What is the relationship between belief (or right doctrine) and character? In this provocative parable of “The Evangelical Leader and the Liberal Bishop”, Dave Tomlinson challenges the common evangelical mind-set to prioritize right doctrine over character:
“Jesus told a parable to a gathering of evangelical leaders. ‘An evangelical speaker and a liberal bishop each sat down to read the Bible. The evangelical speaker thanked God for the precious gift of the Holy Scriptures and pledged himself once again to proclaim them faithfully. “Thank you God,” he prayed, “that I am not like this poor bishop who doesn’t believe your Word and seems unable to make his mind up whether or not Christ rose from the dead.” The bishop looked puzzled as he flicked through the pages of the Bible and said, “Virgin birth, water into wine, physical resurrection. These things are hard to believe in, Lord. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m in touch with you in a personal way. But I’m going to keep on searching.” “I tell you” said Jesus, “that this other man, went home justified before God. For those who think they have arrived have barely started out, but those who continue searching are closer to the destination than they realize.’” (the post evangelical, rev. North American edn. (El Cajon, CA: emergentYS books; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 69-70.)
This parable captures the spirit of Tomlinson’s book the post evangelical which was an important harbinger for the rise of emergent/emerging Christianity. And your reaction to it will likely depend on how sympathetic you are to evangelicals.
I can envision more than a few evangelicals protesting the portrayal as unfair at best and anti-evangelical propaganda at worst. And of course there is no denying that the contrast is set up with black and white categories that do not accurately reflect the nuanced grays of so much of life.
That said, it is worth considering how the original Jewish audience would have reacted upon hearing the parable of the “Good Samaritan”. One can imagine that many would have similarly protested the portrayal of Jewish leaders over-against the Samaritan as unfair at best and propaganda at worst. The point of such black and white categories is to irritate, destabilize, and ultimately to facilitate personal introspection.
And so, our question should be whether this parable illumines for the evangelical ways in which the evangelical in-group can miss the mark and ways in which the liberal out-group can hit the mark.
In the next few posts I’m going to be exploring some of the themes raised by Tomlinson’s parable.