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February 2014 Theme: Left, Right & Center–Can We All Get Along?

February 11, 2014


“The FMC and Me”

by Russell Yee,
ISAAC Boardmember

“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24)

I chose the Authorized (“King James”) Version for this text, not because I grew up with it (though I did—which I find unimaginable now!) and not because linguistic variety in religious discourse was at the heart of my doctoral dissertation (which it was, looking at diglossia in free and liturgical worship). I chose the KJV to avoid having to quote either the NIV or NRSV, and thus signaling a location in the ongoing Evangelical-Mainline turf battle.

The church has known division since at least the Council of Ephesus (431) if not all the way back to Peter and Paul falling out over deportment towards Gentiles (Gal. 2:11). Among American Protestants, the divisive effects of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (FMC) continue to unfold with full force after nearly a century’s time.

The FMC ran literally right through my childhood. I grew up at the Chinese Independent Baptist Church of Oakland, which can be characterized as a non-denominational Bible church. I was something like the 12th member of CIBC to study at Dallas Theological Seminary (founded in 1924 to provide an alternative to the leftward-trending Presbyterian seminaries during the early FMC). Right across the street from us was Chinese Presbyterian Church (Mainline PCUSA). The two churches never talked to each other and never attempted even token community service projects together. We were the tract-passing Bible thumpers and they were the dance-party social gospelers. (In the picture above, CPC is on the left and CIBC on the right, with 8th St. and generations of church division between us.)

Much later I did my doctoral work at the Graduate Theological Union. (I have long wondered if I am the only person on earth ever to have gone from DTS to the GTU.) I had good educational experiences at both schools. While at the GTU I helped start an on-campus organization, the Evangelical Round Table (whose mailbox was, for a time, right next to the one for the Lesbian Academic Salon). We spent a lot of time and energy trying to educate the GTU community about evangelicalism. Sometimes this amounted to explaining that we were actually not fans of Jerry Falwell. We often met in the GTU boardroom and made it a point to pray in Jesus’ name (which always felt just slightly daring).

The Mainline has long focused on “giving the cup of cold water” and having an outlook that embraced the temporal good of society at large. Evangelicals have long started with commitments to “naming the Name” and in preaching sin and salvation through Christ, with an eye to eternity. I think we need both emphases. At the end of the day I do think the Evangelical emphasis on the Cross deserves the last word, because both the human condition and my own personal efforts at life lead me to the conclusion that we are not going to save the world and I am not going to save myself. We absolutely need to try to do good. Having tried, we (and those we try to help) still absolutely need saving.

In the mid-1990s, a church I formerly pastored (New Life Christian Fellowship, Castro Valley) looked for a denomination to affiliate with. Many of our members had a PCUSA background and many others a Southern Baptist/Bible church background. That is not a naturally compatible mix. Would we be able to agree on a choice? We courted four denominations. Only one made it a point to say that both evangelism and social action are essential. This same denomination also seemed to fully understand and embrace our church’s Asian American identity. And so we became American Baptist—and did not lose even one member in the process. For the sake of church unity these former PCUSA folks were willing to become Baptist. (In American church sociology, that’s like marrying down several notches.) Meanwhile, these former SBC/Bible church folks were willing to become Mainline (after being raised to believe the Mainliners were not really Christians at all). It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed happen in a church.

When it comes to ISAAC, from the beginning we’ve had hopes that we could create a workable middle space for both Evangelical and Mainline Asian North American Christian scholars and leaders to keep a conversation going about mutually vital matters of faith, culture, and ethnicity. That is still our hope. We very much hope that even the effort is a true gesture of reconciliation, no matter how small, tentative, and incomplete.

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