Ahh, Ted, that would be the great leaders themselves, so it would...

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Last week, I had the pleasure of doing a double act on 'evangelical identity' with Professor Darrell Bock, of Dallas Theological Seminary, at the Melbourne School of Theology.   Professor Bock himself noted with cheerful irony that a double act involving a DTS and a WTS professor was itself sufficient to raise the question of evangelical identity in an acute form.

One question from the audience which intrigued me went something like this: in the aftermath of the death of John Stott and the retirement of Billy Graham, what hope is there for a united evangelicalism?

I have a few thoughts on the question.  First, I am not sure historically - in fact, I am quite certain they did not - that either Stott or Graham really led a united evangelical movement or even offered hope of the same.  Yes, many looked to them for inspiration; it is possible that they may even have commanded the respect of a majority of self-identified evangelicals; but many also found them problematic as leaders.  I was never inspired by Stott: I was alienated by his Anglicanism, his eschatology and (to be brutally honest about my own sinful prejudices) his upper class English public school background. When it comes to bigotry, I am an English grammar school boy, first, last and always. As to Billy Graham, I did first hear the gospel from him, for which I am eternally grateful, but he too was a less than universal leader.  He is, after all, very American.  His life has been shaped by American politics, church and otherwise; and that did not translate to the UK.   I am confident I am not representative of evangelical opinion on either man; but I am equally confident that I am very far from unique in looking to others for my theological and ecclesiastical inspiration.

Second, I do not think that evangelical unity is particularly important or something to which we should aspire.  Christian unity is; but Christian unity, if it is to be achieved this side of glory, will be a churchly unity.  Evangelicalism is a non-churchly category.   It does not organize churches.  It does not ordain people.     It does not disciple people.  All these things are done by specific churches in specific places under specific leadership (both in terms of structure and personalities).   The church is a creation of God; the parachurch is not.    And Christian unity, if it is ever to be achieved on earth, requires churches talking to each other as churches.  Being a pessimist,  I myself doubt that such unity will ever be achieved this side of glory; but formal churchly interaction is the necessary precondition even for making it hypothetically conceivable.

In fact, to the extent that evangelical groups see themselves as instruments of moving churches along towards the achievement of true Christian unity (as opposed merely to providing support for churches and a forum for limited co-belligerence), to that extent they are playing a trick with gospel-centred smoke and mirrors.    If we see Christian unity as something achieved by such parachurch coalitions, then what we are really seeing is a church unity which is essentially independent in ecclesiology and baptistic in practice.   Every single evangelical group of which I am aware which sees itself as the key to real unity ultimately defaults in practice to privileging Baptist independency.  That is, of course, absolutely fine for the Baptist independent; but if one is Presbyterian or paedobaptist by conviction, such ecumenism amounts to being told 'Abandon much of what you hold dear and everything that makes you different to us and - hey presto! - we have unity.  Oh, and by the way, if you are not prepared to do that, remember whose fault it is that we are still hopelessly divided.'

Third, I see the desire for a great leader to unite Christians as irrelevant, an imposition of Carlylean or celebrity culture thinking on the Bible.  The New Testament knows of no such thing.  When facing the end of the time of the apostles, Paul does not tell Timothy to look for the dynamic individual to whom all can look for leadership; rather, he tells him to appoint ordinary, respectable, competent members of the church community as overseers.   This actually reflects the reality of life as well.   I do not think that most Christians root their identity in great leaders.  The local church and the denomination are typically far more significant.  After all, they provide the context for actual week-by-week Christian discipleship.  I suspect the fame of particular leaders may impact the composition of the canon of books, blogs and sermon downloads of some church people; but that is likely the practical extent of the inspiration such men provide.

Finally, the cynical historian side of my brain leads me to wonder who benefits most from the idea that evangelicalism really exists as a movement and requires great leaders.  Ahh, Ted, as Father Dougal would say, that would be the "great leaders" themselves, so it would.   To clarify: at the risk of tautology, without an evangelicalism to lead,  evangelicalism's leaders would have nothing to lead.  The evangelical leader seminary professor would just be a seminary professor, albeit one that is widely read and influential; and the evangelical leader church pastor would just be a local church pastor, albeit one whose website receives above the average number of hits and whose sermons are a source of encouragement to many. And the free floating, self-appointed evangelical leader/pundit/life coach would, hopefully, disappear entirely.  It might require some rethinking of strategic philosophy and it might dent a few egos but I do not think that would be a major setback to the kingdom or to the cause of church unity. In fact, quite the opposite.

Posted July 31, 2012 @ 4:50 PM by Carl Trueman
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