There are times when I am tempted to believe that many journalists are so convinced that the religious left is right that they don't even pause to listen to what folks on the doctrinal left are actually saying.
This media cheerleader stance is -- gasp! -- not always in the interests of folks in the world of progressive religion, who are -- gasp again! -- not always of the same mind when it comes to some controversial, and rather basic, issues. Some of these doctrinal differences are rather subtle and it helps to actually be paying attention when they talk.
Consider this basic question: Does everyone on the religious left oppose evangelism?
After all, the New Testament and centuries of church doctrine insist that Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Does that mean that those who reject Christianity are, to be blunt, not going to heaven? Or, are there doctrinal liberals who are "Universalists" when it comes to salvation, but others who merely oppose what they believe are unethical and shallow forms of proselytism?
Now, what happens when you take complicated issues of this kind and stick them right in the tense and maybe even violent territory at the heart of one of the biggest news stories in the world? I am talking about the flood of immigrants -- about a million seeking asylum in Germany alone -- reaching Europe after fleeing the bloody hellstorm in Syria and Iraq. Here is what that looks like at the top of of an important story from Religion News Service:
(RNS) One of Germany’s largest Protestant regional churches has come under fire from other Christians for speaking out against efforts to convert Muslims just as tens of thousands of refugees from the Islamic world are streaming into the country.
In a new position paper, the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland says the passage in the Gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission -- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” -- does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.
OK, there are some tricky words there at the end, especially that "must try" reference. Now, pay close attention to what comes next. Let's keep walking through this report:
“A strategic mission to Islam or meeting Muslims to convert them threatens social peace and contradicts the spirit and mandate of Jesus Christ and is therefore to be firmly rejected,” the paper entitled “Pilgrim Fellowship and Witness in Dialogue with Muslims” argues.
This initiative by the mainline Rhineland church, published in early October, prompted a sharp response from Germany’s small evangelical movement.
“We declare firmly that the fundamental missionary task of Christians, namely to preach the Gospel of Jesus to others and invite them to follow it, cannot be given up,” said Hartmut Steeb, secretary general of the German Evangelical Alliance.
Did you spot the word "strategic"?
That could be interpreted as saying that the liberal Protestants behind this document are merely opposing evangelistic efforts that SINGLE OUT Muslims as a target group, using techniques that the left sees as opportunistic, dishonest or coercive. For example, what if conversion to Christianity makes it more likely that immigrants are granted asylum and offered assistance getting jobs, homes, education, etc.?
Is that what is happening in this case? The story does makes it seem like the liberal Protestants are arguing for Universalism, period. And the evangelical Protestants who are interviewed certainly seem anxious to pin that label on this document. But is the debate that simplistic?
Maybe. You can see some pretty familiar dividing lines here:
While most Christian churches have mobilized to help the newcomers, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants have not spoken of the refugee crisis as an opportunity for evangelization.
By contrast, the Consortium of Evangelical Missions -- an association linking mission activities of evangelical groups around the country -- told its members in late September: “We have today the unique opportunity to introduce Jesus to countless people right here who have not yet heard the Good News.”
The consortium statement stressed that most refugees were Muslims who “have escaped Islamist terror (and) are deeply shocked at the inhuman barbarity committed in the name of their religion.” Many had never met a Christian and would ask why Europeans were so friendly to them “while their cousins in Arabia turn them away so heartlessly.”
So left vs. right and that is all there is to that. Correct?
Again, maybe not. Near the end of the story there is this twist from a source on the left (representing a body that -- to add to the complexity of all of this -- also has the word "evangelical" in its name):
Barbara Rudolph, head of mission work for the mainline Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, said the position paper had been misunderstood. “This is not about ending our missionary work,” she said.
In 2011, she noted, the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and the World Evangelical Alliance issued a joint code of conduct entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” that said Christians should avoid “inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means.”
Rudolph said the document by her regional church was part of a broader discussion within the Evangelical Church in Germany, the country’s main national association of Protestant churches, based on the 2011 code of conduct.
“We want to live in a way that makes others curious about our faith,” she said. “Whoever wants to become a Christian can be baptized.”
And at the very end:
An official for mission work with the Evangelical Church in Germany, Hans-Hermann Pompe, told Idea: “If someone concludes from this document that it’s all the same to Protestants whether they follow Jesus or Mohammad, its authors should not be surprised.”
Confused? That is sort of my point. It seems to me that the liberal Protestant left in Germany is either divided on issues of doctrine or strategy or both. But I think, for the reporters, the key thing to learn from this case is that not everyone on the left has exactly the same set of beliefs. The same is true for the right, of course, even among conservatives who worship in the same pews and take Communion at the same altars.
When you are talking about heaven and hell, it helps to be extra careful. The fine details matter.