In every age, there are some who yearn to practice a perfectly balanced Christianity, taking a little from here and a little from there. It is a noble ideal, but in practice what you find is this: The deeper you dig into the various Christian traditions, the more you realize the unbridgeable divides that separate us from one another, and the inherent contradictions such an attempt would entail.
I know whereof I speak. I have had moments when I seriously considered the claims of the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. I delved deeply into these venerable traditions to see if I could incorporate them into my Protestant faith. What I’ve discovered is that one can do that only up to a point. It becomes clear early on that while each Christian family follows Christ in exemplary ways, many of those ways are impossible to reconcile. Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in the local body of Christ seems to apply to the gifts of the different Christian traditions in the universal body of Christ. We really are different. And we really need each family to live into its gifts and calling.
Take one obvious example: Congregational worship. Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a rich liturgical tradition, repeating prayers and chants and customs that reach back far into Christian history. They have accumulated thick books with detailed instruction on what to do when and how exactly to do it. When a liturgical service is done with integrity, it is a marvelous thing.
On the other hand, Pentecostals (who are part of the larger phenomenon called evangelicalism) glory in the fact that God can and will interrupt our worship with extraordinary moments, unplanned and unrehearsed. This encourages a spiritual spontaneity that can also be a wonderful thing to participate in.
Yes, there are some congregations that try to leave room for both, but in my experience, such churches end up moving finally in one direction or the other. Why? Because they eventually see that, over the long haul, each way of worship is grounded on different theological assumptions that, in the end, are incompatible. For liturgical churches, the liturgy itself has a kind of teaching authority; it is shaped not in attempts to be relevant but in what they believe God has revealed to be true worship. For free churches, the form is not God-ordained but subject to change at any time, especially if they sense is that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. For the liturgical, changing the service may very well be an act of unfaithfulness; for the Pentecostal, not changing the service may be what’s unfaithful.
For all that we can learn from other traditions, there really are theological differences that remain unbridgeable. Evangelicals really do think Catholics, mainline liberals, and others get some things seriously wrong. We really do believe we have a keener grasp of some dimensions of the gospel. So the differences between the traditions are not just matters of style or emphasis. The differences are profound.
But that does not mean we have to be rancorous and divisive. We can still recognize these others as fellow believers and work with them on issues of common concern. But it also means that integrity requires evangelicals to be ourselves if we are going to continue to offer the global church and the world our distinctive gifts.
What are the distinctives that evangelicalism brings to the table? Many have found a good starting point in historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentricism. Though he was specifically describing British evangelicals from the 1730s to the 1980s, it has turned out to be a good summary of evangelicalism found in many times and places. There is this and much more to be unearthed in future essays.