A post by Charles Self, Professor of Church History, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
“Some are for the left wing. Some are for the right wing. I’m for the bird flying.” (E.V. Hill)
Evangelicals are often paralyzed and polarized by ideological differences, with serious consequences for mission in 21st century America and around the world. People who affirm the historic creeds, take Scripture seriously, engage in service and witness and care deeply about the world are often sidetracked from shared missional aims by ideological captivity. Witness the rancor between conservatives and progressives concerning current cultural, moral and political issues. Beyond these simple political groupings we have a host of subcultures all vying for prominence and redefining reality to suit their narratives.
In several of his writings, the late Donald Bloesch, eminent 20th century American theologian, warned Christians that human ideologies are one of the great enemies of sound theology. The 20th century, in the words of Paul Johnson, was the era of radical ideologues (Hitler, Stalin and Mao) “experimenting with a third of mankind.” The reverberations of totalitarian myths and power structures continue around the world as millions are caught in the crossfires of despots and their minions appealing to blood and soil, perverted notions of supremacy and promises of largesse for their superior race, party or tribe.
Ideologies are human constructs that can assume demonic impact when unchecked by transcendent truth. They are the “strongholds” of 2 Co. 10:1-6, arrogantly defying Christ. Walter Wink’s massive three-volume work on Principalities and Powers enumerates the many perversions of power that challenge the grace, humility, love and peacemaking that the Gospel affirms. Ideologies are also found in the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” that relies on “human tradition and elemental spiritual forces” apart from the revelation of Christ, the true source of all knowledge and wisdom (Co. 2:8-10).
Ideologies are dangerous. They carry power and distort thinking and vision. Racism, sexism and tribalism have no place in gospel-centric theopraxis. Most would say the same of the beliefs and practices of Communism and Fascism. There are, however, more subtle ideologies lurking around our mental corners waiting to ensnare the unaware, gullible and/or rebellious. Popular conceptions of conservativism and liberalism in their 21st century iterations can keep Christ-followers from creative ways forward in discipleship and mission. It is possible that biblical discernment may lead a thoughtful believer toward a more conservative or liberal position on a particular issue, but subservience to partisanship for its own sake dilutes prophetic impact.
Religious or secular triumphalism subverts the mission of God as Christian principles become wed to organs of power. Globalism – the aim of global governance by a single international entity – is an enemy of the biblical foci on personal place and local flourishing.
Going deeper, we see legitimate individuality subverted by individualism and its cancerous cousin, narcissism. Legitimate exchange of value is twisted by consumerism and prosperity from hard work is exchanged for materialism. Critical thinking is being abandoned for subjectivism. Shared historical knowledge that shapes a common ethos is derailed by deconstructionism and all metanarratives are declared obsolete by academic totalitarians. All of these ideologies reflect Martin Luther’s dictum that the devil and the demonic forces are the “ape of God” – unable to create, so they pervert the good into the destructive.
For 21st century mission in North America and beyond, believers must guard against the ever-present idols of ideology. C.S. Lewis reminds us that Jesus is “not a tame lion” and will not fit into any philosophical or political camps. Peter Kreeft echoes this notion as he articulates a dozen boxes that cannot contain Jesus.
So we need vigilance. But what happens when we avoid the traps and walk in truth free from ideological captivity? There are three salutary consequences of Christian liberty shaped by scripture and empowered by the Spirit.
When free from ideological constraints, the creativity of the Holy Spirit can inspire solutions to apparently intractable problems. Creativity is more than compromise or a facile “third way.” Within the bounds of the ways of God, creativity comes to individuals and communities, church boards and mission agencies. It may even be found among business and political leaders willing to serve the common good.
Ecumenical progress happens when we overcome misperceptions of other believers that are often tainted by historical and ideological misconceptions. Biblical ecumenism is unity-in-diversity, not a homogenization of beliefs and practices. The Triune love, holiness and unity of the Body centered in core doctrines and commitment to mission is the sign of God’s presence in the world.
Authentic hospitality is possible when caricatures and stereotypes arising from ideological enslavement yield to a new vision. We now welcome each person created in God’s image. We anticipate the unique artisanship of the Lord as we encourage discovering of callings and gifts. Each new member of the Body is a living stone, adding to the eternal edifice of the Spirit currently under construction through our outreach and discipleship.
Let’s ground our thoughtfulness in scripture and carefully evaluate the information saturation and ideological captivation that assails us every day. We will still argue and disagree. We will find our “old nature” defaulting to epistemological comfort zones when we are under pressure. But with accountability to one another, reliance of the Holy Spirit and minds captive to Word, we can come out of the prisons of our own fabrication into the faith that will inspire and propel new expressions of mission in the 21st century.