Irish evangelicals: unity in diversity or just disunity?

Now and again I enjoy having a coffee and chat with a friend, Dr Crawford Gribben, in the rather splendid staff lounge in Trinity College Dublin. Crawford lectures in the departments of History and English in TCD. He also writes books on everything from God’s Irishmen to the eschatology of the Left Behind Series and lots else beside.

A few weeks ago Crawford spoke at the chapel service of Westminster Theological Seminary on the state of religion in contemporary Ireland. See here (thanks KT)

It is about 30 minutes and an interesting listen.  Crawford speaks historically as well as from his own experience of church life in Ireland.

In his talk he says a couple of things that I’ve been mulling over ever since.

One is that the impression given in the talk of Irish evangelicalism is that a predominantly conservative reformed network. Maybe this was the case in the past, I just don’t think this is accurate of the present. Crawford does not give due weight to significant fact of recent immigration – mostly of African Pentecostals. Nor does he really mention a network like Assemblies of God Ireland, the Plumbline group of churches and many other charismatic churches like Trinity Church Network and others.

He also mentions that ‘all is not well in the citadel of Irish evangelicalism’ and that the existence of Aontas and Evangelical Alliance Ireland represents

“that painful process of differentiating ourselves from each other according to our various theological perspectives”

Crawford’s implication is that Aontas are more conservative / Reformed and EAI more socially and theologically ‘progressive’. The fact that this differentiation is ‘painful’ and ‘all is not well’ (and that ‘progressive’ is at best an ambiguous term), suggests that Crawford sees the existence two organizations like EAI and Aontas as unfortunately necessary.

So here are some questions that come to mind along with some of my initial thoughts tacked on.

[And Crawford and I have been in touch over this post}

As an evangelical movement develops, is ‘painful differentiation’ within it inevitable and necessary?

In other words, if it is NOT a good thing to have two ‘pan-evangelical’ organizations within Ireland (and I’ve not yet met anyone who thinks it is a good thing) is it a necessary ‘fact of life’?

And this is tied to a second question, how should evangelicals handle difference? Is it better realistically to say ‘we are too different and we can’t work together’ or is such an outcome a sign of a failure to be ‘evangelical enough’?

An irony of what Crawford said is that I was planning to write another post inspired by this one by Steve Holmes – of how Irish evangelicalism, being small and ‘new’ feeling has a remarkable sense of unity and ability to live with differences that have tended to divide elsewhere. (For example, it strikes me how divisive and segregated evangelicalism in the USA is, with each ‘camp’ big enough and strong enough not to ‘need’ the others).

I’m speaking both from conviction and experience here.

From conviction that Christians have a duty and calling to live in and express unity in the Spirit and not just theoretically, but relationally.

And from experience in that daily I work in a community that joyfully and determinedly sees students from the whole spectrum of Irish evangelicalism live, study, pray and worship together. We have reformed, pentecostals, charismatics, Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, independents and so on (apologies to those I’ve left out). We have men, women, young, old(er), those who believe in women in church leadership, those who don’t; those who are young earth creationists, those who are theistic evolutionists and those who aren’t too sure; those who are paedo-baptists, those who are believers’ baptism only; those who see baptism in the Spirit as a two stage process, those who see it as another way of talking about becoming a Christian – you get the point.

But more than just living with difference, student after student says it is this difference which has enriched and deepened their faith as they not only think through what they believe and why, but also recognise that sincere, passionate followers of Jesus don’t believe the same things on every point of detail.

What I’m describing here is of course is not unique. The Bible College movement has always sought to keep the core essentials central while giving liberty on the adiaphora (secondary issues). This attitude has been at the very heart of evangelicalism – indeed it could be said to be a defining characteristic – it is what holds together all sorts of diverse groups within the ‘big tent’ of something identifyable as evangelical.

See John Stott’s Evangelical Truth for a typically clear and gracious discussion of this point – and his passionate and moving appeal for unity among evangelicals that ends the book.

“Today, however, many of us evangelical Christians acquiesce too readily in our pathological tendency to fragment ..”. He continues, quoting Alister McGrath, that we need a “culture of civility” where we give up our “petty rivalries, historical feuds, and personal agendas for the greater good of the movement”

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6 thoughts on “Irish evangelicals: unity in diversity or just disunity?

  1. Hi,

    I am Silviu Bodiu, currently I am studying in Germany in the European Theological Seminary a Bible School and I have to do a research paper on the History of Pentecostalism in Ireland, since it started until today’s time. I have had searched for the information about that but I did found very little on the internet and something written in a book. I would like to ask you please if you have any information about the History of Pentecostalism in the whole island of Ireland, how and when did it started, and by whom and it’s development until today’s time; or if you can give me any advice where I can find any more? As well if you have any information about Church of God in Ireland, and all the Pentecostals Churches in Ireland when and how did they started and theirs development until today’s time. Anything as little will help, I would greatly appreciate and thank you very much for any help..

    ..my e-mail address: silviubodiu509@yahoo.com

    Greetings,

    Yours Sincerely
    Silviu B.

  2. Two very different areas of evangelical activity and involvement are jumbled together here. In the Bible College area there is joy in exploring Bible truth with individuals who, while loving the Lord and his Word, have very diverse interpretations of Scripture. That’s a delightful experience of the true ‘brotherhood of believers’. The other involvement together is exemplified by the two organisations mentioned above, whose differientian is judged by someone to be ‘painful’. If an evangelical group were to hold clearly unscriptural doctrine, that would/should cause pain in the christian church. But among thinking students of Scripture differences of emphasis will assuredly arise, though not basic doctrinal separation. In an organisation, there must be commitment to the agreed basic doctrine. ‘Distinctives can be left outside the door’, but an organisation, to fulfil its purpose, must be allowed to stand firmly on its agreed doctrinal base, while acting with grace and respect to other brothers & sisters in the Lord. ‘Pain’ need have no part in it, and it shouldn’t be attributed to such a situation. ‘Faction Fighting’ is an unpleasant term. I pray it will not ever be used describe the evangelical church in Ireland.

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