Upon hearing the term "extremist,"' some envision a dark-skinned, Osama-like individual with a bomb strapped to his chest looking for the largest crowd of innocent people. Others immediately envision their version of the stateside terrorist who, in defense of his anti-abortion views, blows up an abortion clinic. Still others, hearkening back to the early nineties, think immediately of David Koresh.
Needless to say, we have laws . . . .and those who enforce those laws, to protect us from such forms of extremism. Yet there are many non-violent folks in our world who, while they would never murder anyone over their beliefs, carry such beliefs to what can rightly be called an "extreme." For two thousand years, the church has heard and answered such people via every means from confessions to anathematization, and the 21st century is no different. As long as depravity affects the mind there will be extremists. And the question that must be continually asked is this: How do we identify these peculiar people, and what do we do with them?
I ask that question primarily in light of all that is happening within the International Mission Board. Many supporters of recent policies that place much tighter restrictions on who can be appointed by Southern Baptists to carry the Gospel are grounding their support in a desire to keep out certain influences that they perceive to threaten the integrity of the Gospel and the credibility of our witness. Even in my casual conversations with some pastors, I get the occassional familiar remark:
"We are Baptists, and we want to be represented on the mission field by Baptists. We don't want any Pentecostal influence in our missionaries because that would damage the integrity of our identity."
The further conversations like this go, the more I realize that it isn't so much a difference of opinion on matters secondary to our faith that concerns those who support the new policies. Rather, it is a legitimate fear of an "extreme" form of Pentecostalism, or Calvinism, or some other "ism" that compels some to desire ever-more restrictive policies for our missions personnel.
But the question remains: Is this really the right way to "weed out" extremists? South Carolina trustee Alan McWhite, with whom I worked for four years at North Greenville University, assures me that there are already policies governing against extremes and abuses in the field regarding glossolalia, and that these policies are strictly enforced. So how would more restrictive policies help matters?
Widening the discussion a bit, how exactly do we define what is "extreme?" For some, it seems that a label in and of itself is extreme. A decade ago, the extremists were those who called themselves "Calvinists." Though that debate is still ongoing in some circles, it is a proverbial cakewalk compared to the latest back-and-forth over Baptist ecclesiology, or our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church. Those who became a part of the church growth movement were extremists who only cared about numbers. And presently, those who are learning from the emerging church movement are extremists who are nothing more than epistemological relativists disguised as evangelical preachers. As one surveys the past half-decade in evangelical and Southern Baptist life, it appears that "guilt by association" has been the rule of thumb when it comes to judging anothers belief and practice.
Basically, I want to ask two questions here: 1. How do we define "extreme?" 2. How should the church handle extremists?
How do we define "extreme?"
As I look back at the above paragraph, I realize that within each of the traditions I have mentioned there exist extremists. Nevertheless, we must be careful with our prejudice, lest we malign genuine brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let's start with a hot one, shall we? How about Calvinism? John Calvin, the second-generation reformer of Geneva, was a masterful theologian and systemitician. His emphasis on a Creation-Fall-Redemption approach to redemptive history has defined how the Gospel message is succintly presented in our own time, and his ecclesiological observations continue to define the Protestant understanding of church to this day. Furthermore, his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, while a bit heavy to some, underscores the strong belief that "salvation is of the Lord." Today, those who define their own theological understanding by claiming Calvin stress the depravity of man, God's eternal choice of His elect to salvation, and the perseverance of all true believers to the end. Others who are more closely alligned with Calvin's student Theodore Beza would also claim Christ's atonement as effectual only for those who believe (i.e. the elect), and the inability of the elect to resist the effectual call of the Holy Spirit.
Out of this theological camp have come "Calvinazis," (not a term original with me, but I'm not sure of the original source, so I dont' know who to credit. Whoever coined the term had a great sense of humor!) who make it their life's mission to transform any and every potential disciple into a TULIP-lover. Their legacy is seen in lethargic or non-existent evangelism, theological "hair-splitting," and churches torn asunder by needless doctrinal controversy.
And the problem is that when most people hear the term "Calvinism," they appeal to their own experiences, which are usually limited to people of the sort mentioned above. But Calvin left a much richer legacy than this. Whether or not one agrees with the system of soteriology that bears the frenchman's name, one could hardly discount the legacy of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William Carey, Adonirum Judson, James P. Boyce, or Lottie Moon, all of which would have identified to a great degree with this system of thought.
But what about Pentecostalism? This movement, which began in 1900 in Topeka Kansas and then continued to flourish with its western expansion which reached its zenith at Azuza Street in 1906, continues to impact North America and the world. In terms of the legacy it has left Christendom, those with a limited sense of history will only think of present-day heretical false prophets: Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch . . .you get the picture.
Those less-informed will neglect to recognize the great men of faith Pentecostalism has given the church. From sound Bible teachers such as Jack Hayford to the brilliant theological mind of Gordon Fee, the Pentecostal movement has left more than its share of wealth from which all followers of Jesus can benefit. In addition, any missiologist will tell you that Pentecostals have been key to throwing open the gates of evangelism in Latin America. Are there extreme forms of Pentecostalism? Only if the Pope is Catholic! But I have met many Pentecostal brothers and sisters whose testimony, character, and lifestyle put many Baptists to shame!
Similarly, there are many Baptists out there who, borrowing from the Pentecostal movement, are "Charismatic with a seat belt" (to borrow a phrase from Mark Driscoll). Theologian Wayne Grudem and Pastor John Piper do not share a pneumatology identical with classical Pentecostalism, but their openness to the gifts of the spirit and rejection of cessationism have done nothing to lessen their Gospel witness to the world, or damage their faithfulness to their calling. Speaking as one who is much more "cautious" regarding what is known as the "sign gifts," I understand the concern that Southern Baptist missionaries might abuse such gifts and subsequently take the focus from Christ to the Holy Spirit. Still, I know many godly believers who disagree with me on this issue, and for the life of me, I can't understand why their practice of a "prayer language" in their own prayer closet threatens our "Baptist identity," or harms the witness of the Gospel.
Other movements have taken a severe beating as well. For the past two decades, many well-known pastors have become voluntarily identified as opponents of the "church growth movement," decrying the excesses that were admittedly embarrassing to the body of Christ, but neglecting to recognize the heart of the movement, which called for the church to once again engage the lost in the most aggressive ways possible. And today, many evangelicals shudder when the phrase "emerging church" is used, thinking immediately of the "new Yale hermaneutic" of Leonard Sweet, or the syrupy, non-assertive, disturbingly unclear writings of Brian McLaren. To those skeptical of this movement, the prophetic voice of Mark Driscoll, and the sound artistic approach of Erwin McManus aren't even on the radar screen, nor is the contribution of the wider emerging church movement to a more missional ecclesiology.
All of this is to say that extremists are out there! But they aren't identified by the labels they wear.
So how does one identify an extremist? A look at how Paul does this in his epistles is most helpful here. Paul easily identifies the extremes of legalism (Galatians), Jewish mysticism and proto-gnosticism (Colossians) and relativism (Romans), and each of these is also an example of how pointing to Christ reveals all that is not associated with Christ. Extremists come draped in all sorts of robes, but the problem isn't the robe, but rather, how that robe is used to draw attention away from Christ to something else.
But how do we deal rightly with one who has fallen prey to an extreme? There are several approaches out there:
Legalism: This is the approach that says "We will not appoint/hire those who possess a prayer language. We will not appoint/hire Calvinists. We will not appoint/hire anyone in sympathy with the emerging church." Again, such an approach is the direct result of "guilt by association" thinking. And what is the result of such an approach? With regard to the prayer language issue at the International Mission Board, the result has been the theological equivalent to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forces godly men and women "in the closet," and destroys trust between stateside and the field.
Scriptural Authority: Based on our common confession in The Baptist Faith and Message, we already have a tool for holding missionaries, seminary professors, and others accountable to our churches. Policies are good, but every policy should originate from our common understanding of what the Scriptures teach. Where there is room for disagreement, let us continue to disagree, and do so agreeably!
I am thankful that those elected to oversee our seminaries and mission boards are cautious when it comes to extremism in any form. But one is not a Charismatic extremist because he or she prays in another language. One is not anti-evangelism because he or she is a Calvinist. One is not doctrinally wishy-washy because he or she identifies to some degree with the "emerging church." In short, it isn't the label that makes a person an extremist. Rather, it is what one does to abuse a label and take attention away from things that matter that causes a move to the extreme.
And if we aren't careful, our efforts to weed out extremists will result in our becoming the very thing we hate. For example, though most supporters of the new Baptism policy would not call themselves "Landmarkists," the policy itself is rooted in just such a view. And Landmarkism, by its exclusive nature, is an extreme view of ecclesiology. In fact, Landmarkism is possibly the one exception to all that I have previously said because its essence is to deny the legitimacy of all things ecclesiological that are not Baptist. This form of exclusivism is an affront to the church, and its proponents ultimately seek to confer on others a title they themselves should be wearing: "extremist."
We can't go there.