Roger Olson offers up a warning of a common trend in Evangelicalism: the inquisition. “Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking, “isn’t the Inquisition that thing in medieval to early modern Spain? And wasn’t that a Catholic thing?” Yes, when we speak of THE Inquisition, we usually mean that one. It lasted a long time and it was brutally violent. But Olson is pointing out that the trend of inquisitions is alive and well in a different form in modern evangelicalism. In case you’re still confused about what I’m talking about, a short definition is that an inquisition is any time a religious authority oppresses one or more people due to doctrinal disagreements, particularly relatively-minor disagreements. It could be physical violent oppression as in the Spanish Inquisition. It could be character assassination through the media. It could be removal from the “evangelical” club, which any evangelical knows is really the same thing as declaring the disagreeing party a heretic and no longer a real Christian.
Evangelicals today do this a lot. I do want to point out that liberal Christians actually do it as well. I went to a fairly liberal school and I know that I couldn’t have said certain theological statements without getting at the very least a lot of looks of pity for how I’ve been brainwashed by those crazy conservatives. But like Olson, I’ll focus on evangelicals for now as I share another example of my own.
A little over a year ago, my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I led a study group for the summer at our university. This group had been around for a few years and was built on this idea: many of the student groups shut down during the summer, so a few years ago some people decided to bring together those who were still in the city for the summer into one group. It was always primarily evangelical of various denominations, but did have a hodgepodge of others in there, too. In earlier years, the group ranged from 20-40 people, split into small groups from there.
We made a controversial decision. We decided we cared more about depth than about the number of people who came. So what if we disagreed on the issues we were talking about? We only had four months and we wanted to offer some meaningful challenging thought as well as a loving community for those who were otherwise stranded for the summer.
So we decided to use Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos as our topic guidance. This was only a few months after Rob Bell was the centre of attention for the evangelical world with the release of his book Love Wins and the piles of backlash of conservatives who refused to think there was any room for discussion when it comes to the doctrine of Hell. We didn’t necessarily like everything that Bell had to say, but we knew that he is unarguably one of the best at stimulating discussion without being judgemental, so we did it anyway.
The first week we had one of the guests walk out to go to a group that took the Bible seriously (I forget his exact words, but it was to that effect). Why? We dared to ask the question of whether there were multiple valid interpretations of the Bible. He went on for quite awhile about how the Catholic church disrespects the Bible by not allowing priests to marry and how the United Church of Canada disrespects the Bible by allowing same-sex marriage (something I support as well). The room being primarily evangelical Protestant actually agreed with most of the issues he was ranting about, but he did not respond to our attempts to calm him down. After telling us all that we would go to Hell for our heresies – for asking questions instead of insisting we knew all doctrine correctly already – he eventually left. I followed up with him and we agreed that this group was not the best place for what he was looking for, and to his credit he did occasionally still come to social nights. I don’t hold this against him. I just use it as an example of how evangelicals can often elevate the truth, according to their denomination’s definition of course, above treating people with respect.
Now, the group moved on quite happily for a few more weeks. We even started the next week with a big discussion about how we all wanted to create a group where anybody and any opinion was welcome. Since I lived farther away from campus and it wasn’t that accessible to many people, one of the others in the group had offered to host. She was a member of the most conservative group on campus (now this is Canada, so conservative here is not as extreme as conservative in the US, but toward that end of the spectrum). She mentioned to a friend from this group that they were studying from Rob Bell. This friend warned her about what a heretic Bell was and so she needed to be cautious. To the host’s credit, instead of shunning the group, she asked us to discuss the issues more fully before the next meeting of the group. While she was clearly speaking less after that, we really appreciated that she continued to host for us even after we touched on some very controversial topics.
All this to say, it is a genuine problem in many churches (as I said above, liberals can do it just as much as conservatives). I’d like to call for a response much more like this dialogue between Brian McLaren and a former fan. A reader writes to say, extremely respectfully and with great thanks for the contributions that Brian McLaren has made to his faith, that he must now “break ranks” so he is not associated with him after learning that McLaren supports same-sex marriage. McLaren is equally respectful and thankful in his response. He acknowledges that his own view has changed over time. He acknowledges that as Christians, we should be able to talk while disagreeing. He even acknowledges that he understands the urge to sometimes publicly break ranks over the controversial issues in order to make sure that others don’t assume you agree entirely with the person on the other side of the issue. So in short, they disagreed on a controversial issue but are still able to talk to each other as brothers. So why can’t this be more common?