This past week the Christian corner of the internet has been somewhat abuzz with headlines like: Gungor drifts from biblical orthodoxy (World Magazine), Dove-Award Winning Gungor Rattles Christian World, (Christianpost) and Singer to Answer for Controversial Views (Breathecast). These articles then go on to accuse the band of “unorthodox theology” leading them to pronounce the band’s “departure from traditional Christianity” and their “wandering away from a biblically defined Christianity.”
So what are these “unorthodox” and “controversial views” that put Gungor outside of the bounds of “traditional Christianity” and has thus “rattled the Christian world”? Apparently they don’t believe in Young Earth Creationism (that the earth is only 6000 years old), and they don’t believe that all of the stories in the Old Testament should be taken literally (for example the story of Noah and the flood).
Really? That’s it? This is what makes them not Christians?
As Michael Gungor writes in a blog post entitled What Do We Believe,
“Over the last year, I have had so many questions asked of me about what I believe. Just tonight I had a conversation with someone extremely close to me that said that he wouldn’t consider me a Christian anymore.
Not because of my life. Not because my life looks like Jesus or doesn’t look like Jesus. But because of my lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE.”
This gets us into bigger question of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to call Jesus our Lord and savior, what it means to be Christ’s disciple? Is this defined by our holding certain doctrinal formulations like the Trinity or the deity of Christ? Or is it about a relationship with God in Christ shaping our life inside and out, so that we come to treat others with the same grace and mercy that we have known first hand in Jesus? Put briefly, is Christianity about creeds or deeds?
Growing up Evangelical, the understanding I learned was always focused on having a “personal relationship with God” centered around a “born again” experience where a person would “give their life to Jesus.” Being in that living relationship, as we pray, worship together, and read our Bibles devotionally, the result was to grow to care about what Jesus cared about, and to have that shape our lives. That experience of God’s love turned my whole world upside-down, and like so many others it made me want to share God’s love with others (evangelism), and to express my love and gratitude to God in worship. Singing songs like the ones Gungor writes from the top of my lungs each Sunday.
That is the face of the evangelicalism I knew, and it is one I still deeply relate to. At the same time there was another face of evangelicalism known as the Neo-Reform movement. This “New Calvinism” is focused on correct doctrine (from the perspective of a 5-point Calvinist) and is often characterized by an embattled, belligerent tone. Think of John Piper or Mark Driscoll and you get the idea. This group focused on declaring who was “in” and who was “out” based on these hyper-Calvinist doctrinal markers (I add the qualifier “hyper” here as there are many Calvinists who disagree with this brand of Calvinism, let alone Wesleyans like myself who certainly do).
Now there are two important points to glean from this: First of all, even within conservative evangelicalism there is quite a bit of diversity in regards to what is considered “orthodoxy.” Wesleyans (who were by the way the driving force behind the revivals of the Second Great Awakening that gave birth to American Evangelicalism as we know it today) disagree doctrinally with the Calvinists, and the majority of Calvinists disagree with the New-Calvinists. So the whole idea of being outside of “traditional Christianity” depends on what tradition that is exactly. The fact is, a whole lot of evangelicals, perhaps most even, do not believe in a 6000 year old earth, and never have. I certainly never did. I don’t recall that being part of the sinners prayer or in any of the historical creeds either.
Secondly, and more importantly, doctrine can’t be the most important thing about the Christian faith. Love is. Do I believe in the Trinity? Yes. Do I believe in the deity of Christ? Yes. But what really matters is how these beliefs translate into my actions and my life. For example, how does my belief that Jesus reveals God’s character and heart translate into how I love others? That’s why correct doctrine matters, and why when we divorce doctrine from love it is neither correct nor Christ-like.
When you get down to it, this isn’t about whether Gungor (or the rest of us) believes in a literal Adam and Eve or in the story of the flood. It’s about something much bigger; it’s about how we define our faith, about whether it is characterized by reflecting Jesus or focused on believing the right stuff even if we do this in a hurtful and unloving way that looks nothing like Jesus. Correct belief is important, yes, but it is primarily important in how it leads us to love like Jesus did. If it does not lead to Jesus-shaped love then it is simply wrong. Michael Gungor sums this up well when he writes,
“There are lots of people that have all sorts of beautiful ‘beliefs’ that live really awful lives. If I’m on the side of a road bleeding, I don’t care if the priest or the Levite have beautiful ‘beliefs’ about the poor and the hurting. Give me the samaritan. The heretic. The outsider who may have the ‘wrong beliefs’ in words and concepts but actually lives out the right beliefs by stopping and helping me. That’s the kind of belief I’m interested in at this point.
What do I believe? Look at my life. That’s what I believe. And that’s the kind of belief I’m interested in for my friends as well. I don’t care so much about what their words and unconscious assumptions are (even though that can make for some enjoyable pub conversation). I care about what kind of lives they live … Do they believe in loving their neighbor or do they believe by loving their neighbor?”
Jesus demonstrates this focus on love as the aim of Scripture (and doctrine) when he declares that the “greatest commandments” are to love God and others. The apostle Paul echoes this as well, saying that the entire law can be summed up in the command to love. Jesus said this in the context of his repeated conflicts with the Pharisees. Paul, himself a former Pharisee, again echoes this same conflict in his contrasting of the “spirit of the law” characterized by love and the fruits of the Spirit with the “letter of the law” which kills.
The Pharisees of Jesus time have a lot in common with the New-Calvinists of today. So if we believe that the message of Scripture should be applied to our own lives today, it would behoove us to pay attention to what Jesus criticized about the Pharisees.
The Pharisees prided themselves on their “orthodoxy” i.e. on their correct application of the law. Jesus did not fault them on this. What his critique was focused on was that the Pharisees had done this at the expense of mercy and justice. They had shut out the very people who were in need of God’s love. The fruit of their doctrine was not love.
It isn’t hard to recognize these same patterns playing out among the New-Reform today—focusing on correct belief with a seeming disregard for whether in doing this they are hurting others, often disparaging ideas like compassion as weak, and speaking mockingly of love. When told that their actions and words are hurtful, rather than repenting they frequently turn to the Bible for a justification of their hurtful actions. These are a group of people who are afraid of being wrong, yet ironically they are deeply wrong in the most important way—in divorcing their doctrine from love. If you look at all the times that Jesus warned people about hell, it is never about false doctrine, and instead always focused on their failure to show love. So if they want to be afraid of judgment, if they want to focus on being “right” then according to Jesus the place to focus is on love. “A new command I give you” Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.” That’s how we are “right” with God and Jesus.
Now, I do believe it is important to lovingly correct those who are in error for the simple reason that it is not okay to stand by while others are being hurt, especially when that hurt is being done in the name of God. But frankly it is not Gungor—as they wrestle through their own doubts and struggles trying all the while to cling to Jesus and to love—who needs to be corrected. If anything we should thank them for being real. No, the ones who need to be corrected are the “Pharaseevengelicals” of our day who have forgotten that what matters most is love. It is the angry preachers and pundits spreading an anti-gospel of fear and hate who need to be rebuked, rather than passively tolerated to the point where being evangelical has become virtually synonymous with being judgmental and embattled.
Some of us are still hoping that the word “evangelical” can again be known for its focus on love and grace centered in a vibrant and life-giving relationship with God. Others have given up on the “evangelical” label and are instead focusing on following Jesus and the way of grace, identifying as “progressives” (or as I do, landing somewhere in the middle, as a “progressive evangelical”).
Whatever we call ourselves, it is high time for those of us who desire to live out Jesus-shaped lives to stand up and say to these self-appointed doctrine police that it is simply unacceptable for a follower of Jesus to act in such an un-Christlike manner. Because if we really read the New Testament we can clearly see that a “biblically based Christianity” as it is understood by Jesus and Paul is one focused on the fruit of love. As Paul says, without love, all our doctrine is just worthless noise.
In doing this, my hope and prayer is that we could do so in a way characterized by grace, recognizing that as hurtful as their actions may be, these are nevertheless human beings loved by God, and therefore seeking their redemption and good as our beloved brothers and sisters in the faith. Again, the words of Gungor are instructive,
“It would be easy and just as destructive for me to write off all THOSE people who believe those things as something less than beautiful, complicated and intelligent human beings … So be careful of labels. Be careful who you judge as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of your camp. It’s a destructive way of seeing the world.”
With that in mind, let me open this up for discussion: How can we take a stand against people’s hurtful actions, while at the same time doing so in a way characterized by grace and focused on the good of the other? Let’s see if we can practice that in the comments section here.