I wrote a paper in the summer which touched on some themes that came up again in class today. As I was looking back at it I rememberd how important this research paper was for me as I wrestled with, as the subtitle of the paper called it, Perpetual Tensions in Evangelical History. If this is God's church, why so many disputes, tensions, disagreements, failures, etc...?
In my review of major episodes of church history within my stream of it (evangelicalism) I discovered not only further reason for discouragement, but encouragement as well. I found what I thought might be a better place to put my hope.
Historical review aside, here is the intro and conclusion of that paper:
When Martin Luther sought reform within the established Church he opened the floodgates for the individual experience of salvation by grace through faith and set a precedent for perpetual tension in what would become Protestant Evangelicalism. Although these tensions indicate a struggle between freedom and authority, evangelical history has shown that they spring from essential human needs for both authenticity and establishment.
As Christians seek an authentic faith they pose new questions and embrace fresh expressions of worship. As they seek communion with one another they challenge previously polished answers and confront genuinely held preferences for tradition. These tensions test church unity and threaten its witness to the world, but have also led to some of the most redemptive moments in evangelical history. God has certainly shown His faithfulness and grace to the church through the centuries.
The study of the perpetual tensions throughout evangelical history leads to the recognition of some recurrent themes. Some common pitfalls in the ironing out of these tensions jump out from the pages of history. Mistaken assumptions are like a cancer that destroys understanding. What cuts against the grain is often mistaken as naive or rebellious and the establishment is often assumed to be ignorant or oppressive.
As deadly as such assumptions can be, they are even more deadly when they turn out to be right. Excesses of enthusiasm and stubbornness of tradition only serve to galvanize the misgivings of others. All it takes is one person to provide fodder for detractors, especially when battle lines have been drawn. Too often sides are hastily taken, a monopoly on the truth is claimed, the opponent is demonized, and false antitheses are the rhetoric of the day. Add to these the pitfalls of each person’s pride and selfishness and it is a tribute to the grace and faithfulness of God that the church is still around.
As evangelicalism heightened the value of each person’s experience of salvation the question became not whether one would accept the church but whether the church would accept them. When tradition that was meant to keep the faith alive no longer conveys the same emotion or seems to answer current questions, tensions of authenticity and establishment rise to the surface. The dilemma in all of this is that the two are so intertwined. A healthy establishment provides an anchor for spiritual and intellectual experimentation and authentic individual expression provides the life that sustains the health of the church.
In this light the tensions of authenticity and establishment appear as opportunities rather than obstacles. The most redemptive approach, then, is a deep commitment to the Church that includes an almost unrelenting propensity towards dialogue rather than division. The most admirable figures to emerge in evangelical history are those who exemplify the biblical injunction to "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15 NIV).
The pendulum swings in Christianity can be discouraging, and it may be debatable whether entropy or progression is being experienced at any given time, but it is clear that the Church is always moving. In fact, when one takes into account the faithfulness, grace, and power of God there is reason to recognize tension as perpetual not only in the sense of repetition but also in terms of motion. Although the temptation is to give credit for the progression of the church to one group or another, it is evident that the working out of tensions–not any one cause of them–that is key to the growth of the Church.
The crux of Christianity continues to be the cross of Christ and the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18) History has shown that when evangelicals embrace their tensions with humble honesty and commitment to one another the love and truth of Christ is more fully known not only despite the inevitable tensions but through them.