Some years ago, a news story related the account of two elderly women who became lost while driving through Florida. Not wishing to appear old and out of touch, they refused to ask for help or consult their map. Eventually they ended up in a remote tract of orange groves. When their car ran out of gas and the air conditioning quit. With no water, they quickly became vulnerable to the extreme heat. A terrible crisis was upon them.
Is this a picture of what is happening to the church today? The Bible lies unopened or generally is disregarded, the result of competing priorities and-or an unwillingness to identify with teachings the world calls antiquated. Even evangelicals, who traditionally have championed a bold stand for Scripture, have begun defecting.
One of the leading religious stories in 2010 involved Bruce Waltke, a noted evangelical scholar who for years was regarded as a stalwart defender of the authority of the Bible. But then he made the following statement:
“If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us [Christians] a cult … some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”
The operative line in Waltke’s statement is his warning to Christians about being considered a “cult” or “some odd group.” The real shocker isn’t Waltke’s belief in Darwinian evolution. It’s his appeal to reputation as the basis for such belief.
How should the church decide what to believe about anything, anyway? Is its doctrine to be based on what the Bible says or on what the world thinks? This is the critical issue facing believers in the opening years of this third millennium.
The BioLogos Foundation is a relatively new entity which also happens to endorse Darwinian evolution. It encourages all Christians to do the same. Many of its key leaders identify themselves as evangelical. But here again, in making the case for believers to follow its lead, BioLogos threatens that otherwise they “may end up marginalized,” which would be “a great tragedy for the Church.”
In a recent two-page full-color ad, InterVarsity Press, a leading evangelical publisher, featured a prominently positioned endorsement from The New York Times Book Review for a book by one of its authors. No problem there. But this reference happened to be for a text that disputes the long-held biblical doctrine of a historic Adam. Now there’s a rub. Is a secular endorsement to usurp Scripture as the determinant of orthodoxy?
Emergent church leaders consistently have disparaged doctrine in general — and the doctrines of hell, absolute truth and the exclusivity of Christ in particular — lest postmodernists be turned off. So, in order to reach postmodernists, must the church become postmodern? Is that it? Must Christ now be made acceptable to men? Is this the new Gospel?
What if Martin Luther had worried about him and his fellow reformers being culturally or ecclesiastically marginalized? What if, instead of sola Scriptura, their charter had been populus sententia? What if Jude had exhorted the church to contend for Nielsen ratings instead of “the faith once delivered”? (Jude 3)
And what’s the big deal about the church being labeled a cult? From its beginnings, the church was denounced as an unregistered and “secret” cult. Did that ever compromise its influence?
Still, seriously — shouldn’t Christians work to maintain at least some degree of credibility in this world if the Gospel of Christ is to receive a hearing? The answer is no. The credibility of the church is not the church’s charge, and the world’s perception of the church is not the church’s worry.
Christ’s commission to his church is straightforward — preach the Gospel, teach the whole counsel of God, disciple the brother, and contend for sound doctrine. Christians are not told to contend for the church’s reputation. God will handle public relations and take care of his church. “Against it the gates of hell will never ultimately prevail.” (Matthew 16:18)
Finally, a word to those who do not claim to be followers of Christ, lest you dismiss this piece as totally irrelevant. Consider this: The moment the church ceases to base its doctrine on Scripture, it becomes a mere channel of human opinion. And when no one is left in this world citing any authority but human opinion, which humans will decide which human opinions will be binding on which other humans?
Will it be the richest? The most violent? The majority? But why the majority? On what basis will democracy be held virtuous or social convention authoritative? Who will be metaphysically empowered to overrule the individualist, the socialist, the fascist, the nihilist or the radical Islamist? In such a world, on what basis will polygamy be forbidden? Or pedophilia? Or infanticide? Or rajm? Who will say who may not call right wrong and wrong right?
If the nation’s historic Judeo-Christian infrastructure of morality is auctioned off to the highest bidder or the leading poll, who will put what in its place?
In this sense, all of us have a stake in whether the church will humble itself, look once again to Scripture alone, and regain its bearings — or, fearing the world’s ridicule, wander on, lost and imperiled, dragging America with it.
The Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and pastor emeritus at the Monson Community Church. He may be reached at AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.