Last September I commented on biologist Richard Colling’s plight at ONU instigated by his public support for biological evolution. I suspect this type of story will become more prevalent in the next several years since although Evangelical biologists largely support evolution, it is still very rare for Evangelical church or ministry leaders to publicly pronounce their acceptance of the scientific theory. These scientists represent the vanguard in attempting to persuade the broader Evangelical church that peace with evolution is possible and preferable, but, as in most theaters of war, being a peacemaker can be a very dangerous assignment.
Visiting a Baptist Monk
I really enjoy Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk blog. His “dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness” are always direct, engaging, thought provoking, and spiritually challenging. I have said in the past that I prefer to keep the moniker Evangelical rather than abandon it for “Post-Evangelical” as Spencer does. However, after reading his blog for a while, I believe his vision and hope for the Post-Evangelical church appears similar to my own for the Evangelical church, so maybe our disagreement is simply semantic.
Spencer certainly does not fit the stereotypical image of a Southern Baptist Bible teacher. I highly doubt his views on inerrancy are supported by many SBC members, and it seems to get him into trouble occasionally. And although even moderate SBC churches like Saddleback officially support Young Earth Creationism, Spencer emphatically states that he does not. He defends a high view of scripture, but also understands what the Bible is, and what it is not. He comments that:
Ever since I read Conrad Hyers’ The Meaning of Creation and realized that the Bible wasn’t a science book and its inspiration wasn’t involved in the views of science in ancient cultures, I’ve not lost much sleep over the relationship of religion and science.An SBC Minister on Evolution: No Comment?
Although Spencer is comfortable with an old earth, it appears he does not take a strong public position on evolution (either for or against). Undoubtedly, one reason for this is that the science / faith dialogue is not a priority for him. However, it is unlikely that he will ever publicly support evolution – at least if he wants to continue with his current employment. In a post about Tim Keller’s support of Theistic Evolution (TE), Spencer comments on how significant Keller’s support of TE would be within the Evangelical community. (Note: the post was eventually pulled because of ambiguity over whether Keller actually supports TE). Spencer then asks some great questions (primarily to Christian leaders like himself):
For those of you who are theistic evolutionists (or might possibly be if you knew what you believed), could you openly announce your belief in theistic evolution in your setting? Especially in your church? your sermon? your college or seminary class (as student or teacher)? your ordination council? your session or church board? your ministry employment?He then provides, with typical directness, what would happen if one day he announced his belief in TE:
I’d be fired from my job as Bible teacher, chapel preacher and campus minister. Immediately.Not really good incentive to investigate evolution further – particularly since it is clearly not a central issue to his ministry. Frankly, I don’t blame him for not pursuing this matter any further.
A PCA Minister on Evolution: Risky Comments
The Keller situation that Spencer mentions above is also interesting in this context. In his new book “The Reason for God” Keller does provide qualified support for a Theistic Evolution position (at least asserting that it is within the bounds of orthodoxy). (See: Tim Challies book review here, this article in First Things, and this interview in Newsweek for details). Keller is a very influential pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a conservative Presbyterian denomination whose Creation statement (HT: BTF) includes this paragraph on the initial chapters of Genesis:
“In these chapters we find the record of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth* ex nihilo*; of the special creation of Adam and Eve as actual human beings, the parents of all humanity (hence they are not the products of evolution from lower forms of life).”Now, as Rich Blinne notes, the above report was submitted by a non-binding advisory group within the PCA, and so it cannot necessarily be used to censure Tim Keller. Still it is clear that Keller, with his qualified support of evolution, is offside with the majority within his own denomination and is likely taking some personal risk by doing so.
It is heartening to see Evangelical church leaders like Keller reject the Evangelical / Evolution conflict thesis. We need more leaders with his integrity and stature speaking out. It requires courage and wisdom, courage for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with Evangelical culture, wisdom since speaking out can potentially cause more damage than good. Not every church leader is in a situation where this type of public announcement is possible or advisable.
Evangelical Grass-roots and Evolution
The situation is similar for many grass-roots Evangelicals. Personally, I’m fortunate that our family is involved with an Evangelical Anglican Church (with a heavy emphasis on the Evangelical) in which God’s method of creation is a non-issue – you won’t see us participating in Evolution Sunday but neither will you hear a sermon condemning modern scientific theories of the development of life. So for me there is little personal risk in discussing my views in the church. However, most Evangelicals grappling with the implications of an evolving creation are not so fortunate. I suspect many would lose whatever position they held in their church, maybe even their membership, if they publicly stated their acceptance of evolution. Charges of heresy and abandonment of the gospel would inevitably strain friendships and family relationships. For many, the price would be very high.
What Personal Ramifications?
I’m interested in hearing other personal perspectives on this problem. What would the ramifications be in your church if you stated your support for evolution? Are these ramifications clearly spelled out in your church charter or membership requirements? Or is opposition to evolution an unwritten rule unanimously accepted by all? How would support for evolution impact your relationship with your family or other Christian friends? How would it affect your participation in parachurch Christian ministries or services? Could you continue working in these organizations?
An even more significant question: For those of you that have revealed your acceptance of evolution, was it really worth it? Would you do it again, or would you choose to remain silent if given the choice to start over?