Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Bob Bixby's Thoughts on the Emerging Middle

Bob Bixby has a very interesting article over at Pensées (see the right sidebar). It is one of the best articles I have read in a while. I wanted to respond at some length so I decided to make my own post instead of taking up too much of his comment thread.

Abstract of “The Emerging Middle”
There is a new circle forming in the middle ground between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. This circle is made up of men who are uncomfortable with the fringe elements of their respective circles. This terra media is the historic ground of all true evangelicals and fundamentalists. Within this pale are men like Bauder and Dever, MacArthur and Doran. The old taxonomy of evangelicals and fundamentalists is flawed and obscured by the fringe loonies and will be done away with as more good men move into the emerging middle.
The emerging middle will triumph for several reasons.
1) The revival of “calvinish” doctrine over the Finney-esque methodology.
2) The failure of the old taxonomies to differentiate between good men in the movements and the fringe elements.
3) The liberation of pastors from “presentism”. Presentism is projecting the values, goals, and methods of the present on the past. Presentism has forced fundamentalism into the post-50's mold of separtism while there was previously a strong brand of non-conformist fundamentalism.
4) The waning power of institutionalism. Pastors and churches are less and less drawn by institutional loyalty.
5) The blessing of God on sound doctrine and practice. All movements eventually fail but the truth of God marches on.

Points of Agreement
I agree with Pastor Bixby that there are good things in both movements. I heard a pastor say recently that he was NOT an evangelical. He was very proud of this fact. He was also proud to be KJVO so there you have it. But I am evangelical. And I want to be more evangelical. By that I mean that I want to be about the gospel. Many of my recent posts are my musings about how the gospel should be infecting different areas of my life. It always concerns me when people don't want to be labeled fundamentalists. All true christians should be concerned about the truth of the doctrines once delivered to the saints. Indisputably there are goofy people within both these movements. So good men who want to please God and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world should be able to identify the good and bad and associate with what is good in both these movements.
I concur with Bob that this growing ground of commonality will eventually become its own movement and will move beyond the old labels. I hope that good men will rally around truth and dispense with the foolishness that goes on at the extremes of both left and right. I think that this will take place for four of the five reasons he lists. Namely reasons 2-5.
The failure of past definitions is apparent. I grew up in a fundamentalism where if your where not fundamentalist it was highly suspect if you were even saved. While I would not agree with everything that John MacArthur has done, I have heard his ministry disparaged by fundamentalist leaders while it is apparent from his writings that he has made tremendous contribution to the cause of defending sound doctrine and building churches that stand for the gospel.
Bob's bringing up David Beale's explanation of presentism is masterful. I have struggled with this for years. I have often viewed this as a matter where one must choose when to be a Puritan and when to be a Pilgrim. Remember that the puritans where historically those who stayed in the established Church of England and strove to keep it scriptural. The pilgrims where those from among the puritans that felt that they must leave and establish churches outside of the established church. Which were right? They both were! Early fundamentalism understood this. Men like “Fightin' Bob” Schuler stayed in the denominations and fought for truth just like Piper and Dever do today. Many of the early fundamentalists came to believe that they could no longer stay in the denominations, that the battle was lost and they needed to separate and be independent or start new associations like GARBC. Unfortunately at some point fundamentalism stopped being either/or and became exclusively separatist. I think this opened the door to sectarianism. No longer was it about emphasizing doctrinal unity over denominational distinctive but rather lining up with others who agree with you in your definition of what is important. We need to get back to being citizens of the Kingdom and not worry so much about who belongs to our little principality, earldom or county.
Institutionalism goes hand in hand with the last point. As fundamentalism became more separatist and then sectarian the institutions became a handy way to keep track of with whom you could play and with whom you would be polluted. I remember so vividly a dear christian friend saying he didn't feel like he fit in at our church because he had not gone to BJU. I never want anyone to feel like a second-class citizen in any church of mine because of where they were educated, what version of God's Word they read or what kind of music they prefer.
The continuation of sound doctrine is the story of church history. As my dad says, there have always been men who were fundamentalist and there always will be men who hold the position that doctrine is important and worth fighting for whatever they are choose to be called.

Points of Disagreement.
I disagree with Pastor Bixby's first reason for success. While I would certainly subscribe to his definition of “calvinish” since I am a little uncomfortable trying to fit myself into the full mold of calvinism. However, I think that he falls into the trap of presentism here. The fact is that the furtherance of the gospel in the last 400 years has never been completely owned by either arminians or calvinists. I would further posit that the greatest gains where seen when good men from both leanings came together for the sake of the gospel. Think of the Wesley/Whitfield revival and also of the early fundamentalism to illustrate this point.
My second point of contention is the characterisation of BJU as arminian. The founder was a Methodist and so he was certainly arminian in his leanings yet he was also not afraid to preach about the truth of a sovereign God and His grace. It is hard to swallow this too since Ian Paisley (indisputably a full Five-Pointer if there ever was one!) has been a close friend and frequent guest of four generations of Jones presidents. The only calvinists that got in trouble in my 30 years of recollection where some people who were manifestly and unabashedly hyper-calvinist.
One of the problems with institutionalism is that pastors have run out to suck up to institutional officers. I remember a case (that I do not think is unique) where a pastor brought a dispute to Bob Jones III. In the same vein why would someone hold a conference and invite Stephen Jones to preach on how to pastor? Dr. Jones is certainly well trained and a gifted preacher but perhaps not the most qualified to speak to men in the trenches of pulpit ministry. But this has gone on for years and happens in evangelicalism too. I think that a man like Dr. Jones can certainly encourage pastors in their ministry and I am sure he has ever put himself forth as an expert in pastoring any more than Kevin Bauder or other such administrators would. There is still the danger of a shift to a different kind of institution: the conference. Conferences are a wonderful way for men in ministry to be ministered too and encouraged. At the same time there is a risk of being swept along with every wind that blows through these conferences. I was listening to the Whetstone Conference recently at Pastor Bixby's advice and thought that Dr. Minnick did a great job in saying that there were men who had good things to say but do not have the same sensibilities that we have in fundamentalism. I think that is a great balance point. But the same is true with each movement not every fundamentalist is all right. We need to listen to all men who are concerned to give the whole council of God and weigh everything they say with Berean nobility.

Pastor Bixby has done a good job of summarizing the current situatution in what I think of as broader evangelicalism. He has made a prediction that good men in the middle will come together to stand for the gospel and fight for the fundamentals. He posits that this is the historic position of both these great movements. And, he points us to the fact that God is building a kingdom that cannot fail to succeed! All Glory to Him who reigns on High!