Evangelicalism: A Boundless-Centered Theology

Evangelicalism: A Boundless-Centered Theology July 26, 2012

In his book, The End of Religion, Bruxy Cavey made this statement about faith,

“When faith becomes religion, people on the inside of the group begin to focus their attention on the perimeter, patrolling the boundaries to regulate who is in and who is out. They develop visible boundary markers, demarcations of holiness, which become important signs of group identity” (p. 212).

This statement echoes my own in so many ways, especially as it relates to Evangelicalism.

In fact, Evangelicals are often more concerned with maintaining membership based on strict adherence to a well-defined doctrinal code. If an individual does not hold to one of the pre-determined ‘essential’ doctrines, they are outside the circle and their membership rights revoked.
However, there are many problems with this set-up.

For instance, Who sets the perimeters? Who determines what doctrines are essential and non-essential? And, on what basis? As Roger Olson has often asked, is there an evangelical magisterium? The answer is, no.

A Center Does Not Indicate a Circumference

Having a center point does not also include the need for a circumference. A circle will indeed have a center, but no one ever claimed that evangelicalism is a circle, only that it has a center, and that the center point is illustrative of those beliefs we hold to be of greatest importance.

A boundary is not necessary in such a context. In this scenario, one is considered ‘more’ evangelical by their closeness to the center; by their belief in and relationship to those ideas considered significant by the majority of those underneath the tent. There will no doubt be variety in the details of some of those beliefs, but enough of the core is maintained to establish ones position to the center. Ones distance from the center is dependent on their relationship to core beliefs.

As Olson and others have pointed out, who determines what these core beliefs are exactly? While some may consider a certain set of beliefs to be of central significance, others will no doubt hold to a slightly different set. Context plays a significant role here. Methodists may aspire to maintain entire sanctification, while Pentecostals may wish to emphasize Spirit baptism.

Someone once said that theology is a matter of emphasis. If this is true, then what one particular group emphasizes in their theological systems is deemed to be of special significance to them, and therefore worthy of being held close to their center.

With this in mind, I’ll ask the question again: who determines what beliefs are core and which ones should be moved a little further away from it? If evangelicalism does not have a central ruling magisterium, as Roger Olson and others have stated, who makes the decision as to what constitutes core and peripheral doctrines? If that right has not been given to one group (and it hasn’t), then who decides? Neither the Open Theists, Arminians, or Calvinists. All three have to in some way or another contribute to the discussion. Each group should have an equal voice at the table. In this type of scenario, a degree of theological hospitality has to be given by each voice, as each also recognizes and appreciates the theological emphases of the other.

In the end, we as evangelicals get to decide. Not Arminian evangelicals, or Calvinist evangelicals, or otherwise. No one group has been appointed as the official spokesperson and theological determining body. For a group to assume such a role, for whatever reason, would be a prideful and arrogant tactic. It reminds me of the question posed to Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom of God! His response was, ‘certainly not those who assert themselves to the front of the line.’ We refer to that move as incredibly rude.

The center of evangelicalism is determined by us – those who call this place home. There will be some degree of theological variety because of our varied emphases, but it is possible to gather around those things we hold in common and are deemed to be of greatest significance. On those areas where we differ, we continue to discuss them in a spirit of charity and grace, realizing that we are all en route and equally need increasing clarity for the journey ahead.

I need my Calvinist family, just as much as I need my Openness relatives. Like a family, there will be disagreements, but we don’t disown members for disagreeing with one another. No, we take the time to listen more attentively and love each other anyway, despite our differences. For those who differ more greatly than others, we love even more; in the hope that love will eventually bring them closer to home, the center of a family’s existence.


Jeff K. Clarke is a blogger and an award-winning writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. Blog: http://jeffkclarke.com/, Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffkclarke, Facebook: www.facebook.com/jeffkclarke

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  • Pmpope68

    And we also should show charity to those within our tribe (other Calvinists, Arminians, Open Theists) who would disagree with us.  For an example, one Methodist who believes in entire sanctification should show grace to another Methodist who may not believe that or believe in it to a different degree.  

    • Pmpope68

      Just to add on to my comments:  this idea that everyone within a particular tribe toe the same line exactly is one that I hope is dying out.  In my opinion, there needs to be more room made at the table for diverse views and perspectives while realizing as you said, ”
      that we are all en route and equally need increasing clarity for the journey ahead.”

      •  Have we forgotten that He calls us OUT of every “tribe”, tongue and nation? I no longer think in terms of  “tribe”. Let the sociologists and demographers have the term. I agree with Nicole. Christ is the center. The only center. We abide in Him and follow Him, never refusing anyone He has accepted, regardless of their “doctrines”. A follower’s understanding can change as he draws nearer and nearer to the “center”. That’s all “theology” really is…a matter of “understanding”, as in a mirror–dimly. Christ, however, is the same, whether we understand everything or not.

  • I would also suggest we not limit it to “evangelicals”. Any number of Christian streams that may or may not be covered in that “tent” of evangelicalism could learn from the same concept here.

    Buddy of mine calls the second picture the “watering hole” and the first picture as the “fenced pasture”. I think, either way you put it, this idea of people journeying towards the center is truer to the faith than the boundary view.

    For that matter, even if we think we’ve reached the center, it may simply be a stage in a continuing journey towards “further up and further in” as Aslan puts it in The Last Battle. We may find, once we get to the watering hole, that that what we thought was the center may be just another horizon

  • I appreciate this discussion. I am the member of an organic church body. We range quite wildly in our individual theologies within our body. However, our “emphasis” is Jesus Christ. He is what we hold most dear and have in common.

    Our personal and individual “emphasis”, however, come in  the form of our gifting and personality. Those who are interested in teaching and studying God’s Word teach. Those who are compelled to shepherd, shepherd, and so on.

    It is the representation of the body of Christ–all members working together, not because of our theology, but despite it.

  • While I would have agreed with this a few years ago, I can’t now.

    I would recommend Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible (:How Biblicism is not an Evangelical Reading of Scripture).  One point in his book seems apt here, which is that when there are a variety of different scriptural interpretations to choose from, and we are free to take our pick, the bible is no longer functionally an authority, rather we become the authority.
    “In the end, we as evangelicals get to decide.”
    “The center of evangelicalism is determined by us”
    While this approach sounds great, what it amounts to is an anarchy of belief.  When there is no authority higher than the individual, there will never be unity in the Church (and this should concern us if we take the Scriptures seriously).  
    ” No one group has been appointed as the official spokesperson and theological determining body. For a group to assume such a role, for whatever reason, would be a prideful and arrogant tactic.” While this is true within Evangelicalism, within the broader context of the Church it is true that claiming to be a theological determining body would be arrogant, unless it was true.  But unfortunately, our individualistic approach of create-your-own-theology has only served to splinter the Church more.  There is no Evangelical magisterium, but if we want the Church to be one, we need a magisterium, an authority above ourselves and our interpretations.  It is time that Evangelicals begin reexamining the Catholic and Orthodox claims to be/have that authority.

    • Muscat

      This critique strikes me as problematic for a few reasons:1) Clearly, in some sense, there are authorities higher than the individual (if not “absolute” authorities).  There are congregations, there are denominations (of course, the most thriving evangelical congregations at present are nondenominational…).
      2) On the other hand, if we extend Willems’s analogy of the family, it seems to me that, given the days of the “pater familias” are long gone, especially if we look at the level of extended families, there is clearly no requirement of a single, final authority in order to have unity (or, if you prefer, to avoid total anarchy).  However, that is not to say that certain members of the family may not enjoy more deference, or might be looked to for knowledge and wisdom (but not always the same ones or the ones you would expect, at least in my experience).
      3) I can’t speak much to the state of the Orthodox church, but looking to the Catholic model as if it has avoided this problem seems, well, problematic.  On the one hand, in the long view Catholicism has tolerated differences of opinion better than Protestants, but that just points to the fact it hasn’t avoided these problems so much as dealt with them differently.  And related to this observation, on the other hand, it in many ways looks to be at the limits and ripping apart at the seams (at least in the US) – women religious are at loggerheads with the Vatican, significant majorities of US Catholics disagree with the Vatican regarding issues such as ordination & birth control, and there is broad disenchantment with the leadership post-abuse-scandals.  These sorts of outcomes aren’t exactly begging to be emulated.

      Thinking about these issues I wonder if we can find some inspiration not only in the family metaphor, but also something like the structure of the US government.  Here again, we have authority higher than the individual, but ultimately there is much invested in protecting the individual conscience/rights, and there is also no single, final authority (no, not even the President, although he is often thought of as such).  Rather, we have a system of checks and balances between multiple branches of government.  Just a thought.

    • Joel Hafvenstein

      Dan — thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look up the Smith book.  

      I’m not yet convinced that authority is a prerequisite for unity.  Uniformity, sure.  But to bring about unity-in-diversity, the “centered” approach seems  good to this evangelical, and more promising than either the Catholic or Orthodox vision.

  • Evelyn

    I heard Bill Johnson (I think it was) argue an interesting point once: as protestants we gather under doctrines, so when we disagree, we split. Doctrines define our in and outness. Catholic and Orthodox gather under ‘Fathers’ – and as a result can tolerate differences of opinion better. Which ties into your family metaphor, I guess.

  • I think you’re collapsing a few issues into one another here – membership of the church (local) based on adherence to doctrinal basis, membership of Evangelicalism as a coherent theological movement and membership of a the global church. 

    That said, personally when it comes to a local church, I think a bounded set of some sort is entirely appropriate – loads of wildly different theological pulls all being given equal weighting in a congregation of say 100 people is just unhelpful for anything (including Pastoral care). 

    However, I would draw the line around the set as being dashed or dotted, with gaps in for people to come and go. If we assume the centre is Jesus (seems a safe assumption to me), there should surely be arrows both inside and outside the set as people respond in different ways to Jesus’ calling on their lives. 

    Which then allows us pastorally to say that we are far more interested in the journey of someone currently outside the bounded set but moving towards Jesus than someone inside the set who ‘fits’ the criteria of the set but is moving at right angles to Jesus or away from Jesus but not enough to go through the boundaries of the set. 

    So I don’t think boundaries (and even quite extensive boundaries) are the problem when they are tempered with pastoral care, with the call of the church echoing the call of Jesus to come and see God and be transformed, and where the church are welcoming to those outside their boundaries.

  • Spot on Jeff. In fact, my e-booklet, (The Postconservative Challenge) makes this point (though your great diagrams would have come in handy!). Conservatives tend to see evangelicalism as something with boundaries to be patrolled rigorously which, of course, doesn’t work once you recognized that evangelicalism is a movement.

  • Center set and bounded set seldom live in isolation from each other. Most communities operate with a combination of both over time. The center set critiques the boundary markers often forcing the group to make changes, whether implicit or explicit. Systems that try to maintain center set dynamics implicit create case law boundary markers. You see this dynamic in both RC, Orthodox and Protestant groups. 

  • That is one of the awesome things about Christ Jesus. He died for all people and loves all people and welcomes all people (even though many of His followers aren’t so gracious).

    But that acceptance isn’t so radical that people can flaunt or advocate their sins.

    Christ calls us to repentance so that we will realize that what ‘we do’ is not good enough…and that we need a Savior.

    Thanks for you post and allowing me my thoughts on the subject.

  • Jeff K. Clarke

    “If Jesus is the center, there is no circumference.” (From a Homebrewed Christianity podcast). So fitting in this discussion.