassing. These are truths that faithful Christians cannot abandon. Jude urges us to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).”
Then there are secondary issues about which denominations who hold to orthodoxy nevertheless disagree on. These are issues like baptism, the role of women in the church, etc. Now, to be sure, these second-order issues become first-order issues within denominations. So while I love, admire, read, and am willing to work with my PCA and Anglican friends on defending first-order issues, I could not be a member of a Presbyterian or Anglican or Lutheran church nor could those dear brothers be members at my Baptist church because we disagree on things like baptism. This is healthy and right.
Below these second-order issues are third-order or tertiary issues that members of the same church might disagree on, such as the exact timeline of the end-times, sign gifts, soteriology, and matters of prudence such as how to educate children or specific ways to engage the culture.
Holding the center means being able to triage well, to know which issues are worth dividing over and which issues are not. Today we are tempted, I fear, to pay less attention to the first-order issues of orthodoxy and are more easily divided over tertiary issues such as politics or other things that divide people culturally. We are tempted to call faithful brothers heretics and yet tempted to tolerate actual heretics because we find agreement on cultural issues. Again, this is not a call for squishiness on core issues but wisdom about which issues deserve our fighting energy.
Third, holding the center involves a genuine desire for Christian unity
Paul told the Ephesians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).” Making every effort means we actively pursue and do the hard work of Christian unity. Unity, again, doesn’t mean theological compromise, but it means as much as we can, we endeavor to live in unity with those who think differently than we do.
This center, between the twin guardrails of liberalism and fundamentalism, is large. Some in the center will live near the right edge. Some will live near the left edge. Some will live in the middle, serving as bridges between factions. There will be a vigorous debate in the center. Not everyone in the center partners for ministry. Those on the edges may not work together, may not appear on the same stages together, but will nevertheless hold to robust Christian orthodoxy, resisting both liberalism and fundamentalism.
Christian unity is really hard, perhaps harder today than ever. There are so many perverse incentives against it. Yet we are called to this task, to live with and love our brothers and sisters in Christ and love them well. Christian unity means we are determined to not let the petty divisiveness of our age divide us from our friends. Christian unity means we are able to say, about secondary and tertiary issues, that we may not land where others land but we will love them still. Christian unity means we give those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt, that we don’t read malice into every disagreement. Christian unity means we are willing to bridge divides at great personal cost.
Fourth, Holding the Center Means We Need a Healthy Discernment
I had a chapter on discernment in A Way With Words, but I want to summarize here. Discernment is absolutely necessary for Christian discipleship. It is the ability to distinguish between what is good and beautiful and what is not. It is vital, in every generation, for Christians to resist false teaching and false teachers. We need courage in this hour to stand against the error of the age, no matter how culturally unpopular that might make us.
And yet there is a kind of vicious tabloid-style slander that often masquerades on the internet as discernment. It’s a nitpicky, self-righteous, gotcha, endorphin rush of fault-finding of fellow Christians. It also happens to be sinful.
If 1 Corinthians 13:7 says that love “believes all things,” then Christians should resist believing half-truths and innuendo and suspicion published online. If lying and telling half-truths is a sin, then it is a sin online. This spirit of theological McCarthyism is not about making biblical arguments to the culture, it’s about throwing stones at those making biblical arguments to the culture. It’s defined not by preaching the gospel, but by attacking those preaching the gospel. It’s about what Paul described from prison as those who would “cause his trouble in his imprisonment (Phillippians 1:6).” Or the spirit of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, where the prophet complained that he was the only faithful one left.
There is a necessity, a time, and a place for a public rebuke of faithless leaders. But this must be over genuine departures of Christian orthodoxy or genuine examples of sin, such as abuse of power or moral failure. Rebuke like this should be accompanied by tears and sadness and without gloating or self-righteousness.
Fifth, We Need Leaders and Institutions With the Courage and Vision to Hold the Center
Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga and others had the vision to see the spiritual landscape and found institutions that could hold the center. The publication of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is one such attempt. This kind of work is difficult and there is no single institution that can do it by themselves nor is there a leader who can hold it all together. Holding the center involves the willingness to host difficult conversations and to bring people together who might not agree but who nevertheless are neither separationist fundamentalists nor heterodox. It involves the willingness to be seen, sometimes, as both too conservative by the progressives and too accomodating by the fundamentalists and to hold this without condescending elitism that never takes a position on anything.
There are many institutions doing this but we need more. And we need leaders willing to see this as a matter of priority. By God’s grace, with the tiny square of influence I have in my public and private work, I aim to hold this center, to build bridges, in order to be part of God’s kingdom advance.