In search of kindred spirits

Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Life Long Quest for Common Ground
Author: Richard J. Mouw
Publisher: BrazosPress
Pages: 241

Watching Anne of Green Gables for the first time as an adult I was immediately captivated by the idea of the “kindred spirit.” “A kindred spirit in the Anne of Green Gables series is someone who understands Anne Shirley very well, well enough to know what she is thinking” (Anne Green Gables wiki). Surely, Richard Mouw, the author of Adventures in Evangelical Civility, delights in finding kindred spirits in his lifelong quest for common ground.

Even though my background is Charismatic and the author’s Reformed theology, in more ways than one I have found a kindred spirit. In fact, I am more in agreement with Reformation teaching than with the excesses of the Charismatic movement.

But what drew me to this book and makes me feel like a kindred spirit is the idea of an evangelical civility. It should be obvious that incivility has become rampant in our society. I don’t like how we talk to each other. Those of us who are Christians have an obligation to defend the gospel “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). This manner should inform all our discourse. A related idea provides an important reminder: “Remember, if you are not very kind, you are not very spiritual” (An old Scotch preacher).

It’s ironic and tragic that we can speak the truth in the wrong spirit. I know how it feels to be on both the giving and receiving ends. It not only generates more heat the light, it can be devastating in terms of relationships. In John 13 readers see that Christ’s disciples were to be known for their love of each other. Unfortunately, Christians today in the US are often known for what they stand against it.

My hope in reading this volume was to learn more about engaging others whose views differ from my own. I may have been slightly disappointed by my expectations. This is not a “how to” book. It’s more of a memoir from Mouw, now 75, of his search for human commonness.

At times, it became a little too technical for me, as when he discusses all that is meant by the image of God. It reminds me of just how complex theology can be. It’s not that the academic discussion is not important. Ideas have consequences. I may have been hoping for something more application-oriented, but I did find more of it towards the end. Plus, Mouw is showing not telling. He uses many personal illustrations and references the books and people that have been an influence. If you are a reader, you might appreciate knowing the titles that can be sources for further study.

In particular, I like the point that Mouw makes in relation to a critique from John MacArthur Jr. Mouw was one of the signers of two documents issued by the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The 1997 statement, “The Gift of Salvation,” dealt with the doctrine of justification by faith. “MacArthur took the evangelical participants to be saying ‘that wile they believe that the doctrine of justification as articulated by the Reformers is true, they are not willing to say that people must believe it in order to be saved. In other words, they believe that people are saved who do not believe the Biblical doctrine of justification’” (197).

Mouw’s response: “That is precisely what I believe.” He goes on to clarify, “I would be surprised if MacArthur would dissent, if by ‘believing’ the doctrine we mean being able to give a clear articulation of it, then certainly the vast majority of the saved fall short.” This makes the point that people can have a genuine experience of salvation without being able to precisely explain it. To take it further, I don’t think incorrect views on the finer points of doctrine is going to negate someone’s destiny. If someone puts their trust in Christ, who can condemn them if their view on a non-essential is faulty in some way. Doesn’t it come down to this? “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12 ESV).

This is not to say that wrong beliefs don’t matter. Of course, we all want to be right, and adhering to sound teaching is essential, but can anyone claim 100% doctrinal purity, not just in theory but also in practice. If all my beliefs and practice have to line up perfectly with Scripture, I will never make it. That’s why I need God’s grace and Christ within by His Spirit.

Recently, I have personally wrestled with a theological perspective that goes to extremes. The way it's presented by some, a person must accept a particular set of verses and their interpretation of it. It’s almost like you have to sign off or voice a declaration indicating your belief in it. Ironically, a person could give mental assent, but in reality not be transformed by it. In other words, you could agree with the rightness of a teaching but not be regenerated by the Spirit of God. And yet, some other simple soul could in childlike faith receive Christ and experience new life. They may never be able to explain justification by faith, but they can tell you what Jesus has done for them.

Though I respect John MacArthur, I appreciate Mouw making the point that one can experience salvation without being able to precisely explain it.

I also applaud Mouw’s humility and honesty. He expresses his concern that his journey could have unintended consequences. Recognizing that we live in a time of biblical illiteracy, he wonders if he strikes the right balance between conviction and civility. I agree with his conclusion “that civility is not something that stands over against biblically based convictions in a kind of ‘tension’ relationship” (211).

Mouw holds firmly to biblical convictions. I admire the ways in which he is able to engage without compromise. I don’t feel like he downplays the need for strong beliefs. Honestly, I hope that more people will follow his example, believing that not only can we find common ground but we can also learn from those who have different views. Respectful dialogue is not something that should be shunned by Christians.

Michael Dalton