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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Maybe it’s a good idea to “compromise doctrine” once in a while (Wheaton vs. Hawkins, round 8)

The Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Larcyia-Hawkins_CAIRThe Wheaton College vs. Larycia Hawkins case is getting more complicated with each passing day, it seems—and gaining greater exposure, which in the court of public opinion will reinforce reason #17 for why Christianity is a bunch of nonsense.

I know the principle players may feel differently, but I do not think the main issue here is which party is correct, theologically speaking, about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. From my point of view, the central matter is how Wheaton’s litigious manner of addressing this issue can give Christians a bad name for all the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, boys, you just have to sheath your lightsaber. Not every disagreeable comment needs to be squashed then and there. All this simply comes across as mean-spirited, eat-your-young, navel-gazing tribalism. What sort of ministerial, evangelical influence do you think all this will gain you?

Now, some might say, “But doctrines can never be compromised!!”lightaber

I get that, but, first, is Hawkins compromising doctrines? Has she actually denied the unique elements of Christian doctrine? Has she not expressed herself well in that regard? What more do you want?

Second, are you really so sure that doctrines can’t be “compromised” for a godly purpose—which in this case is a Christian woman showing solidarity with a population that rightly feels threatened?

The Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 had just finished declaring that circumcision is not required of Gentile followers of Jesus.

Several verses later (Acts 16), Paul enlists young Timothy—excuse me, young uncircumcised Timothy—to accompany him on his evangelistic travels. Timothy was uncircumcised because, though his mother was Jewish, his father was Greek.

You’d think Paul would have thought, “Perfect. Timothy is uncircumcised! Just as we decided several verses ago. Now let’s go show the world.” But no.

Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (v. 3)

Rather than boldly and robustly standing up for the “truth,” Paul had an uncircumcised follower of Jesus circumcised. Why? Because had he not, the Jews living in the towns wouldn’t have listened to a word Paul and Timothy had to say.

brick biblePaul wasn’t “compromising doctrine.” He wasn’t falling in his conviction. He was exercising wisdom. Know your audience … How will such and such an action be seen by others? That sort of thing. Some might even call it commonsense.

Here’s a Bible lesson for all of us: for Paul, ministry trumped doctrine, evangelism trumped “truth,” love of neighbor trumped theological purity.

Paul felt the same way about eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8) and eating unclean food (Romans 14-15). Both are no-nos according to Paul’s Bible (what Christians would later call the Old Testament).

Despite the clear biblical command (which is actually much clearer than what Wheaton is currently fretting over), Paul tables Israel’s strict dietary laws and says, “Jesus says we can dig in” (in Greek—or maybe Aramaic).

In both of these examples, however, Paul also admonishes his readers.

To those with newfound freedom in Christ to eat in non-Jewish ways he says that they are not to exercise that freedom if it were to harm spiritually those who do not yet share that same conviction. Otherwise, the former group might cause the latter to “stumble” and thus be “destroyed” (to use Paul’s language).

Those who know they are free to eat, Paul calls the “strong” and those who are still constrained—the ones holding fast to their theological convictions—he calls the “weak” (Romans 15:1).

In the Wheaton vs. Hawkins stand-off, it seems to me that Hawkins is the one acting more like Paul and the “strong” by prioritizing ministry over doctrine when needed. And if that sounds infuriating to you, you have something in common with Paul’s nemeses, the Jewish Christians who berated Paul for daring to compromise doctrine in favor of his ministry to the Gentiles.

Which brings me to a rather unexpected conclusion. As this scenario keeps unfolding before us, Wheaton (the premier evangelical Christian college in the world, as we hear) is more and more playing the role of the “weak”—those with uncompromising theological convictions, and Hawkins has caused them to stumble. I suppose that, if anything, is Hawkins’s offense—failing to “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:3).

I am confident that many of my readers will recognize this problem as wide-spread. It is not fair to single out Wheaton College as somehow acting out of accord with mainstream evangelical convictions.

But that is precisely my point—where is all this maintenance of mainstream evangelical convictions getting us? What is being said to and heard by those outside of our bubble? Actually, by those inside our bubble, by those young evangelicals we keep reading about who are no longer amused with the evangelical subculture?

 

 

 

 

Doctrine always trumps evangelism.”

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