The Myth of Influence
In the March 7, 1998, issue of the Los Angeles Times, the Religion section featured an article entitled, “L.A.-Area Seminary Teachers Gather to Ponder the Truth.” For the fourth year, the Skirball Institute on American Values drew five seminaries together for discussion: St. John’s Seminary of the Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, Hebrew Union College of Reform Judaism, the University of Judaism of Conservative Judaism, Claremont School of Theology with liberal Protestant connections, and Fuller Theological Seminary with evangelical roots. The article quotes several participants on the positive character of the meeting. The comments of the moderator, Donald E. Miller of the University of Southern California, captured the spirit of the news report: “There is more similarity of religious views among what Miller called ‘progressive’ Jews, Catholics and Protestants than there is between orthodox and progressive believers within each faith.”
The article quoted faculty members from each of the participating schools except Fuller. The presence of Fuller at such a gathering and the absence of a quotation in the article from one of its faculty set me thinking. I do not know what Fuller faculty said at the meeting or what the actual character of the discussion was. I do know that the article leaves the impression that Fuller’s faculty feel closer to progressive Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews than they do to conservative Protestants.
As I reflected on this article’s impact on its readers, a phrase I had often contemplated came to mind: the myth of influence. I could easily imagine a discussion at Fuller when the invitation to this meeting arrived. Surely someone said, “We should go. We can be an influence.” But judging solely from the article, what was the influence? It certainly was not that Fuller had advanced the cause of Christian truth, but that Fuller agreed with a variety of theological liberals.
For a long time, I have felt that the cause of biblical Christianity has been undermined in our time by sincere people who engage in unbiblical activities for the sake of “being an influence.” The sad and ironic result of those actions has been harm to the cause of Christ and little or no positive influence has actually occurred. The myth of influence seduces Christians into believing that by compromising important theological truths more people can be influenced for Christ.
To be sure, I am not opposed to the idea of trying to be an influence. The Christian community should not isolate itself from discussion with anyone or from common action with non-Christians where the faith is not compromised. Christians should hope, pray, and work to be a godly influence wherever they can in this world. Christians need to recognize that certain kinds of compromise can be appropriate. Christians and non-Christians can unite to oppose abortion, for example. It is also appropriate for Baptists, Reformed, and Lutherans to promote basic truths of the Reformation together.
The danger comes, however, when Christians adopt a notion of influence derived from the world of politics or business. That world sees influence in relation to power, money, numbers, and success. Compromise, cooperation, and intentional ambiguity are all methods used to achieve influence in this world. But should Christians adopt strategies and set goals that compromise basic elements of their faith in the name of influence?
Let me offer two examples to illustrate the dangers of the myth of influence. The first relates to the ministry of Billy Graham. Billy Graham began his ministry amid the American fundamentalism of the 1940s. In the early days, he had strong support from fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. and John R. Rice. In 1951 Graham wrote, “we do not condone nor have fellowship with any form of Modernism,” a position that he reiterated to Rice in 1955. Yet by the New York City crusade in 1957 that position had clearly changed. Graham has defended his more cooperative approach to evangelism in these terms:
My own position was that we should be willing to work with all who were willing to work with us. Our message was clear, and if someone with a radically different theological view somehow decided to join with us in a Crusade that proclaimed Christ as the way of salvation, he or she was the one who was compromising personal convictions, not we.
The problem, however, was not just that Graham increasingly had liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics on his platform and committees, but that he sent inquirers back to those churches. For a long time (perhaps from the beginning), the crusades sent inquirers who had any kind of church connection back to the churches from which they came. By 1951 inquirers with no church connection at all were referred to a church chosen by a “designations committee” of local ministers.
Graham faced the problem that all itinerant evangelists face, namely how to relate their work to local churches. He clearly wanted to cooperate with churches and not compete with them. From the earliest crusades, he urged those who had “made decisions”: “Above all, go to church.” He has written,
Our third concern [in 1948] was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. We were convinced, however, that this was not only counterproductive but also wrong from the Bible’s standpoint. We were determined to cooperate with all who would cooperate with us in the public proclamation of the Gospel, and to avoid an antichurch or anti-clergy attitude.
In recalling preparations for the Los Angeles crusade of 1949 he commented, “My limited experience had already shown me that without the cooperation of the local churches and their pastors, not only would attendance suffer but so would the follow-up of new Christians.”
As a matter of conviction, he wanted his work to serve the churches, but he also wanted to be an influence by eliciting major church involvement and having large numbers attend the meetings. Cooperation with liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics was designed to increase the influence of the ministry with the aim of seeing more people converted.
Undoubtedly, Billy Graham was utterly sincere in his pursuit of converts to Christ and in his belief that his strategy was the most effective and influential to that end. But had he been deceived by the myth of influence? Certainly many thousands have attended crusades that would not otherwise have attended. Certainly individuals have been converted at his meetings. Certainly his decisions to be cooperative have contributed to his status as a national icon and a friend of presidents. But has it made him more effective in actually preaching the gospel and making disciples of Jesus Christ? I believe that from a human perspective more genuine disciples over the years would have been made if he had directed inquirers away from liberal and Roman Catholic churches into biblical Protestant churches.
A second example of the dangers of the myth of influence involves the two statements, Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Gift of Salvation. These statements have been scrupulously examined elsewhere, and I do not want to revisit their theological problems. Rather, I want to point out that the evangelical participants in the meetings that produced these statements joined in these efforts out of a desire to be an influence for Christ. They undoubtedly hoped that they would influence the Roman Catholic participants—and perhaps the whole Roman Catholic Church—by presenting the evangelical faith. They hoped that they could forge an alliance with “born-again” Roman Catholics against the unbelief and the immorality of our time. They believed that they could have great influence for good by reaching a responsible agreement with Roman Catholics.
Many evangelicals involved believe that they have succeeded beyond their hopes. The Roman Catholics, we are told, have embraced a statement that teaches justification by faith alone as taught by the Reformers. What an influence! In reality, several analyses of these two statements show that in fact this admirable goal has not been reached. In fact, the Roman Catholics have not really conceded anything new in the statement and the evangelicals have embraced all Roman Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ—a novel position for evangelicals.
Many other examples of the myth of influence could be mentioned. The church growth movement, for example, has eviscerated Christian worship in the name of evangelism. On a smaller scale, think of a pastor praying in public and not using the name of Jesus so as not to give offense. The baleful effects of the myth of influence are everywhere.
What leads so many evangelicals to accept the myth? Part of the motivation is the American fascination with respectability, success, and numbers. But such attitudes actually show that American evangelicals have never really left behind their nineteenth-century postmillennialism. They still with great optimism look forward to the restoration of the “Evangelical Empire” of the last century. They dream of being again the “mainstream” of American religion and culture as they were before the rise of liberalism and the immigration of Roman Catholics.
An even deeper cause of the attraction of the myth of influence, however, is theological. Evangelicals who succumb to the myth of influence do so in part because of their own flawed theology. They have developed theologies which depart from the rich biblical theologies of the Reformation.
Some evangelicals have embraced the myth of influence out of an Arminian view of salvation. Since salvation ultimately depends on the consent of the free will, many theological compromises are justified in order to gain a hearing and move the unbeliever. Other evangelicals are motivated by a defective doctrine of the church. They see the church not as an essential institution in God’s economy founded on and regulated by His Word, but as a helpful support group for the individual Christian in his walk of faith. Both of these theological weaknesses surface in Billy Graham. His Arminianism is clear. His weak doctrine of the church is seen in his sending inquirers back to false churches—a fault that even he seems to recognize in his setting up Bible study courses as part of the follow-up protocol for inquirers.
The most tragic consequence of the myth of influence is that those who embrace it often end up being influenced by the world rather than being a good influence on the world. For example, Fuller Seminary, in its efforts to be more influential by moving beyond its own fundamentalist roots, has abandoned basic evangelical doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture. Those evangelicals who signed agreements with Roman Catholics have undermined both their ability to witness prophetically to Roman Catholics and the work of evangelical missions in places like Latin America. Billy Graham, in an interview with Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, sounded remarkably liberal:
Dr. Schuller: “What I hear you saying [is] that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into a human heart and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?”
Dr. Graham: “Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.”
Dr. Schuller: “This is fantastic. I’m so thrilled to hear you say that. ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.’”
Dr. Graham: “There is. There definitely is.”
The only way to dispel the myth of influence is to commit ourselves anew to the importance of biblical theology as the foundation for Christian action. We must allow the Bible in its fullness to direct our thinking and our doing. We must remember that Paul did not preach an abbreviated gospel, but declared the whole counsel of God. When he said that he became all things to all men, he was speaking of things indifferent, not matters of basic Christian truth or ethics. He did not become a prostitute to win prostitutes, nor did he become an Arminian to win those addicted to the doctrines of the goodness of man or the freedom of the will. We need to follow the path of the Apostles and the Reformers who accomplished great things for God, not by ungodly compromise, but by faithful declaration of the truth of God’s Word.
This article first appeared on the Westminster Seminary California blog. W. Robert Godfrey is President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California and a teaching fellow of Ligonier Ministries.