Sunday, May 29, 2016

Evangelicalism's Borders

Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has a post about Samaritan's Purse and church authority. Her words will be green.
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that evangelicalism has “borders” that it enforces—beliefs that are considered required for membership. Every religion or belief system has such borders, they just define and defend them differently. What I find fascinating about watching the borders evangelicals draw is how drastically these borders have changed over time, and how very specific they can get. Fred Clark of the Slacktivist uses the term “tribal gatekeepers” to describe this phenomenon.
I have been fascinated by this to. What is the faith? You have to answer that to have a coherent faith. Yet Evangelicalism denies that anybody has the right to set such boundaries. If they did they would be claiming the same authority as the pope claims. Yet not having an answer to this question is unworkable as we shall see. 
I was reminded of this concept by this Facebook post by Kay Cossar:
So Samaritans Purse wants to be an evangelical organization. Yet what defines Evangelicalism? They came up with a few questions that do that. But that is such a big deal. Who are they to say that those who answer Yes to these questions belong and those that don't are excluded? Really it amounts defining the faith. What doctrines are central to the faith and what are secondary? Essentially they excommunicated Kay Cossar. I am not saying it is wrong for them to do so but I am saying they are not the right people to make the call. They should focus on helping the poor. Yet there is no official place to go for any definition of what are the central tenants of the Evangelical faith.   
But let’s leave all of this aside and look at Samaritan’s Purse’s statement of faith: 
Actual statement deleted 
You know what’s interesting? There’s nothing in here about the rapture or the tribulation, there’s nothing in here about Calvinism or Arminianism, and there’s nothing in here about evolution. In other words, some of the greatest points of disagreement among American Protestants of the 19th and early 20th centuries are simply not mentioned. The immediate focus on the Bible as inspired and infallible is in line with the early twentieth century roots of modern evangelicalism, but the fierce battle over whether fundamentalists should remain in apostate denominations as salt and light or come out of such denominations and be separate—a battle that waged fiercely in the 1930s and 1940s—is absent from this statement.
The statement, like most evangelical statements of faith, confuses agreement with importance. The notion that if people disagree over something that it must be a secondary doctrine. What Libby Anne is pointing out is that this is not true. Calvinism vs Arminianism is very important. Evolution is very important. So what makes it on the list? Things that have a string consensus in the Evangelical community. Agreement is the criteria when importance should be.   
One might think that a statement of faith would be timeless and unchanging—especially for a group which claims to rely so fully on an infallible and inspired Bible—but evangelical statements of faith tend to change over time as the borders of evangelicalism change. Because that’s what these statements of faith are for—policing borders, determining who is in and who is out. Can you be an evangelical and support marriage equality? Can you be an evangelical and support women’s right to choose? Can you be an evangelical and believe in gender equality? Can you be an evangelical and believe in evolution? Where do these borders lay?
This is just something most evangelicals don't understand. I am reminded of an article on How John Calvin Made Me Catholic where someone studying for a PhD in church history was shocked to find that 16th century Calvinism is very different from modern Calvinism. He was better informed that most Calvinists but he had no idea his faith was really only about 200 years old. Yet his Calvinism which came out of the Great Awakening in the US was very different from my Calvinism which came out of Holland.
I ran into these borders myself when I was in college. It was there I became a theistic evolutionist. When my parents found out, they looked at me with a level of sheer disappointment that would crush any child’s heart. It was clear—very clear—that they believed my salvation was one the line, and also that I was no longer in their tribe, no longer a part of their self-conceived group. I had transgressed the borders of belonging they had drawn around their faith, their interpretation of evangelicalism, their idea of what an evangelical is. I didn’t know then, but known now, that there was a century-long precedent for this. When evangelicals’ fundamentalist ancestors of the 1920s waged battle over evolution, they made their lines clear—and these, at the time, were brand new lines that had not been drawn before.
This is how it goes. We have an emotional reaction when someone has rejected what seems to be a central tenant of our faith. Yet the church can help here. It can tell us the church is big enough to allow different answers on this question. The Catholic church does this on the evolution question. Yet with no church the emotional reaction goes unchecked. Everyone becomes their own pope. If nobody decides what is important then everyone must decide for themselves. 
In that light, it is interesting that Samaritan’s Purse does not mention the age of the earth in their statement of faith. They would, presumably, be okay with a theistic evolutionist working for them provided that person is against marriage equality and anti-abortion. The boundaries they draw differ slightly from those drawn by my parents, from those drawn by 1920s fundamentalists, and from those drawn by seminaries that require an affirmation of complementation gender relations (i.e., a rejection of gender equality). Each specific evangelical ministry, college, or magazine draws its lines slightly differently, each choosing its own particulars.
The truth is that they copy from each other. Nobody wants to make these calls on their own. Still it is a fair point that there is no claim of infallibility and some variation. Over a long period of time the variation is quite significant. 
Yet defining the faith is not something we want to risk being wrong about. Look at Libby Anne's parents drawing the line in the sand on evolution. It turns out they were wrong. They stood by their faith despite the rift it created with their daughter. That rift eventually led to her becoming an atheist. You don't want to be wrong when you are telling people this is a doctrine you cannot compromise on. Really you don't just need a consistent answer. You need an infallible answer. 
Let’s step away from this history and turn back to Samaritan’s Purse, because there’s one more thing to be said. Check out their about section:
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) gives a clear picture of God’s desire for us to help those in desperate need wherever we find them. After describing how the Samaritan rescued a hurting man whom others had passed by, Jesus told His hearers, “Go and do likewise.” For over 40 years, Samaritan’s Purse has done our utmost to follow Christ’s command by going to the aid of the world’s poor, sick, and suffering. We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Can I just say that this is a precisely backwards interpretation of this parable? In the story, the Samaritan, and not the Jewish religious leaders of the day, is the one who stops to help an injured traveler, putting him up in an inn with his own money. What was a Samaritan? The Samaritans were considered heretics by the Jews. They had transgressed the Jews’ borders of belonging and were outside of them. Partly it was their ancestry that was at issue, but their theology was distinct and different enough to be a problem as well. Additionally, the Samaritan did not take the opportunity to preach to the man he rescued. Indeed, he did not in any way approach his service to this injured traveler as an opportunity to evangelicalism.
I would not say this is a backwards interpretation of the parable. I agree with her that it is a stretch to tie it to evangelism. We are to love people unconditionally. Yet we can predict that such love might lead to some people becoming Christian. That is not a bad thing to think. Yet Jesus does not inject that into His story at all. In fact, His story associates love with bad theology. He indicates that loving is more important. 
It is highly ironic that a ministry named Samaritan’s Purse would create theological borders intended to keep today’s Samaritans—i.e. anyone evangelicals consider heretical—out of their organization.
This is just drawing the wrong lesson from the parable. Love matters more than theology. It does not follow that theology does not matter at all. Like the quote on the top of the blog says, love without truth degenerates into sentimentality. The church needs to be a community that knows what it believes. No problem there. The problem is that Evangelicalism can't know that without going beyond scripture and therefore contradicting itself. 

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