It’s no secret that America is suffering from ever-deepening division and polarization. Many of us are concerned about the increasing animosity, belligerence, and violence in our body politic. What concerns me even more are the divisions in the church, in particular, the growing factionalism in the conservative evangelical Reformed world I inhabit. Whether the problem is on the right or on the left (or both), there is little doubt that our Young, Restless, and Reformed tribe is less young (and maybe less Reformed?), but certainly as restless as ever.
My memory may be too rosy, but in my estimation—having been “in the room” for most of this history—the early 2000s, up until 2014, saw a remarkable coming together of a variety of Reformed and Reformedish networks, ministries, and church leaders. Of course, the “Reformed resurgence” or “New Calvinism” or “YRR” was always divided along some obvious lines. There were the usual disagreements about the sacraments and spiritual gifts and polity and approaches to worship. But the “team” was held together by a number of important theological convictions: historic Christian orthodoxy, inerrancy, penal substitution, Calvinist soteriology, the Reformation solas, complementarianism, and the centrality of expositional preaching. Across the almost decade of (apparent) unity, there was also a shared sense of what the movement was NOT: we were not liberals, not Arminians, not Emergent, not seeker sensitive, not prosperity gospel, not egalitarians, not revisionist on sexual ethics, not Catholics, not watered-down evangelicals, and not compromisers on unpopular doctrinal truths.
For about a decade, it seemed, amazingly, that more pastors, more churches, and more networks were coming to share these convictions. Importantly, many brothers and sisters embraced being Black and Reformed. Christian hip hop was widely celebrated as rich theological wine being poured into new wineskins. “Big God Theology” was not only on the rise and on the move; it was bringing people together who had previously been apart.
And yet, on the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together seems to be all but torn apart. Obviously, the biggest issue is race and everything that touches race (e.g., police shootings, Critical Race Theory, Trump), but it’s not just race that divides us. It is more broadly our different instincts and sensibilities, our divergent fears and suspicions, our various intellectual and cultural inclinations. Yes, there are important theological disagreements too, and these demand the best attention of our heads and hearts. But in many instances, people who can affirm the same doctrinal commitments on paper are miles apart in their posture and practice.
Toward One Way of Understanding Our Differences
That’s what I’ve been thinking about over the last year or more. I don’t have the last word on how to assess the problem, let alone all the next steps toward addressing the problem. But attempting to understand what’s going on is an important start.
It seems to me there are at least four different “teams” at present. Many of the old networks and alliances are falling apart and being re-formed along new lines. These new lines are not doctrinal in the classic sense. Rather, they often capture a cultural mood, a political instinct, or a personal sensibility. You could label each team by what it sees as the central need of the hour, by what it assesses as the most urgent work of the church in this cultural moment. Let’s give each group an adjective corresponding to this assessment.
- Contrite: “Look at the church’s complicity in past and present evils. We have been blind to injustice, prejudice, racism, sexism, and abuse. What the world needs is to see a church owning its sins and working, in brokenness, to make up for them and overcome them.”
- Compassionate: “Look at the many people hurting and grieving in our midst and in the world. Now is the time to listen and learn. Now is the time to weep with those who weep. What the world needs is a church that demonstrates the love of Christ.”
- Careful: “Look at the moral confusion and intellectual carelessness that marks our time. Let’s pay attention to our language and our definitions. What the world needs is a church that will draw upon the best of its theological tradition and lead the way in understanding the challenges of our day.”
- Courageous: “Look at the church’s compromise with (if not outright capitulation to) the spirit of the age. Now is the time for a trumpet blast, not for backing down. What the world needs is a church that will admonish the wayward, warn against danger, and stand as a bulwark for truth, no matter how unpopular.”
Notice that each “team” is labeled with a positive word. Although I’m closer to 3 than to any other category, I’ve tried my best to label each group in a way that expresses the good that they are after. Most of us will read the list above and think, “I like all four words. At the right time, in the right place, in the right way, the church should be contrite, compassionate, careful, and courageous.” The purpose of this schema is not to pigeonhole people or groups, nor is it to suggest that if we could just mix in 25% from each category then all our problems would be solved. I realize that the danger with schemas like this is that people may further divide by placing others into rigid categories or that people may stumble into moral equivalency as if there are no right approaches or right answers.
Having made those important caveats, I believe that conceptual groupings can help us see more clearly that our disagreements are not just about one thing, but about the basic posture and way in which we see a whole lot of things. Although any categorization tool will be generalized, simplified, and imperfect, they can still be useful, especially if we realize that some categories can have a left wing (moving toward the next lowest number) and a right wing (leaning toward the next highest number).
With that in mind, think about how the four teams assess a series of contemporary issues in two broad categories.
Table 1 (Race)
|White Supremacy||Systemic Racism||Police Shootings||Critical Race Theory||Black Lives Matter|
|Contrite||Essential to American history, Whites must repent||Rampant— disparities imply discrimination||Evidence of continuing racism and injustice||Full of good insights||Say it, wave it, wear it|
|Compassionate||More prevalent than we think, Whites should lament||Not the only explanation, but should be seen and called out||First step is to weep with those who weep||Chew on the meat, spit out the bones||Support the slogan, not the organization|
|Careful||A sad part of American history but not the whole story, we should all celebrate what is good and reject what is bad||Open to the category, but racial disparities exist for many reasons||Let’s get the evidence first before jumping on social media||Core concepts are deeply at odds with Christian conviction, but let’s not throw around labels willy-nilly||Black lives are made in the image of God, but given the aims of the larger movement, using the phrase in an unqualified way is unwise|
|Courageous||Sadly, a part of our past, but lumping all Whites together as racists is anti-gospel||A Marxist category we must reject||The real problem is Black-on-Black crime||The church’s path toward liberalism||What about Blue lives? Unborn lives? All lives?|
Table 2 (Politics and Gender)
|Trump||Christian Nationalism||Wearing Masks||Sexual Abuse||Gender Roles|
|Contrite||No! The church’s allegiance to Trump is the clearest sign of its spiritual bankruptcy.||One of the biggest problems in our day, a dangerous ideology at home in most conservative white churches||I feel unsafe and uncared for when masks aren’t worn—besides Covid affects minority communities worse than others||It’s about time the church owned this scandal, believes victims, and calls out perpetrators and their friends||The problem is toxic masculinity and unbiblical stereotypes|
|Compassionate||A matter of Christian liberty, but there are good reasons to criticize Trump||Too many Christians are letting their politics shape their religion||It’s one small but important way to love your neighbor||Sympathize with victims, vow to do better||Traditional views are good, but many dangers come from our own mistakes|
|Careful||A matter of Christian liberty, but there are good reasons someone might have voted for Trump||Christian symbols and rhetoric supporting insurrection is bad, but the term itself needs more definition.||Probably overblown and a bit frustrating, but let’s just get through this||Each case and each accusation should be looked at on its own merits||We need a strong, joyful celebration of biblical manhood and womanhood|
|Courageous||Yes! He’s not perfect, but he stood up to the anti-God agenda of the left.||A new label meant to smear Christians who want to see our country adhere to biblical principles||A sign of the government encroaching on our liberties||A real tragedy, but so is demonizing good people||The problem is feminism and emasculated men|
So What’s the Point?
To reiterate, the point of this schema is not rigidity or relativism. I’m not suggesting that every Reformedish Christian can be neatly placed in one row all the way across, neither am I suggesting that we are all blind men with the elephant, each person no closer to the whole truth than anyone else.
One reason for the schema is to take a step toward understanding our current context. The loudest voices tend to be 1s and 4s, which makes sense because they tend to see many of these issues in the starkest terms and often collide with each other in ways that makes a lot of online noise. The 1s and 4s can also be the most separatist, with some voices (among the 1s) encouraging an exodus from white evangelical spaces and some voices (among the 4s) encouraging the woke to be excommunicated. The 2s and 3s are more likely to appeal to unity, or at least ask for a better understanding of all sides, which can make them sound too squishy for either end of the spectrum. The effort by the 2s and 3s to find middle ground is made difficult by the fact that many 2s want their friends among the 3s to call out the dangerous 4s, while the 3s would like their friends among the 2s to be less sympathetic to the 1s.
Just as important as understanding our context is understanding ourselves. We’d like to think we come to all our positions by a rigorous process of prayer, biblical reflection, and rational deliberation. But if we are honest, we all have certain instincts too. By virtue of our upbringing, our experiences, our hurts, our personalities, our gifts, and our fears, we gravitate toward certain explanations and often think in familiar patterns when it comes to the most complicated and controversial issues. Why is it that by knowing what someone thinks about, say, mask wearing that you probably have a pretty good idea what they think about Christian Nationalism and systemic racism? To be sure, friend groupings play a part, as does the totalizing effect of politics in our day. And yet, our own unique—and often predictable—sensibilities often play a bigger role than we think.
We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again—and maybe some pieces shouldn’t have been glued together in the first place. But if we can understand what’s going on—in our networks, in our churches, and in our hearts—we will be better equipped to disciple our own people and reach out, where we can, to those who may disagree. Most importantly, perhaps we will be able to find a renewed focus, not on our cultural sensibilities and political instincts, but on the glory of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.