Saving Evangelicalism

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Why we need A Pietistic revival more than ever

Acrimony has always characterized the political and, unfortunately, religious life of the United States. The opportunity to exercise power over others always seems to bring out the worst in us. When power is threatened or seems to be slipping away desperation sets in. Opponents must be silenced or humiliated. Anything that threatens the power, position, and security of the ruling elite must be delegitimized.

We see this demonstrated in its crudest form every four years when Americans enter that long dark night of the soul called the presidential election. At the risk of sounding like an old codger, it seems to me that the “dark night” is getting longer and darker. Both sides of the current political debate seem to consider this election a kind of holy crusade. Their opponents are not merely misinformed or wrong, but evil. And so the middle, if it exists at all, disappears.

Recently, ethicist David Gushee argued that this is exactly what is happening to evangelicalism. In a blog post Gushee suggests, “American evangelicalism is fractured, probably irreparably.” He sees this as a division between conservative and progressive evangelicals. He argues that the former are more numerous. They focus on “doctrinal clarity and purity” in religion. “Progressives,” he argues, “are still conservative by many religiosity measures” but “tend toward a greater emphasis on compassion and eschewing negative judgments on others.”

Gushee argues that just as the center is disappearing in the political realm, the center is being squeezed in the evangelical world. He concludes by suggesting that conservative and progressive evangelicals need to “let each other go their own way.”

As I read his blog I found myself agreeing with a good deal of Gushee’s analysis—and rejecting entirely his conclusion. He is recommending that we Protestants do what we have always done when confronted with theological conflict: divide. Nothing more undermines the Christian gospel than our inability to get along. Nothing calls the unifying power of the Spirit into question more than our refusal to pray with others who love Jesus if they look at politics or theology or morality differently than we do. Our tens of thousands of squabbling Protestant and evangelical denominations are a scandal and a sorrow. Whenever we say we cannot stay together we put lie to our “ministry of reconciliation.” And reconciliation has to mean more than “I win, you lose.” That is not reconciliation but a hostile takeover! I read Gushee with despair, then anger. We must not permit ourselves to take this well-worn and tragic route. It may be a relief, but in the end it is disastrous.

Within the Pietist tradition we have resources to face this looming divorce and perhaps to effect a marital reconciliation. Pietism arose at a time of fierce conflict and division within the church of Jesus Christ. The Reformation in Europe had shattered the unity of the church and produced a variety of theological streams. Lutheran churches grew in Germany and Scandinavia. Reformed churches emerged in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Anabaptists represented the radical wing of the Reformation and were persecuted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Anathemas flew, and by the early part of the seventeenth century a hugely destructive war broke out that ravaged Europe for thirty years. The causes of this war were certainly more than religious, but religion was still a significant factor.

The war sobered many European Christians. Was there a different way to handle conflict within the Christian community? Could we disagree without killing each other or driving each other away? German Pietists were concerned with the renewal of the church. They saw the church, particularly their Lutheran Church, as more concerned with patrolling orthodoxy than living for Jesus.

One of them, Philipp Jakob Spener, developed a six-point plan for the renewal of the church. He argued for “little churches” within the “big church,” where people could gather to study the Bible together and raise questions of faith and life. He suggested “lay people” be given a larger place in the life of the church and that their concerns, rather than doctrinal purity, shape the preaching of pastors.

Perhaps most important, Spener insisted that doctrinal opponents should be treated with sympathy and generosity. Bitter attacks needed to end. Spener did not mean these differences did not matter or could be passed over without discussion, but that one was to engage disagreement rather than eliminate it.

Some 200 years later in Stockholm, Sweden, a revival of Pietism swept through the Lutheran state church. A layman by the name of Carl Olof Rosenius called for renewal within that staid but powerful body. In his paper Pietisten he encouraged people to read the Scriptures together, to pray together, to encourage one another to holy living, and bear witness to their faith in Jesus. In an increasingly contentious religious setting, he called for unity and generosity toward the “other.”

In his important new volume, The Swedish Pietists: A Reader, Covenanter Mark Safstrom has juxtaposed texts from Rosenius with another Swedish Pietist forebear, Paul Peter WaldenstrÖm. In 1859 Rosenius penned “The Diversity of God’s Children.” Included are these striking words: “Since we have a tendency to either lean to one side or the other, then it is quite healthy for us to keep company with brothers who have the opposite opinion from us. It is healthy to listen to both Paul and James, though it can cause us to be conflicted within ourselves. Besides, it is the duty and wisdom of every Christian, as far as it is possible, to seek to unify and keep together this band of siblings, which is so often tempted to break apart. Surely these people are our siblings in grace, even if they have different tastes than we do in many cases” (p. 116, emphasis mine).

Rosenius was desperate to keep the Pietist renewal within the Lutheran state church. He wanted to preserve the unity of the Pietists themselves. Whatever their differences, they were siblings in grace and had a duty—an obligation—to listen to each other and stay together. In the ongoing conflicts over politics, race, gender, sexuality, poverty, injustice, and theology the easiest way is often the most tempting. Everybody is more comfortable if the opposing irritants leave quietly. This could be the resident “conservatives” in the “progressive” church or denomination or the resident “progressives” in the “conservative” church or denomination. But whenever someone leaves or is driven out we have failed. We have acknowledged that we are not up to the ministry of reconciliation; we cannot bear the pain of difference; we cannot tolerate our convictions being challenged.

Perhaps this failure is inevitable. After all, Rosenius did not live to see the Pietists leave the Lutheran state church, squabble with each other, and divide into numerous denominations. Perhaps today’s evangelicals are doomed to a divorce. But I for one will not celebrate it. Such a division is not only a failure of nerve, but a failure to live out of the gospel.

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5 Comments

  1. As long as human beings continue to be led by their own spirits, good or bad, we will continue to squabble. Jay, you have made some divisive remarks about people who have different views and values than yours (Kansas people and fundamentalists). I’m sure that those comments were human inspiration and not divine. May the Holy Spirit keep us together. There is no other way for unity in the body of Christ.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s be “siblings in grace”

    I’d argue there are really no political independents when you have a two-party system. You either lean left politically on most issues or you lean right. And while you may cross over from time to time, you tend to vote more with one party than the other. It always amazes me how voting is split approximately 50-50 in national politics. Today we seem to have two parties split into four wings or more. But practically speaking are still split 50-50 nationwide as usual.

    So how does the church deal with the differing political views of their members? Does anyone really want their denomination or local church telling them how to think politically?

    The world’s toughest job today may be president of a denomination made up of imperfect people who have political viewpoints. You have a constitution and annual meetings that decide polity.

    In a culture that has become increasingly activist, passionate opinions abound on every issue of the day, and those who want the church to include their own personal agendas into policy. Yes, we should be in prayer about all of this, and we are, but somehow WWJD can be very subjective and the loudest and most organized tend to get changes. And those changes can be positive or negative based on your personal viewpoint of WWJD. If a denomination becomes perceived as too progressive or too conservative, it inadvertently puts out an unwelcome mat for those of a different viewpoint.

    I don’t know a better way to determine policy other than via the democratic process. But if one side wins too much control, it can become very difficult to stay welcome.

    On a local level it’s easier to leave political discussion outside at the doorstep and just focus on worship and loving the community. It’s simplistic, but leaving the politics outside the doorstep can work on a local basis. It gets harder when the reality of positions on worldview become governing policy for the denomination.

    We’re imperfect and political resolution in the church a classic conundrum, but our denomination has weathered many years as “siblings in grace”. Let’s keep working at it.

  3. Thanks, Jay !
    I want to read this reflection several times, …. over several weeks, …. maybe a prayer or two,
    ….. wanting to remain at table, when it’s comfortable, … when it is not.
    wanting also to remember the new commandment,
    Bob Hoey

  4. Great article, Jay! I read Gushee’s piece when it came out and shared your dismay at his conclusion. Thank you for bring up the riches of the past to help us navigate our current world.

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