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Does Doctrinal Diversity Lead to Doctrinal Indifference?

June 3, 2008

“The goal that diversity in secondary matters would be welcomed quite soon passed over into an attitude that evangelicalism could in fact be reduced simply to its core principles of Scripture and Christ. In hindsight, it is now rather clear that the toleration of diversity slowly became an indifference toward much of the fabric of belief that makes up the Christian faith.”

– David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, 8.

Does doctrinal diversity on secondary issues necessarily lead to doctrinal indifference? If not, what keeps it from sliding into indifference?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2008 11:12 pm

    I think we could make the case that some groups are more likely to make the slide, while others are more likely to not. Things seem to be cyclical and I don’t know of a group/movement that has avoided an eventual slide on secondary issues. Some groups try so hard to avoid the slide that they overcompensate and make the secondary issue a primary issue (see drinking alcohol in the MBC). They become so ‘not’ indifferent that they divide.

    The only way to keep from sliding that I know of is what I have sought to do which is to celebrate our diversity where appropriate and where I might not celebrate our secondary differences, I can hold my doctrinal distinctives confidently and humbly as revealed by God. I can also claim confidence in my position without arrogance in some superior knowledge.

    Overall, and without having read the book, I would tend to agree with Wells that there is a likely slide toward indifference which requires cyclical correctives. Wells seems to be seeking a corrective with this book. Looking at the subtitle, he also seems to be going after two very specific Christian groups, the market drive church and the emergent church. I assume he would include much of the mainline church in the market driven side of this, along with the plasma TV, entertainment church. These groups would certainly seem to have turned to indifference on these issues, especially in the laity.

    On another thought, it might not really be indifference, but rather opposition to the holding of secondary issues at all. So they not indifferent to them, they oppose that we have them. Whether a slide to indifference or opposition, a humble, yet confident corrective seems appropriate.

  2. June 4, 2008 6:55 am

    Good thoughts. What about the Austin context…should that change our posture to secondary matters? I think of Chandler’s comment at the regional, about being crystal clear on doctrine, which he took to secondary issues such as men/women issues and calvinism/arminian issues. Will you take strong stands on those issues and make them primary?

  3. June 6, 2008 11:51 am

    I am not sure that I like Wells rooting so much of evangelicalism in neo-evangelicalism of the mid twentieth (as he does in Courage…). I see neo-evangelicalism as more of a hiccup in Am. evangelicalism’s history. What that means, I think, is that theological indifference was not so much due to freedom on secondary issues, but to an overall anti-theological impulse that runs deep in Am. evangelicalism, reaching further back than Wells goes (think Noll, “The Scandal…”).

    I guess the larger question we’re getting at is: what is the affect of pluralism on one’s belief? Looking at evangelicalism, James Davison Hunter and Christian Smith both reach opposite conclusion on this issue. For Hunter, pluralism (religious and structural) weaken evangelicalism. For Smith, evangelicalism is actually thriving as a result of its encounter with pluralism. I don’t know who is right. I actually think both are right (might be because I am embedded deeply in a pluralistic setting!). But that is another story.

    As far as your question in response to Jacob, I do not know how to parse primary from secondary issues–I’ve struggled with that in my own church. My hunch, though, is that we tend to make far too many primary issues, secondary. And this is probably due to the cultural climate we inhabit.

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