FrontLine • March/April 2009
This is the last of four columns [broken into six Proclaim & Defend posts, see links above] addressing the problem of theological confusion within Evangelicalism. That it is reaching an epidemic level is documented by leading Evangelicals themselves. It is also apparent from the necessity various coalitions within the movement are feeling to clarify their doctrinal convictions. One of the most highly publicized recent efforts is an “Evangelical Manifesto,” released to the public last May and signed by over eighty Evangelical leaders (www. anevangelicalmanifesto.com). Although many rightwing Evangelicals are withholding endorsement or have even publicly criticized the document, the concerns of its creators are valid. Those concerns include, in the words of the document, the fact that the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term Evangelical have grown so deep that the character of what it means has been obscured and its importance lost.
The premise of this brief four-column appraisal is that this confusion is due, in large measure, to the way Evangelicals respond to those who call their own orthodoxy into question.
I’ve not attempted to prove that premise. But in brief, I’m beginning with the assumption that all truly evangelical ministries are, by definition, orthodox (employing the same logic with which one argues that by definition, all bachelors are unmarried). That being the case, it seems indubitable that an evangelical ministry that tolerates unorthodox (that is, nonevangelical) persons within itself or that behaves in other ways towards them as if they were evangelical, should expect that one of the consequences will be confusion about the essential doctrinal elements necessary to being evangelical.
If this premise is true, that much of the theological confusion in Evangelicalism stems from the way in which it responds to unorthodox persons, then the vital question concerns what corrections Evangelicals ought to make to their current approach to those who are not.
Unfeigned Assent to the Fundamentals
Historically, orthodox men have frequently combated doctrinal confusion by formulating written creeds clarifying the fundamentals of sound theology. I’ve alluded to the fact that some within Evangelicalism, alarmed at the present theological amorphism of the movement, are attempting this very approach.
But, as a previous column argued, the formulation of creeds must be followed up by a fellowship policy that confirms their gravity. True Evangelicals ought to require that any Christian ministry organization to which they belong, or any professing Christian theologian with whom they enter into any spiritual cooperation whatsoever, give unfeigned, unqualified, dogmatic assent to every single fundamental of the Christian Faith. Disingenuous pleas that the Bible alone ought to be the only creed to which we require men to subscribe (argued, for example, by non-Trinitarian ministers embedded within Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist churches in early 18th-century England) would have to be confronted, exposed for what they are, and dismissed.
What to Do with the Unorthodox
What is to be done, then, when Evangelicals discover men within their churches, denominations, or other ministry organizations who will not subscribe to orthodox affirmations of the essentials of the Christian Faith? There are several New Testament passages providing answers to this very question.
Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them (Rom. 16:17).
There are two pieces of information offered here: (1) a description of certain persons and (2) mandated responses to them. Regarding the first, the text describes persons whose teaching is creating division in the Body of Christ or is causing men to stumble because it is contrary to orthodox theology (the doctrine which ye have learned). Embedded within this description are two additional pieces of information. One concerns the character of these persons’ teaching: it is contrary to, or against orthodoxy. The other concerns the effects of this teaching on Christians: it divides them, or it trips them up.
This last point is particularly instructive, since those who contend for orthodoxy are frequently accused of being divisive. According to this text, it is the unorthodox who create division, not the other way around.
The second major piece of information in this text concerns the question of how to respond to such people. The verse mandates two responses. First, mark them. The word refers to looking closely at, or scrutinizing. Again, this is a vital point. It commands orthodox men to look carefully at those who are calling their own doctrinal integrity into question. In other words, it is not Christlike charity to overlook the disturbing or questionable opinions that unorthodox men publish and preach. It is the opposite.
Second, if after Scriptural examination, men are proven to be unsound in the Faith, we are directed to avoid them (ekklinete ap’ autōn). This is the only New Testament occurrence of this phrase, so we don’t have the advantage of being able to compare multiple texts to get at its usage. But the verb ekklinō means to turn away or to shun. A directive to turn away presupposes relationship or at the least the kind of acquaintance one gains from looking closely at or scrutinizing someone. Turn away is therefore commanding a discontinuation of that relationship after acquiring factual acquaintance with the person’s heterodoxy. So this change in relations is instituted knowledgeably, deliberately, and obediently to God’s command. Here, then, is a Biblical mandate answering the question as to how any of us, Fundamentalists or Evangelicals, are to respond to unorthodox men.
A second passage directing response to those whose beliefs position them outside the pale of Christianity is 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1. I’ll quote only portions of the passage.
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness … or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? … Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.
The background of this passage is Paul’s struggle to part the Corinthians from certain religious leaders who were undermining his apostolic credentials and thus in turn his ministry of reconciling men to God through Christ alone. He apparently knew enough about these shysters’ belief system to be able to label them unbelievers. Perhaps secondarily his directive counters a continuing tendency on the part of some within the Corinthian church to associate themselves in various ways with idolatry, despite his previous teaching against this as he discussed the problem in 1 Corinthians 8–10.
In any case, the Holy Spirit’s directive through Paul’s pen prohibits being yoked together with unbelieving persons. First Corinthians 5:9, 10 had clarified that Christians must not extend prohibitions like this to every kind of unbeliever in every kind of situation. In other words, the separateness enjoined in 2 Corinthians 6 is not unqualified. But in general, true Christians are prohibited from harnessing themselves together with unbelievers in a double yoke. The imagery of the yoke suggests the undertaking of some joint venture with them, not merely befriending or associating with them for the purpose of evangelizing them.
Paul gives no extensive list of applications. However, it is apparent from 1 Corinthians 7:39 that marriage would be one such yoke. From 1 Corinthians 5:11 we learn that keeping company with someone representing himself as a believer but practicing scandalous sin is another forbidden yoke. Second John 9–11 reveals that a third kind of prohibited yoke is the one under discussion in this column — receiving as Christians those who do not remain within the bounds of sound Christology. We’ll discuss this passage further in a moment.
The Scripture argues for its prohibition through a series of five rhetorical questions designed to expose the incongruity of such yokes. There’s not space here to discuss these questions in detail, but the very fact that they’re used in this rhetorical way argues that their point is actually self-apparent. To use Paul’s vocabulary, the point is that it isn’t possible for there to be metochē (sharing, communion), koinōnia (fellowship), sumphōnēsis (agreement), meris (share), or sugkataqesis (putting together, or agreement) between belief and unbelief. Paul really rings the changes on this, doesn’t he?
The variety of terms Paul employs provide suggestions as to what he intends for us to understand by being yoked to unorthodox people. He intends for us to understand that such a relationship would be created by our communing with, or fellowshipping with, or agreeing with, or sharing together with, or putting [ourselves] together with unbelieving persons.
R. Kent Hughes, an Evangelical held in high esteem throughout the movement, applies this passage pointedly in a published sermon on this passage (2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness, Crossway Books, 2006). Precisely because he is an Evangelical, not a Fundamentalist, his words seem to me to be especially noteworthy.
We are to disassociate ourselves from complicity with those who would attempt to propagate a false gospel within the church. Specifically, it means to sever the yoke with those who insinuate that reconciliation is not all of God and that we can make peace with God, that the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross in which God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21) is not enough, but rather there are rituals and experiences and works that will make our salvation secure. Today it means to reject liberal, moralizing theories of the atonement. It means to reject a bootstrap sentimentality that if we do our best we will make it and that good people will find a way. And within the church, it demands that we never allow those who hold such doctrines to be yoked with us in ministry.
This is a call not to give those who would presume to lead and teach the church a pass because they are nice or theologically educated or gifted or related to us or have grown up in the church. Countless churches have fallen from within because godly leaderships have yoked themselves and their congregation with an unbelieving pastor. Often it has been the pastor’s son or a favorite son of the church returned fresh from a prominent theological institution where he quietly discarded his faith but retained his religious vocabulary (redefined for his own purposes) and has learned ecclesiastical craftsmanship. He is pious, disarming, smiling, but unbelieving. Weimar Germany was full of pastors like this. And they sat on their hands while the church plunged into apostasy.
The Evangelicalism of the last half century has generally rejected these kinds of applications. But how heartening it would be now if Kent’s position were to become more and more characteristic of Evangelical leaders in the future! To be continued.
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)