Dr. Mark Thompson has written a thought provoking article on Briefing issue 313, titled "Is there any point being evangelical" (page 19-23). The term "evangelicals" has been quite a controversy - what exactly categorises as being evangelical? What doctrine statement? What denomination? Which evangelist? Since the actual boundary is very difficult to define, one danger would be trying to be too inclusive, which eventually inflates the meaning itself. To guard against it, teachings should be verified by the scripture, and we should remember that the biblical generosity applies to people but not ideas. As Dr. Thompson has written,
Respecting one another's opinions should never be an excuse to avoid testing those opinions by the word of God.
At FOCUS, I do not really see this kind of liberalism happening. Over here most people are well-taught in looking at teachings critically, and I believe many graduates would not have problems distinguish between biblical truth and heresy. However, it is the second danger that Dr. Thompson has pointed out that alerts me.
There is a danger from the opposite direction. It is the danger of so identifying our own preferences, experiences and theological commitments with gospel truth that the only route to acceptance as an evangelical is through surrender to my point of view.
Again at FOCUS, various groups have constantly been under attack. Roman Catholicism. Gospel-plus doctrine. Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. Prosperity gospel, etc. Many of them are indeed teaching a gospel that is different from what the scripture has presented. And if they are not guiding people towards Christ, they are in fact leading people away from him, to the very damnation of God, i.e. hell. I don't see there is any issue rebuking someone's teaching that claims to be from God, but in reality is not of the truth.
However, sometimes we can be so self-centred, and looked down on those where differences do not really matter. Recently we have studied Romans 14 at church, where Apostle Paul targeted the legalistic-minded weak Christians, who quarrel over the matter of what can be eaten and what cannot be eaten, when what has been eaten does not change your relationship with God. While it is not ideal to be weak, i.e. lack of knowledge or faith to perceive that everything is indeed clean for food, those who have the knowledge should not judge and look down on them.
Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
17For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.
That not only applies to food, but in today's Christianity circle, it also extends to the way a church service is conducted, whether it is a song or a hymn, whether raise your hand in singing, what should you wear on Sundays, what music can you listen to, what movie are you allowed to watch, etc. Then I just realise how easy it is to pass judgement to those who might only be slightly legalistic about these things! During the Bible studies right afterwards, LB raised the concern and suggested that he still considered listening to a specific gene of music "sinful". Immediately he was attacked by group members to be legalistic and did not realise the freedom we have in Christ - I myself included. Sadly, it did not take long for us to forget about the teaching about generosity towards weak consciousness...
While it might be easier to tolerate differences that are categorised as being indifferent, what about theological differences that actually matter to some? If someone believes in some doctrine that does not conflict with the core belief of salvation, but yet might not be biblically sound, how should you react then? Would that automatically warrant banishment from being called "evangelical" or "Bible-believing Christian"? Or would you look pass the difference, and state that both views can be true at the same time? Dr. Thompson raised the same question.
It is possible after all, to define evangelicalism in such a way as to exclude some of those with whom we might wish to associate ourselves. Was Martin Luther an evangelical? Yet he believed in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. Was John Wesley an evangelical? Yet he was self-consciously Armenian rather than Reformed understanding of the way humans responsibility and divine sovereignty operate in our salvation. Does it make sense to speak of an evangelicalism that would exclude Billy Graham because of his willingness to work with those outside of evangelical circles for the proclamation of the gospel, or John Stott because in debate with David Edwards he pondered the strengths of the case for annihilation rather than eternal punishment? Is there room for concluding that someone might be wrong - perhaps profoundly wrong - without disenfranchising them? Is all error heretical?
Answering the question "Is all error heretical"? Apparently it cannot be. All have made mistakes, even the great ones.
For my own reflection, I am such a solipsist. Looking back in time, very often I will put people with few (sometimes subjective) biblical mistakes/differences into the Wrong basket in my head. Talking to an old Chinese lady last year who was a house church leader in China, but also happened to an amillennialists who believe in rapturism based on 1 Thessalonian 4... Bang! Immediately subsequent every sentence in the conversation was labelled with 'potential heretic' flag, even though other things she said have been quite biblical and encouraging. The same can be said about my reaction to Billy Graham or John Stott. I actually wrote a harsh blog entry 2 years ago commending Franklin Graham that he did not follow the ecumenicism approach of his father. And when John Stott came and gave talks in Sydney last year, I felt hesitated to go, thinking why would such a great evangelist leaning towards annihilation than the eternal hell presented in the Bible?
Solipsism - it has made me quite a defensive person, who has forgot about charity and generosity towards the others, either over matters that do not matter, or errors do not warrant being heretical. However, where should we draw the line then? How different is different? How do you, realistic speaking, be generous and loving to the people, but critical and judgemental to the ideas?
The specific definition of "evangelicals" remains confusing. Might as well not using it.
This article is intentionally inconclusive. It has been sitting in my draft folder for a few weeks now, and I don't really know how to finish it off. Might as well put it on my blog for more discussions.