If you asked the difference between evangelical and mainline churches in America today, most in the media would frame the difference as a political one. Evangelicals are Republicans, mainline Christians are Democrats. But this is not the defining issue. The question that is at the crux of the division between Christians lies in the answer to this question: how authoritative is the Bible in your life?
There has never been a generation, never a time or place, where Christians haven’t had to come to grips with whether they will bow the knee to the prevailing norms or whether they will serve God alone. And how do we know what God wants? His Word to us. When push comes to shove, when the Bible calls me to believe something or act a certain way, will I believe? Will I obey?
The reason, then, that sexuality has become a litmus test for what “camp” you are in has little to do with political leanings, but rather this question of authority. I truly don’t mean to be glib when I say this (and it may well be good fodder for a post later), but there just isn’t a strong biblical argument for sex outside of a heterosexual marriage to be anything other than sinful. That’s not, of course, to say that some don’t try to make such arguments, but rather that those arguments are inevitably grounded in a progressive ideology.
For a project in seminary I met with elders from two different churches: one a prominent mainline church, and the other an evangelical church, and asked them a set of questions. Most significant among the differences in their answers were their responses on what the Bible was. For the elders at the mainline church, they consistently spoke of the Bible with terms like “inspirational” or “beautiful” or “enriching.” All good words to describe the Bible and all true. But several of the elders were clear that they drew inspiration from other places as well: other religious books, works of art, science, and philosophy. The Bible was one of the several (many, even) sources of authority for those at the mainline church.
Meanwhile, the responses from the elders at the evangelical church were much more straightforward: the Bible was the very Word of God. Some added that the Bible was infallible, others that it was inerrant. But they were all crystal clear: the Bible was authoritative over all matters theological and moral.
Mainline and evangelical Christians alike both claim earnestly (and I believe them both) that they are devoted to God and that Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation. But things diverge quickly after that (and here many Christians diverge from the churches they attend). And that divergence can find its roots here: just how much authority does the Bible have over our lives? Or, to put it another way, how much do the Bibles we have today speak for God? Is the Bible is God’s Word, full stop? Or does the Bible contain God’s Word, but there are bits and pieces here and there that are all too human and deserving of revision?
I went to a liberal seminary with the expectation that, at least on some issues, I would become more progressive. Something strange happened during my three year journey: I left more conservative than when I arrived. Why is that? Because over the course of my three years in seminary, I realized that the most significant challenges to the historic positions of the church came not from a more informed or nuanced reading of the text itself, but from outside the text. The question I had to wrestle with was whether I was willing to submit to the Bible or whether I would submit it to me.
There were more than a few times where that was a real question for me. There are more than a few theological positions I hold that part of me wishes I didn’t hold. But in the end I had to decide whether the litmus test would be found within me or within God’s Word.
I chose to submit myself to the authority of God’s Word; I hope you do, too.
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