Friday, May 1, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Theological Distancing and the Problem of Tribalism

This is the last of my series of posts on The Southgate Fellowship. You can use the label at the bottom to find the others. Here I pick up on yesterday's thread...

Harvie Conn (1933-99) taught at Westminster Theological Seminary after a significant period of ministry in South Korea. In his seminal and still important book, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, Conn argued that it is precisely because the faith “has travelled to Asia in confessional carts and wagons made in the West for a Western context” it has never taken root in Asian soil as it should have done (p. 246). As so few have taken heed of Conn’s warning, it is no surprise that it is still seen as ‘foreign religion’ to the vast majority of Asia’s people.
Sadly, Conn’s august institution no longer even has a resident missiologist. As I have argued before, since Conn went to be with the Lord, there has been a retrenchment of Reformed thinking on mission. I can only hope that, with the publication of the TSF statement, this slide has reached its nadir. But I am not confident of a change any time soon for the following reason.
I have already noted that the TSF statement is endorsed by a panoply of the great and the good of the Reformed world, many of whose works have greatly blessed this writer and some of whom I have had the privilege to meet. These leaders had the opportunity to read the statement before its publication. It is worrying enough that they were happy to endorse it.
What is more worrying, however, is that a number of additional endorsements have been made astonishingly quickly since its publication. Did these signatories read and digest the entire document and give it the thought that it demands before endorsing it?
I make no judgment, but it strikes me that, who would want to jeopardise their ministry by being accused of ‘error’ for not signing up? Sometimes leaders get in touch to give me some encouragement for writing material like this. And they tell me they can't speak out publicly. In at least one case, they have been subject to a barrage of unrighteous emails for stating views like those that I have stated.
I don’t know the hearts of those who drew up the TSF statement, so I don’t pass judgment. However, I am concerned that some who endorse the statement will do so purely out of an evangelical tribalist motivation.
I am concerned that many are far too quick to make judgments about ministries and their statements on the basis of the endorsements of celebrity leaders than on hard, prayerful listening and thinking. Aping the polarized politics that has characterized both the UK and USA recently, we retreat into our favourite conferences and, like the Pharisee, pride ourselves on who we are not. 
While we are busy nailing our theses of theological precision on the front door, the devil sneaks in the back door and infiltrates our attitudes. Our worldviews are nicely sanitized, but the virus of evangelical identity politics catches us unawares. 
Paul had some strong words to say about such posturing: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul” (1 Cor 3:5)?
The men of the TSF council (there are inexplicably no women) may have had no intention to exacerbate this problem. But the law of unintended consequences may well kick in.
So, I plead with my brothers to avoid such tribalism with the same effort we are giving to saving lives in the current pandemic. Let us learn to listen not only to each other across the North Atlantic, but also to those who are in Asia, Africa and Latin America; not only to those with whom we get along but also to those with whom we do not. And may the Lord use such brothers and sisters to sharpen our thinking and make us more faithful and fruitful.