Note: Today at the Shepherds' Conference I'll be teaching a seminar analyzing the current evangelical infatuation with building ecumenical bridges to Rome. Here's part of what I'll be saying:
Have you noticed that no one defines evangelicalism in theological terms anymore? When a person says he is an "evangelical" nowadays, more often than not he is describing an experience, or a particular style of ministry, or an interest in the pragmatics of evangelism, or something like that. The word evangelical has been stripped of virtually all doctrinal content.
In fact, over the past decade, mainstream evangelicals have been assaulted with a number of trends and movements whose aim seems to be to make evangelicals let go of all their doctrinal distinctives.
- There is the pragmatism of the church growth movement, which encourages pastors to downplay doctrine (because doctrine is "too academic") and focus only on the practical aspects of the Christian faith. In the worst cases, some preachers deliver material on relationships and success that is devoid of any authentically Christian message.
- There is the anti-intellectualism that dominates large segments of the charismatic movement, which also downplays doctrine and suggests that experience is more important.
- There is the neo-ecumenism of groups like Promise Keepers, encouraging men to seek unity by ignoring doctrine and doctrinal differences.
- There is the intense pressure to lay aside our doctrinal distinctives in order to forge a political coalition with all who share our views on the great moral issues of the day.
- There are various campaigns to redefine the doctrine of justification in Protestant circles. This is a common theme among many who are enthralled with "The New Perspective on Paul," the sacramental presbyterianism represented by the Auburn Avenue Theology, so-called "reformed Catholicism," and other crypto-Romanist movements.
- And now there is an infatuation with postmodern ways of thinking, which is flourishing in the Emerging Church movement, denying that propositions really matter and thus (in effect) rendering all doctrine moot in one violent act of epistemological suicide.
All of those things have worked to the detriment of sound doctrine among evangelicals. Now we have reached the point where evangelicalism, a movement historically defined in doctrinal terms, has ironically become a movement where doctrine is now often portrayed as something evil, divisive, and unbrotherly.
Mention the importance of sound doctrine in the typical gathering of mainstream evangelicals these days, and you are certain to be labeled contentious, quarrelsome, divisiveor worse.
The obvious casualty in all of this is the gospel.
Both Roman Catholics and Protestants have insisted for five centuries that their disagreement is a dispute about the gospel. If that is an accurate assessment of the debate (I think it is; and I certainly see no good reason to question 500 years of Catholic-evangelical agreement on that point) then we cannot possibly set aside our differences and enter into communion and fellowship with one another without also setting aside the gospel.