Richard Lovelace’s advice for different parts of Christ’s body

Usually I supply all my own posts here, not because I don’t value those of others but because if I started reposting other good things here, I wouldn’t know where to stop. But my friend Dean Merrill sent me his old copy of a column that Richard Lovelace (then professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Seminary) wrote some 33 years ago, in the wake of the televangelist scandals, and I felt it merits attention today. Its insights about how different parts of the body of Christ have what other parts need–that we are renewal movements for one another!–are no less relevant today than they were back then. Of course, I would not put every detail exactly the same as he did, especially given shifts in the past 3 decades (e.g., some scandals hitting different circles this time around; Ireland and South Africa being quite different today), but his emphasis on the need to learn from one another’s strengths remains valuable.

Richard published this post in Charisma in August 1987. Dean and I were unable to reach Richard Lovelace, despite our best efforts, but since I knew him as passionate for the church’s renewal, and since he published it in 1987, it seems safe to assume that he would welcome its voice today as well. Because I had just the PDF from Dean, I am scanning/rekeying it (1987 was re-computer days), so please forgive any typos as my own and not Richard’s:

Recovering Our Balance

During the 1920s, articles with titles such as “Salvation Circus” appeared, attacking the antics of evangelist Billy Sunday. More bad press focused on the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” as fundamentalists wanted the teaching of evolution banned. Warfare between fundamentalists and liberals led to mainline Christians developing new slogans such as: “Beyond fundamentalism and from groups viewed as radically conservative. The current situation in America feels uneasily similar. My daughter remarked, “I am kind of embarrassed to be an evangelical.” Some of us are tempted to put some distance between ourselves and the televangelists. We point out that the scandals (Bakker, PTL, etc.) are localized among charismatics or Pentecostals or fundamentalists. At least Billy Graham still looks good!

Are we seeing the evangelical movement discredited, as in the 1920s? I agree with most Christian leaders that God is calling for reform and purification, rather than permitting us to be wiped out. One dimension of the needed reform is a new balance within American evangelicalism. It is helpful to analyze our current situation using what has been called “the Wesleyan quadrilateral.” John Wesley, the founding theologian of the charismatic tradition, believed that there are four sources of truth which shape the quality of our faith. Keeping these in balance may well be the key to renewal.

Imagine a baseball diamond. Home plate is Scripture. First base is tradition. Second base is reason and third base is experience. Different parts of American evangelicalism have given differing weight to these four elements. Fundamentalists have been especially valiant for the tradition of orthodox theology. They have a deep respect for Scripture; they are reasonable people; they believe in a born-again Christian experience. But they are especially strong for tradition. If you are working among fundamentalists, you are at peril if your mind, your experience, or even your perception of Scripture lead you to tune up the tradition.

Those who call themselves evangelicals emphasize reason by interpreting Scripture, correcting tradition and adapting experience. Many evangelicals are post-fundamentalists or post­charismatics who have been burned by flaws in the other movements. Evangelicals can be flat-footed spiritual pedestrians, but they are not likely to adopt weird fund-raising methods, have dubious visions or engage in tacky behavior. On the other hand, modern evangelicals lack the spiritual passion which drove their namesakes during the Great Awakenings.

Charismatics are the inheritors of that dynamic experience. They sit loose to tradition and sometimes even to common sense. They are willing to explore any innovation that seems to have scriptural support. They are radically open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This makes their movement fertile ground for new discoveries. But it also makes for a luxurious growth of theological weeds, which fundamentalists screen out with tradition and evangelicals zap with reason.

You may be unnerved to find yourself located in one movement but possessing the ideals of another. Do not worry and do not necessarily move, because the place where you are may really need you. And this is my principal point. At a time when Jerry Falwell’s {Senior} fundamentalists and Jim Bakker’s charismatics are threatening to re-enact the shootout at the OK Corral, I am suggesting that we need one another’s gifts and one another’s emphases. For none of us has a faith which perfectly balances these elements.

No modern movement has the radical courage to follow Scripture where it leads, tempered with the delicate correctives of traditional knowledge, reason and experi­ence, which the Reformers and John Wesley displayed. The only way we are likely to reconstruct such a movement of Spirit-led balance is to pray together and listen to one another.

Charismatics often refer to their movement as ”the renewal.” As this column appears, charismatics from all over America have just gathered in New Orleans with the disquieting awareness that “the renewal” is also the exact center of “the mess.”

This is partly due to the devil’s strategy of importing strange aberrancies into vital movements. But it is also true that today all parts of the body of Christ are renewal movements for one

another. We cannot attain renewal by separating into purebred strains and holding pep rallies with ourselves. We are going to have to get together with different sorts of Christians and speak truth to one another in love. As Paul makes clear in Ephesians 4:14-16, this is the only alternative to being invaded by winds of doctrine which will blow us into confusion.

I have just returned from Northern Ireland, a place where Christianity endures even greater scandals than it does in America. It is not that real Protestants and Cacholics are shooting one another, mind you; as one gunman commented, ”I’m a Protestant, but I’m not a Christian.” Nevertheless, the real leaders of Irish Protestantism and Catholicism have not been able to come up with a cure for the gunfighting, any more than the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa has come up with a cure for apartheid.

As in the South African situation, attitudes among Irish church leaders are reinforcing rather than restraining the situation. Two recent Presbyterian moderators there have declared that the Pope is Antichrist; and as for Irish Catholics, many of them seem never to have heard of Vatican II and its reforms.

Still, in the midst of the worst ecumenical situation on the planet, I found the greatest willingness for all the parts of the body to meet together. Ireland is a crucible where the very evil of the situation is driving Christians to talk and pray together. Will the troubles in American evangelicalism bring us to a similar degree of sanity?

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