In general, the danger of liberalism, which we define broadly as gospel-denial within the church, occurs when local churches allow the world’s demands to ring a little too loudly in our ears. It occurs when we let the world dictate the terms of our beliefs or practices. Or when we let the world determine, “These things are good and worthy, not those things,” or, “This is the salvation we are looking for.” As soon as we let the world influence the terms of the church’s life and mission, we have let another authority enter the house and tie up the king of the church, Christ.
A question for evangelicals to ask themselves is, has the way we think about church prepared us for compromise? Some describe this as the challenge of striking a balance between isolation and assimilation. So we’re told to be sensitive to seekers, be relevant, or contextualize, but not too far! We’re told to change our church structures and the way we talk, but not our doctrine. The trouble is, the moment we being letting the search for this elusive balance drive us instead of the search for utter faithfulness to God’s word drive us (which would preclude both isolation and assimilation), we may have let the world take an authoritative seat in the congregation (“Don’t emphasize that doctrine”; “Put it this way”; “Don’t make too big a deal our polity distinctives”; “Make sure to use music people like”). Yet allowing the culture determine how we speak and structure our churches—never mind for the moment what we overtly do with our doctrine—is to let the culture determine how we think, because words and structures shape thinking.Ultimately, it lets the culture determine how our congregations think about God, themselves, and salvation. In short, the question about finding the balance between isolation and assimilation is, perhaps, the wrong question. Asking what utter faithfulness to God’s word looks like is, certainly, the better one. It’s often been suggested that the doctrinally aberrant Emergent church is a reaction to fundamentalism. This may be true for some individuals, but could it be that its doctrinal aberrations are more the result of an entire generation who grew up in doctrinally anemic seeker-sensitive churches?
It’s in this light that evangelicals should always be willing to “examine ourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5), especially since our very place of strength is also our Achilles Heel. Our desire to reach the world is what can lead us to mimic the world. Many things in our churches are encouraging, but some things are discouraging. And for the sake of love, we should, from time to time, take stock of those places where we will be tempted to compromise the gospel and move toward liberalism. That’s what this issue of the 9Marks eJournal tries to do.
Michael Lawrence, Carl Trueman, Al Mohler, and Phil Johnson examine how liberalism happens and offer wise counsel for the academic and the pastor’s heart. Greg Gilbert, Michael Ovey, Russell Moore, and I point to several specific areas where evangelicals appear to be walking on thin ice (yet a careful reader will notice a slight divergence of views here). Greg Wills, Michael Horton, and Darryl Hart present striking lessons from history, which Bobby Jamieson rounds out by observing some striking similarities between the ecumenical movement of the 20th century and evangelicalism today. Finally, Mack Stiles does the hard work of challenging one particular organization which he loves, I dare say, with the love of Christ—a love which is willing to both build up and tear down for the purposes of holiness and glory.
Dear reader, we offer these pieces not to be alarmists or critics, but in the attempt to be lovers of our churches and yours. Where we overstep, we ask for your patience and loving correction in return.