“His reshaping of Southern and the course of the SBC will long outlive him in a way that is not possible with parachurch organizations.”
—Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary, as quoted in “The Reformer,” an article on Southern Seminary’s president and Souther Baptist giant Al Mohler from Christianity Today.
It is statements like this that make me shudder. It is not that Al Mohler’s brand of evangelicalism does not have a right to exist—it does, whether you want to call it evangelicalism, fundamentalism, or something else. My problem with this situation is that I agree that the Southern Baptist Convention is quite powerful and extremely large, and I don’t think there are any moderate Christian denominations with even a fraction of its power. And if Mohler can do a lot more through a denomination than the parachurch, that means he, along with both more conservative and more liberal Christians, can do a lot more to change the face of Christianity in American than can moderate evangelicals. As someone not interested in domineering religion but hoping to help put a moderate option on the map, this is a frustrating and frightening situation.
There are virtually no Christian denominations that represent what I mean when I call myself an evangelical. I do not mind moderate evangelicals attending either more conservative or mainline churches where they feel comfortable, but I don’t think these places of refuge make up for the fact that there are so few moderate evangelical denominations and that the existing denominations are tiny. Who, from looking at denominations, could even know moderate evangelicals exist? We are invisible to the public eye and too often invisible to both further-right and further-left Christians, who—whether they are looking for a new approach to theology or simply want to accurately represent reality in public discussions of the Christian spectrum—deserve to know we are here.
The Evangelical Covenant Church is a great example of an evangelical denomination that is not inerrantist, affirms women, teaches on ethnic reconciliation and justice, and generally is made up of some respectable people, from what I can see. The problem with the Evangelical Covenant Church is despite being one of the fastest growing and most racially diverse denominations in the United States, it is still absolutely dwarfed by the SBC, or even smaller conservative denominations like the PCA. And where are the other denominations in this vein? They are rare, just as small, and not always completely committed to more moderate stances. Every denomination has the right to organize itself as it pleases, of course, but I find myself wishing so badly that the Anglican Mission, for example, did not just tolerate some people who support women in ministry but would wholeheartedly advance the cause. I can see the Anglican Mission as a denomination that is almost right for someone like me, and yet, it is not exactly what I would hope for. I find myself wanting AM to succeed because I like so much of what they stand for, but I find myself wishing there were many more and more sizeable options.
I also find myself wondering if perhaps the more moderate evangelicals have thought it was ok to be involved in advancing their beliefs only through parachurch organizations. InterVarsity is moderate, Fuller is moderate, other organizations and charities and schools you might support are moderate, so what’s the big deal? The moderate voice is out there, right? And there are a number of significant moderate voices in academia. But as this quote says, there are lots of things that can be done through a denomination that can’t be done through a parachurch group. As much as I find myself feeling like parachurch organizations are what is saving moderate evangelicalism, I’m not certain how long the parachurch alone can keep our head above water.
I don’t like violent take-overs, I don’t like splits, and I want to maintain a sense of fellowship with more conservative evangelicals, evangelical mainliners, and even more liberal Christians (a term I think does not have to mean Unitarian-Universalist-in-Christian-garb) so I’m not sure where this leaves us. I just feel like it’s not enough that I have friends who during college, thanks to InterVarsity, explored theology, opened up to women in ministry (or at least remained friends with those who did), and started serving the poor. I don’t think it’s enough that Fuller professors are moderate or that I know there are sizable moderate factions—even majorities—at other colleges and seminaries friends have attended. I don’t think it’s enough for me to just be a part of Christians for Biblical Equality or to donate to World Vision or to know that my college buddies are on a similar theological page.
I wish—without causing all kinds of drama and hurt feelings and the like—that I could magically and instantly create a half dozen solidly moderate denominations (even if they, like the Evangelical Covenant, are shrimpy for the next century). Then as Al Mohler continues his reign, as many get fed up with aspects of mainline denominations, and as many people who could go to an SBC church or an Episcopal church or some other church perhaps don’t feel comfortable in the particular church of that sort of their community, all would feel they had another option. I just want people to have an alternative to simply checking out of Christianity altogether, moving significantly to the right or the left, or being a part of a church they can’t feel comfortable actively taking part in. I want there to be representatives of a moderate evangelicalism in every town—not just as a couple for friends you might or might not run into but an organizational presence that will last longer than smaller, transient social networks.