One of the long-term hallmarks of the American evangelical church has been a congregational independence free from strong denominational ties. Sure, the denominations exist as broad placeholders with certain doctrinal distinctives, but the range of actual beliefs and practices among churches even within a single denomination is often large. In practice, theological interpretations mainly happen at the individual congregation level. This seems reasonable given that the popularly accepted definition of evangelicalism includes “biblicism” as one of its four key characteristics. [ref]Per British historian David Bebbington as referenced in this Wheaton College post. The other three characteristics are conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism.[/ref]
Within less-evangelical denominations that have a well-defined hierarchy, doctrinal disputes and practice are better kept in-house; the Presbyterians are more than willing to govern their doctrine and practice, and the Catholics have their magisterium – the teaching authority of the church which speaks authoritatively on doctrine.
While Reformed Evangelicalism is still loosely grouped into tribes (Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, Southern Seminary alumni, etc.), I think we are seeing the emergence of a Reformed Evangelical magisterium of sorts. Its hand has been evident the past several months in the reaction to, among other things, Rachel Held Evans‘ new book. I don’t want to address the book in this post – I did that previously – but rather the reaction to it.
Let me say up front that I have great respect for everyone I’m going to mention here, and that I have learned much from and appreciated the teaching of nearly all of them. My goal here is not to suggest that they have nefarious intents or are necessarily intentionally working to form this sort of authoritative cabal, but that its emergence may point to a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of the tenet of biblicism.
Seeing the organization of this Reformed Evangelical cabal isn’t difficult. There is a nicely defined structure that includes:
- theological institutions (Southern Seminary being the chief example)
- theologians – D. A. Carson, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Mark Dever
- charismatic teachers – Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Voddie Baucham, Josh Harris, C. J. Mahaney
- mouthpieces – The Gospel Coalition website, Desiring God’s website, and The Resurgence website, among others
- inquisitors – Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung being the prime examples
- councils – we call ‘em conferences, though. Desiring God holds a big one every year, T4G is every other year, and so on.
If a member gets too far out of line, this group is quietly self-regulating. See: Acts29 moving from Driscoll in Seattle to Chandler in Dallas. See also Mahaney leaving his Maryland church of nearly 30 years under a cloud, only to re-emerge as pastor of a new church in Louisville, KY, safely in Al Mohler’s backyard.
Among the larger group of individual pastors that follow these leaders, doctrinal alignment is maintained by conferences and publishers. As an aspiring author, your first book likely won’t get a look from one of the big names, but if Challies reviews it positively, your second one might. A cover blurb from Driscoll, Keller, or Chandler will help ensure that your book gets accepted at the book sales room at the next conference, and from there you’re all set on your track to successful blogging, authoring, and maybe even your own speaking gig at the next conference!
Get a vote of disapproval, though, and you’ll be on the outside looking in, anywhere from just being ignored (which I’d imagine is bad for an author’s prospects) to having the full court press turned against you (as Rachel Held Evans has had the past few months).
Now, from one perspective, this sort of unity seems like a positive thing, right? We have Baptists, Presbyterians, Free Church-ians, and independents of every stripe coming “Together for the Gospel”. And indeed, this tent is apparently big enough for diversity on sacramental issues like baptism and communion. But touch one of the “third rails” like women’s roles or origins and you’re gonna get dropped like a hot potato. (Recently a professor at Cedarville College got fired because he believed the “right things” about Adam and Eve but not for the right reasons.)
A few of the authors who go where angels fear to tread are given a grudging pass, typically because their academic credentials are too impressive to totally ignore. Think here of Scot McKnight, whose Junia Is Not Alone argues hard for the egalitarian position, but who also taught at TEDS alongside D. A. Carson. And also, oh, that N. T. Wright guy who says some amazingly liberal stuff on social gospel and the environment, but who wrote some stunning stuff on Jesus.
Academic credentials don’t ensure asbestos underwear, though. Pete Enns (a tenured professor) got run out of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, back in 2008 after publishing his book Inspiration and Incarnation, which argued for a re-evaluation of how we read and interpret the Bible – and especially the early parts of the Old Testament. And if you’re a woman without a theology degree, like the aforementioned Evans, well, sorry. You’re toast.
Ask any of these guys (or your local adherents to their creed) why they put the big focus on these specific doctrinal issues, and what you’ll probably hear is this: “the gospel is at stake“. I think it’s clear, though, that what it really means is “our version of the gospel is at stake”.
And this is where the idea of a magisterium comes in. In the Catholic tradition, the magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. The church leadership speaks an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and the matter is settled.
In the evangelical tradition, however, we don’t have the strong denominational and hierarchical structures to pronounce and enforce Scriptural interpretation. And even though we love the Scripture (a pastor I know and love proudly says he has such a high view of Scripture that “it’s not bibliolatry… but *wink* it’s just almost bibliolatry.”), it’s apparent that while we also love our congregational independence, that independence is just insufficient to protect the evangelical doctrinal turf. And so evangelicalism falls back on its informal magisterium.
I don’t think one can conclude from all this that a magisterium is a bad thing, nor can one conclude that the solution is to move our evangelical churches into some hierarchical denomination. But what is clear is that no matter how loudly some leaders of evangelicalism may cry that we need to simply “believe what the Bible says”, it’s never quite that simple.