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Mark Galli on the Underlying Unity of a Balkanized Evangelicalism

October 16th, 2009 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

As observers of evangelicalism, few are better positioned than Mark Galli, a senior editor at Christianity Today. And what he sees is a movement divided into factions, but united by the nature of our solutions to the malaise we have all bemoaned. Galli examines the spiritual disciplines movement (Dallas Willard), the social justice movement (Sojourners), and the movement to rescue the church from its cultural captivity (Soong Chan-Rah) and points out that our solutions are not properly theocentric. Writes Galli:

"For now we should note that the diverse solutions seem to share a common methodology: If evangelicals divorce too often, preach that they should not. If evangelicals are individualist, tell them to be more communal. If evangelicals are privatistic, tell them to get involved in social justice. If evangelicals are worldly, tell them to start practicing the spiritual disciplines. And so on.

In short, we frame the problem horizontally. We focus on what we fail to do, and then talk about what we should do differently. To be fair, such solutions often start with a strong vertical dimension: that is, a sense that we can address the horizontal only by first looking to God. But our practical and activist sensibility—one of our movement's stellar attributes—tends to undermine the vertical. "

Galli doesn't say it, but by framing theology within the context of our ecclesiastical struggles, we run the risk of discovering in the vertical what we set out to find. As Dr. Fred Sanders once pointed out, in recent years evangelical discussions about the Trinity have largely been motivated by gender issues. We find in God precisely what we hope to see, a trap that might have ensnared the missional movement and its minimization of the inner life of the Church. The vertical becomes a support our preferred solutions, rather than a good pursued for its own sake. J.I. Packer's admonition seems particularly relevant in this context. We might begin with theology in the order of writing, but it is not clear it leads us in the order of knowing.

Galli goes on to argue that the balkanization of the evangelical movement is nothing less than the judgment of God, as at Babel. Again, Galli:

Is it any wonder that we reside in the midst of Babel, finding it increasingly difficult to hear and understand one another? I contend that the cacophony we hear is nothing less than the judgment of God. It is not a judgment only against the other parts of our movement, as if our part has learned to live in the grace and obedience of the gospel! Neither is it a judgment only against those Moralistic Therapeutic Deists in our midst, those who need to be reformed to become like us. No, it is a judgment against every strand within the evangelical movement, and every individual therein. It is a judgment against our making the horizontal an idol, against the "weightlessness" of our faith in God.

It is this judgment, though, that is the context for the reversal that occurs at Pentecost. But that is not where the Church stands. Instead, Galli locates the Church in the shadow of the Cross:

Thus, we stand in the place where the cacophony of Babel can become the miracle of Pentecost, when we hear each other again, where we do not see incomprehensible foreigners in our midst but a variety of charisms, callings of the Holy Spirit.

It is where the incessant hectoring and nagging, the doing and striving, can be transformed into acts of love motivated by inexpressible gratitude. It is where our scatteredness can become the fulfillment of God's mission in the world. It is where the horizontal can become not a denial of the vertical but the expression of it. Where we stand, in short, is Golgotha, under the shadow of the Cross, a sign of God's judgment on our pretensions and God's forgiveness of our sin.

Galli gives us only the starting point for his particular reform proposal:

The first thing to do when we confront the dysfunctional horizontal, then, is not to address it as a horizontal problem. That would be to deny the word of the Cross; it would be to pretend we can, of our own wisdom and strength, attend successfully to the problem. The Word of God says the way to start working on the horizontal is to look up, in particular, at the one hanging on the Cross. The place to begin is not more feverish doing but a type of non-doing, acknowledging the complete inadequacy of any doing and the utter powerlessness of the horizontal to fix the horizontal. It means to allow oneself to be borne up by the Word of grace.

Notice that Galli's suggestion is that it is the word of the Cross that we need to encounter. While Galli rightly points to Jesus as the Word made flesh, this focus allows him to ground the traditional evangelical emphasis on Scripture and preaching.

Galli's essay is undoubtedly evangelical in its orientation. But I worry about his choice to locate the church at Golgotha, looking up to Jesus on the cross. While perhaps only symbolic, our formulation of the vertical will significantly alter the resources we have to bring to bear on the horizontal. And how we structure these issues matters, a point Galli clearly agrees with and uses against those who are advocating spiritual formation. But the Church does not look up at Christ on the cross, but rather looks up to the ascended Christ. By positioning the Church at Pentecost rather than Golgotha, we preserve and maintain the Church's distinctly pneumetological character, a distinction that it might be said is particular to evangelicalism and our emphasis on the contemporary working of God through conversion.

Galli's piece functions as a kind of prolegomena for a newly redesigned and refocused Christianity Today, and he promises that they will unpack the pragmatic aspects of this message in future issues. But given his start, I wonder why he feels obligated to do so, as it seems to acquiescing to the problematic methodology he is critiquing. If the problem is as Galli says, then evangelicalism would be better served by a refusal to be co-opted by the horizontal through relentlessly pointing at Jesus and saying with Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.