There is little doubt to both insiders and outsiders of the Christian faith that the Christian faith is undergoing a significant event. That is, after almost one thousand years of a sharp divide between Christians (leading to war in some cases), the divide is no longer between “Presbyterian” and “Methodist,” but between theologically orthodox and theologically heterodox. This divide has arisen over the last twenty years, with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants aligning themselves more closely together on issues of politics and theology. Such unification has occurred for both theological conservatives and theological liberals, with each respective group seeking out like-minded believers in other denominations.
But what is truly interesting is the direction many young evangelicals are heading and that is where we see a distinct change occurring. It seems that many evangelicals are making drastic changes in their belief systems and heading in one of five directions: they’re becoming Reformed, they’re becoming Roman Catholic, they’re becoming Eastern Orthodox, they’re becoming “spiritual,” or they’re leaving the faith.
The last two are almost one in the same for very little differs between one who says there is no God and one who has no idea about God (or creates a god of the mind and subsequently worships him/her/it). Evangelicals are becoming discouraged with the action – or lack of action – found within their churches in caring for the poor, showing love for nonbelievers, or building a Christ-centered community and therefore apply their disenchantment to the Church itself. Others, unfortunately, cannot accept God as He revealed by the prophets and reject the God of the Bible and opt for a version of God mixed with pagan ideas of God. Either way, some evangelicals move towards a more pluralistic outlook on the world where all religions are essentially equal and God saves everyone regardless of their beliefs. In other words, the only criteria for salvation is simply to exist. This is a very postmodern faith that doesn’t have any absolutes other than to deny all absolutes and conservatives. Some do leave the faith, but many opt for a more “open spirituality,” where their relationship with God is on their terms and in fact, the attributes of God are the attributes they love. Rather than conform to God, they conform God to them, who is then no God at all. For many, they lack the moral fortitude to be orthodox, but also lack the intestinal fortitude to be atheists.
To combat this massive exodus from the evangelical community, many churches are attempting to become “relevant.” They offer better worship bands, more atmospheric auditoriums (even changing the title of the auditorium from “sanctuary” to “worship center,” as though worship is produced in a factory), and shy away from the absolutism that so may young people seem to be fleeing. While they still believe that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, they won’t openly admit that and instead water down the Gospel into something that is nice and applicable; instead of offering a life-changing force that turns princes into paupers, they offer a life accessory, something that enhances the life you already lead, but doesn’t really interfere too much with your day-to-day interactions. Is it any wonder why such events are failing?
But other young evangelicals who aren’t satisfied with the modern evangelical movement, but still cannot move towards a more open spirituality (because they realize that open spirituality is like an open marriage in that it is nothing more than adultery against God) are turning to three great sects in Christianity: Roman Catholicism, “Eastern” Orthodox, and Reformed Protestantism/Evangelicalism. While none of these three traditions are experiencing drastic growth from non-Christian converts (in fact the Roman Catholic Church is shrinking), each one is gaining Christian converts, mostly from evangelical backgrounds. While all three traditions have been in opposition to each other, why is it that these three traditions attract modern evangelicals with almost equal calling? They each are dogmatically absolute in what they believe.
For the Roman Catholics, authority rests upon the Vicar of Christ in the Pope. With the tradition and the Pope on hand, the absolute authority for Roman Catholics is established. For the Orthodox the absolute authority is found in the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils. Such authority is then delegated to each respective archbishop, bishop, and then priest. When spiritual questions arise on the basics of the faith, one can look to any of those sources and find an abundance of congruency. For those in the Reformed branch of the faith, the absoluteness of their beliefs rests upon Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s working within the individual believer. For all three there is an absolute standard to which the believer can point toward.
More importantly, one of the three traditions, when properly followed, give off the accommodation found in many modern evangelical churches. While each tradition will conform in some ways to their respective cultures (Roman Catholic liturgies are in English and not Latin, many Orthodox liturgies are beginning to adopt the native language and English, Reformed believers are changing their worship styles of music), they hold fast to the basics of the faith and refuse to change when they feel the faith is threatened. This is vitally important for a belief because it provides security.
Now, some more “free-minded” people might say that security is for the rigid and boring. They say they want to live a life of adventure and exploration. Certainly this is the type of life God wants us to live, but such adventure and exploration takes place in the mysteries of God and exploring Him, not in exploring the world. Were we to come across a grove with different fruits that stretched beyond what we could see, we would be better for exploring and being adventurous. If we came across a mine field we would be the exemplars of stupidity to adventure through them. In the midst of a world full of problems, security is a good thing. When we face the world we should be honest and recognize that we are looking at a world that is more akin to a war zone strewn with minefields than a peaceful grove. In a real life situation, soldiers come back from war with PTSD, not because they had too much of an adventure or they explored too much, but because they lacked the security of knowing if they would live or die that day. They lacked the security of a safe environment.
While an open-ended faith might be nice, it offers no security in the harsh war zone that is this world. Such a faith has no explanation for evil other than “God couldn’t have stopped it anyway,” which ultimately offers no hope. In such a faith we are subject to the whims and chaos of the world. This is not an adventure. This is not spiritual. It is facing the grim reality of this world without any security; it is not an adventure, it is survival. Who shall you rely upon when the God you claim is actually a god of your mind or of modern convention? More importantly, such a god becomes boring because such a god isn’t mysterious; he is created and therefore comprehensible.
The three traditions of the Christian faith that I mentioned, however, offer security because they offer an absolute answer to this world. Believers are shown who Christ is and who God is (to the best that we can understand Him) and can then take refuge in Him. All three teach that God is ultimately in control of this world and nothing happens outside of His knowledge, thus if something occurs He has allowed it. All three believe in the same Trinitarian God who sent the Word into the world to save us. Rather than conforming God to our wishes and desires, all three ardently preach that we are to conform to God. Regardless of what someone believes about each tradition, the fact remains that true converts experience a true life change, something that interrupts their lives and ensures that they are never the same person after the encounter with Christ. They each rely deeply on the mysteries of God. Though mysterious, we can rest in His mystery. In fact, that is where the true adventure begins is when we dive headfirst into the mystery of God and allow such a mystery to transform us.
Regardless, the absolutism is a consistent stream within the Reformed, Roman, and Orthodox traditions. That is why so many young evangelicals (and many mainline Protestants) are turning towards these three great traditions.
With the above in mind, it would behoove these traditions to begin to open up a dialogue between themselves and discuss their terminology and what they mean by certain things. While some ideas may never be overcome (the reliance/abandonment/rejection of a Papal system), we might be able to work towards agreeing on some issues that have divided us for thousands of years. Areas where we think we disagree we could discover that we agree, but have been using different terms with different definitions. With agreement comes unity and in unity there is Christ. A great persecution is on the horizon for Western Christians. This is not said to conjure up fear, but merely pointing out the obvious that persecution moves in cycles and the West will eventually undergo such a cycle. Regardless, those who are attune to their surroundings recognize a coming persecution. We smell it like we smell the rain before a storm. We do not know when the storm will arrive or how bad it will be, but merely that it is coming. So it is with persecution.
These three traditions need to work to find a way to come together in unity now or to unify as much as they possibly can without compromising their distinctives (unless they discover their distinctives to be wrong) or we shall be thrown against the rocks when the persecution comes. We will either be tried and found wanting, shown to be disloyal to each other and dis-unified even in the midst of danger, or we will stand in unison against our persecutors with no fear and in turn strike fear into those who persecute us by the love we show for one another.