Are We Drifting: A Subtle and Unexpected Danger for (Theologically) Conservative Christians

This is the sixth article released in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” This article is by Pastor Rickey Primrose. You can listen to the podcast version here.

The idea of drifting is frightening. It implies a slow and gradual movement away from a place of security. A movement that you do not realize is a problem until after you have already moved much further than you originally realized or desired. Christians must remain constantly vigilant of drifting, whether the drift is spiritual, moral, or theological in nature.

Christians who maintain a high view of God’s word are understandably (and rightly) vigilant regarding “leftward” theological drift within churches and denominations. There is a regular cultural pull that tempts Christians to soften their beliefs on doctrines that the Bible speaks to explicitly and directly (e.g. hell, the exclusivity of Christ in salvation, the biblical vision for marriage and sexuality, etc.). Because drift of any type is subtle by definition, vigilance is necessary.

We must remember, however, that people can drift in more than one direction. In the same way that Christians can move away from truth by adopting liberal theology, we can also move away from truth by overcorrecting in the other direction. This “other direction,” whatever you want to call it, can be just as damaging to the church and the mission of God. At times, this “other direction” is described as a move toward fundamentalism. The word “fundamentalism” itself is a very difficult word to define. It has come to mean many different things over the past century and is used in different ways by different people. My goal in this article is not to define “fundamentalism.” Instead, my goal is to highlight some characteristics of what I believe to be an unhealthy drift I fear is taking place within some circles of conservative evangelicalism, including local churches as well as denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. I have organized these characteristics under four headings: Politics, cooperation, engagement, and conduct.

Politics: Alignment on political policies and partisanship become a requirement for partnership.

2016 and the presidency of Donald Trump rocked the evangelical world. It exposed that many churches and denominations were not nearly as unified as they previously believed. It is easy to say that a body is unified by the gospel, but that claim is tested when people within that body begin disagreeing, strongly, on political matters. What holds us together? Is it really our shared belief in doctrine or is it actually our political alignments, and if the latter, what happens when our politics do not align?

One way theologically conservative Christians can drift is by elevating personal political positions and ideas to an unhealthy place in their heart. Conservative Christians generally agree that believers should allow biblical precepts and wisdom to form their own political views. In other words, we should think biblically about politics. That being the case, conservative Christians can almost always agree on some issues that exist within the political arena, e.g. abortion is an evil institution in society, marriage should only be defined in heterosexual terms, etc. These are issues to which the Bible directly and explicitly speaks. There are a whole host of issues, however, that the Bible does not directly and explicitly speak. These would include, for example, matters related to government spending, immigration policies and regulations, and various matters of foreign policy, to name a few.

This is not to say that if the Bible doesn’t speak directly to an issue, then we don’t need to think biblically about that issue. All of these issues are important, and we should attempt to think about them through the grid of a biblical worldview. This is simply to say that some of our political opinions are formed by Christians attempting to make wisdom-based judgments based upon a faithful application of biblical principles. This being the case, it is very possible that Christians, who possess very high views of God’s word, may come to different conclusions on some political issues. Even on an issue like abortion, which conservative Christians almost universally agree is a social evil, may disagree on the best strategy for fighting against abortion in society (strict abolitionist strategies versus incrementalist strategies). We should remember that in our political system in America, which is essentially a two-party system, there is no inherently righteous or Christian political party. To the contrary, while a party may have individually elected people who are God-fearing, political parties themselves are human entities that seek to advance the agendas of that particular political party.

As current issues continue to test the unity of God’s people, Christians and churches should continually evaluate their requirements for partnership with other Christians, whether those requirements are spoken or unspoken. We must be careful not to tie our faith to any political party. We must not elevate personal political convictions to the same plane as explicit gospel doctrines. Can you have robust Christian fellowship with a brother or sister in Christ with whom you disagree politically or with a spiritual sibling who voted on the opposite ticket as yourself? If not, it may be important to scrutinize the true nature of your partnership within the body of Christ. Is it a gospel partnership or merely a spiritualized political partisanship? There is a constant danger for Christians to die on the hill of political parties and issues that aren’t addressed directly in the Scriptures. It’s the tendency to make political alignment a requirement for Christian partnership. This characteristic, I believe, is damaging to Christ’s church.

Cooperation: Cooperation with any person or group outside of one’s tribe is resisted and considered a sign of compromise.

Another characteristic of this unhealthy drift is a resistance to cooperation. Those outside of one’s own tribe are considered enemies to be fought. These tribes may be political (as we discussed above), denominational, or even theological. Of course, differing theology may, in some instances, limit the level and type of cooperation we can have with other Christians and churches. In a previous Tensions article entitled, “Finding the Right Hill To Die On,” I discussed a framework to help consider the dynamic between doctrinal differences and cooperation.

Nevertheless, it can be damaging to the church and mission of God to drift to a place that requires a very high degree of alignment on a wide range of issues for any type of cooperation to be possible. For example, can you participate in a prayer and worship event with Christians who have different beliefs than you do on baptism or gender roles? Can you partner with other Christians in a city evangelistic campaign who have differing views on the miraculous spiritual gifts or the age of the earth?

Resistance to cooperation is typically offered in the name of holiness. Purity requires absolute separation—not from the ungodly qualities of the world but from other Christians who possess contrary convictions that are believed to be too soft. This mindset tends to believe that one’s own Christian tribe is the only true and pure expression of Christianity, and therefore, to cooperate with Christians outside one’s own narrowly defined camp is considered a sign of compromise. To be sure, there are indeed times when cooperation is not possible without genuine theological or spiritual compromise. However, Christians should be eager to pursue a cooperative spirit, seeking opportunities to partner rather than constantly policing other groups and churches, looking for reasons to separate and isolate.

Engagement: Engaging society through organized acts of service or advocating for justice is considered a threat to the gospel.

Another quality of this potentially dangerous drift within evangelicalism is what I would describe as an overcorrection to the social gospel movement. This movement, which dates back to the turn of the 20th century, reduced the mission of the church to social reform and improvement. It deemphasized the necessity of gospel proclamation within the ministry of the church. The call to repentance and faith in Christ was replaced almost entirely with social advocacy and community service.

While a correction to the social gospel movement was certainly needed, some Christians and churches overcorrected, withdrawing from any type of cultural engagement at all. Carl F.H. Henry, a premiere theologian of the 20th century, addressed this overcorrection in his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). Henry critiqued segments of evangelicalism for turning blind eyes to social injustices and ills of the day and for retreating from any type of engagement with broader social issues. Henry called some of the most conservative circles back to the biblical model of both declaring and displaying the good news of the kingdom. We must proclaim the gospel and display the love and justice of the kingdom within the world we live.

There remains a very high suspicion within some camps toward organized acts of service and/or advocating for justice within society. While the motivation may be pure (preserving the necessity of gospel proclamation), I fear these camps have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It is possible—indeed, necessary—to both proclaim the gospel, calling a lost world to repentance and faith, and at the same time to demonstrate love to one’s community through acts of service (e.g. ministering to poverty, the abused, local school mentoring, etc.) and advocating for biblical justice (within systems of criminal justice, law enforcement, education, politics, etc.). Some consider these types of efforts as a threat to the gospel rather than an implication of a kingdom people living out the gospel in their world. Thus, Christians who engage in efforts related to gospel-centered racial reconciliation or various types of social reform are automatically labeled “woke” or are accused of liberal drift.

To be sure, the church must prioritize the proclamation of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing the message of Christ. The mission of the church is to lead people to trust and follow Christ. And yet, living as a gospel people means representing the values of our King in the place of our temporary residence, which include the values of love, compassion, and yes, justice. This does not mean our advocacy of justice and displays of love should reflect that of the world—the world will always pervert justice and love. No, our display of righteousness and love must be distinctively Christian, reflecting the kingdom of God. Christians must be careful not to drift away from social engagement.

Conduct: Matters of personal conscience are made moral absolutes, defining true spirituality.

This final characteristic relates to personal codes of conduct. Our God is holy, meaning He is set apart from the ways of this world. As His people, we too must be holy. But what do Christians do with matters of personal conscience, areas of conduct not specifically addressed in the Bible? These questions would include, for example, if and how Christians should participate in secular holidays like Halloween? Should Christians completely abstain from alcohol? What types of movies or other forms of entertainment are appropriate for Christians? These are questions of personal conscience that require wisdom-based judgments.

Now, it would be wrong to suggest that all perspectives on these types of questions are equally true and valid. Just because the Bible doesn’t speak directly to an issue doesn’t mean that biblical wisdom and the law of love do not apply. However, Christians can drift into an unhealthy place when matters of personal conscience are made moral absolutes such that those who differ from one’s own convictions are condemned. Some Christians not only tend to see these types of questions as strictly black and white, but they also struggle partnering with other Christians who have different convictions. Similar to our discussion above on cooperation, the mentality is, ‘How can we maintain our purity and avoid the slippery slope of compromise if we cooperate or partner with Christians who are okay with (fill in the blank with a matter of personal conscience)?’

The question here is not how one personally believes on particular matters of personal conscience, but how one feels about and relates to others who disagree with them. An unhealthy and unbiblical form of drift has occurred when the qualities of humility and liberty quickly become replaced with spiritual pride and rigidity.

Don’t Drift In Any Direction, But Move Toward Christ

At MacArthur Blvd, we are unapologetically conservative in our theology. We believe, for example, the Bible to be inspired by God, inerrant, and sufficient. We believe the Bible should shape our lives and convictions, and that it provides boundaries for our partnerships.

With that said, we believe it is possible to drift in more than one direction, including in the direction of the four characteristics described above. These are not characteristics that correspond to the gospel we proclaim or reflect the qualities of the kingdom we represent. We need to be careful that we do not subtly drift toward theological liberalism. And yet, we need to be equally careful that we do not subtly drift away from a biblical truth and practice in a different direction. Remember, our aim is not to be as conservative as possible. Our aim is to be as biblical as possible. You will always find some within the culture who are positioned too far to the ‘left’ of the Bible and others who are positioned too far to the ‘right’ of the Bible. Our aim should not be ‘right’ or ‘left’ but to allow God’s word to set the standard.

For those who do keep up with the denominational life of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), many of the issues mentioned above are hot topics currently. There are some within the convention who believe the entities of the SBC (i.e. SBC seminaries and missionary boards) are drifting toward liberalism. Those with this evaluation would include the network formed within the SBC last year known as the “Conservative Baptist Network” (CBN). I do not believe the CBN has depicted an accurate evaluation of SBC entities or leaders they accuse of leftward drift. Further, I fear both the tone and rhetoric of this network is unnecessarily divisive and ultimately damaging to Great Commission partnership. I worry that while groups like the CBN and the leaders associated with it may articulate orthodox theology and convictions that we would agree with, they are the ones, in fact, who are drifting toward some of the unbiblical characteristics described above. As one who is fairly well plugged in with our SBC entities, I am confident these entities remain committed to biblical truth as confessed within our convention’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message.

Our aim is to be a gospel people. A people who keep politics subservient to the gospel, who are cooperative with other believers for the sake of the gospel, who engage the lost world by declaring and displaying the gospel, and who are careful not to make matters of personal conscience moral absolutes because of the gospel. May we not drift toward theological liberalism nor in any other direction, but instead let us move toward Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

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