This article is part 4 of 6 in the series The Dynamics of Faithfulness

This is part four of five ruminations on the Tim Keller Redeemer City to City (C2C) conference in Sydney earlier this year.  Previously published: part 1; part 2; part 3. This is the longest and potentially most controversial response, because I’m going to be very unfashionable in praising tribalism, denominationalism, and confessionalism.

There was a lot of talk in praise of “catholicity”, and against “tribalism”, at the consultation. I’m very much in favour of inter-denominational, inter-church, inter-anything co-operation. I’m an AFES staffworker; one of our core values is a commitment to Biblical, “evangelical” unity.

My concern is this: such a focus on co-operation could lead to a watering down of discernment, and the value of confessional clarity.

God Alone is Lord of the Conscience 

The gospel concerns Christ’s external, representative work, reconciling us to God through his unique achievement of dying and rising for us. Our response of faith and repentance is not, at its essence, an external, visible act – it is an invisible, internal reorientation of our life, away from the world, ourselves, and the devil, and towards God in Christ.

Faith certainly leads to works: we must prove our repentance by our deeds (Acts 26:20); the faith that justifies expresses itself not just in words but in deeds of mercy (James 2). My point is: it is the invisible faith that justifies, not the visible deeds. The visible is an outworking of the invisible.

This means that God alone is Lord of the conscience. We must give each other the “space” to work out what we think the Bible really says, and the weight we give to various elements in the “mix” of Biblical truth. We who are church leaders – and pretty much everyone at that C2C consultation had some church leadership role – bear an irreducible individual responsibility to work out our theology by carefully and prayerfully wrestling with scripture, theology, church history etc. – and all of this in the ordinary, real-life context of our particular ministry.

Denominations and Confessions express conscientious theological differences

But that also means that we must respect the fact that some of us will weigh different elements of scriptural truths differently. And that will impact the way we do ministry – it will give our ministries certain trends, certain tendencies, which characterise our particular theological mix. Again: our invisible faith – in this case, our personal convictions concerning the dynamic inter-relations of Biblical doctrines – will express itself in concrete, visible practices.

There will be a discernable similarity, family traits – there will be an “evangelical orthodoxy”.

But within the family, there will be variation. This variation will not stem from rejecting the Bible. It won’t even stem from different enumerations of the Bible’s truths. It will usually stem from making the same truths play different roles within our broader theological framework.

For example: both pedo- and credo-baptists “acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sin” (Nicene Creed); but we disagree on the significance of that baptism. Is it more a sign of God’s promise to work invisibly in us (pedo), or of us promising ourselves to God (credo)? Is it more a communal act of the church promising to bring someone up in the faith (pedo), or an individual’s declaration that they belong to the community of God’s people (credo)?

Notice the dichotomies are not strictly incompatible: baptism is both a sign of both God working in us, and of us giving ourselves to him; it is both church and individual. The question is: how do we bring these two truths into dynamic inter-relation?  And how does that affect our ministry practice?

If we allow each other the space to work out our convictions in our ministry practice, we will end up with differences – different “tribes”. This is where denominations and confessions stem from: a desire to be honest about the theological “mix” that we see in the Bible, and that we conscientiously commit ourselves to.

Even the word “denomination” was originally intended to be a statement of inclusion, not exclusion. It meant that this particular fellowship within “evangelical catholicity” held to certain convictions, which did not exclude others from the “holy catholic church”, but which defined that fellowship’s (denomination’s) character and ministry style. Leaders with different convictions – even if they are not “core” “evangelical” convictions – do not belong in that particular fellowship, because they will be in conflict with that fellowship’s character and ministry style. I am a pedo-baptist; I would not be able to be the minister of a Baptist church. I would not recommend a convinced credo-baptist to try to be the minister of a Presbyterian church.

Discerning theological tendencies

If we recognise the usefulness of this confessional clarity, we are in a better place to discern the influence of our particular theological commitments on the long-term shape and direction of our ministry.

Credo-baptists have always warned pedo-baptists that the act of child baptism weakens the need for ‘conversion’, for a personal act of commitment to Christ. As a pedo-baptist, I take their point. We pedo-baptists need to constantly challenge our young people to not just go through the motions of being a good little church boy or girl, but to wholeheartedly commit to Christ.

Similarly, pedo-baptists protest against, as we see it, an underlying human-centeredness of believer’s baptism – as if the Spirit of God is dependent upon the human will accepting his influence. I would hope that credo-baptists hear that critique and adjust for it in the rest of their ministry mix.

The need for a shared commitment to fundamental authority

This example of credo- vs. pedo-baptist is a relatively easy one, because of the shared commitment to Biblical authority. That shared commitment gives us a basis to chastise each other in a genuinely brotherly manner. Problems really begin when the people and tribes we are interacting with don’t actually share the same authority.

E.g.: Reformed Charismatics 

Tim spoke a couple of times of interacting with Charismatics. He said he expected his children to be Reformed Charismatics. I’m sorry, but the term is an oxymoron. One is either Reformed, or Charismatic. We cannot be both, because the two hold to different foundational authorities: the Bible, or experience. Someone who calls themselves a Reformed Charismatic will trend in one direction or the other.

If someone calls themselves Charismatic, and their church service is characterised by enthusiastic singing and passionate preaching; but their underlying theological mix is committed to living out what the Bible says regardless of personal experience; I say: bring it on! Where does the Bible say that corporate worship has to be boring? And the idea that we lift our hands in worship has Biblical precedent (see Pss 28:2; 63:4; 134:2)…!

But if they’re committed to contemporary divine revelation being as authoritative as scripture, then we have a problem. Because when it comes to a dispute, I have no real authoritative basis to call them to repent. Their experience will trump my appeal to scripture. And that will set the character of their ministry: it will eventually trend towards a validation of experience.

E.g.: Gender roles 

Or take another example that the consultation briefly discussed: gender roles in ministry leadership. I heartily agree that it is not a ‘gospel issue’: we are not saved by complementarianism alone. However, our interpretation of the Biblical passages on male headship demonstrates our underlying attitude to scripture. On a basic reading of the text, Paul grounds 1 Tim 2:13-14 on the order and disorder of creation, and Eph 5:22-33 on the nature of the gospel itself. That implies that gender roles within church and family are not subjective, but are somehow ordered by both creation and redemption. If we are quick to ‘dismiss’ these complementarian passages as mere cultural accommodation, are we really permitting the text to challenge our cultural presumptions? Or are we so blind to our enculturated presuppositions that we simply read them into the text – “he can’t really mean that; he must mean such and such…” or even read ‘over’ the text, ignoring it because we don’t really believe it?

Notice I left the application of complementarianism fairly broad. We need to work out how to express complementarianism in our particular context in a way that challenges our culture by demonstrating the goodness and healthiness of God’s order. In Western cultural contexts, heavily influenced by feminism, that will probably feel more “traditional”. In some parts of the majority world, where patriarchy takes truly oppressive forms, it will probably come across more “egalitarian”, because the idea that a husband would love his wife with Christ-like sacrificial love is, in that particular context, socially revolutionary.

A quick disclaimer. Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of debate concerning John Dickson’s book Hearing Her Voice, and the response from Tony Payne and Peter Bolt, Women, Sermons and the Bible. I do not wish to weigh in on this debate. I have read neither book. This post is a response to the Keller C2C conference. As I understand it, the debate between the two books has to do with the specific issue of women preaching. I wish to comment on the broader issue of gender complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, of which preaching is a subset.

To return to my point: “catholicity” with shared authority is one thing; lack of shared authority is another. We need to be able to discern the foundational authority driving each other’s theological mix. And if it is not the Bible – if it is experience or contemporary culture – then we need to warn each other that we will eventually have no gospel to contextualise; we will merely reflect the culture back to it.

Sliding into dark places

The consultation joked about catholicity being a “slippery slope” to “dark places” that everyone was scared of, but no-one was willing to actually specify. The humour pointed to a truth: we can hunker down in our comfort zone and refuse to interact with others out of a diffuse, unspecified fear which is really no more than a fear of the other. That kind of tribalism deserves to be exposed and mocked.

But what if we are afraid that a particular ministry framework will eventually lead to specific negative results like those enumerated above? I identify as Reformed and complementarian – but I hope I have demonstrated that my concern is not with mere nomenclature: ‘Reformed’ or ‘Charismatic’, ‘egalitarian’ or ‘complementarian’. My concern is with foundational theological authority: whether the Bible defines belief and practice, or something else does. And the only way to discern that in someone is to have a good long chat with them. And if I discern that their theological framework is leading them into dark and dangerous places, then I must warn them. Otherwise, catholicity has become permissiveness and latitudinarianism – the attitude that theological distinctives don’t matter, as long as we all get along.

I am absolutely confident that the C2C team were not advocating latitudinarian permissiveness. In a question time they specifically disowned latitudinarianism. They are complementarian in gender roles, and a whole session with Tim and Kathy was devoted to exploring how they enacted complementarianism in their particular relationship. It was brilliant.

But they didn’t tell us how to combine discernment and confessional clarity with catholicity. In that, I think their presentation was unbalanced. I have sought to redress the balance by uniting catholicity, confessionality, and discernment.

“Evangelical Catholicity”: dynamic mutual correction?

What might genuine “evangelical catholicity” look like?  I have tried here to sketch out a vision of dynamic inter-denomination, inter-confessional edification, which tries to hold together both:

  1. A respect each other’s genuine, conscientious convictions about what the Bible actually says, the different “mix” of those Biblical doctrines, and the different practical shapes and characteristics of the ministries which result from those differing convictions; and
  2. Robust warnings about the tendencies that those different convictions reinforce, and the dangers implicit in those tendencies – even, if really necessary, a warning that we are abandoning a commitment to the Bible being our final authority.

If we manage to hold both together, maybe we can arrive at a different kind of tribalism – not one characterised by dissention, factions, envy, suspicion, and mutual hatred, but where we recognise that we really are sons of the one father – we share a family likeness, even while we have our particular differences.  And, precisely because we are sons of the one father, we can warn each other about certain traits we see in each other that may not be appropriate for the family.  Maybe – just maybe – we really will speak the truth in love to each others, so as to, in all things, grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ.