A post by Tim Fall inspired me to write out this response to thoughts I’ve been having the past few months. His post was “Evangelical: the label that left me behind.”
Evangelicalism’s Origins in the 1940s, and Key Characteristics
Tim Fall begins with a definition/description of “evangelical” that he got from the website of the National Association of Evangelicals (which was formed in the 1940s):
Historian David Bebbington also provides a helpful summary of evangelical distinctives, identifying four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
According to the About page on the website for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), “The National Association of Evangelicals has spoken as a united voice for millions of American evangelicals since 1942.” So, the NAE has lasted nearly 75 years. (See this page for more NAE history.)
The four points by Bebbington that Tim Fall noted really resonate with me, actually – when integrated, as a holistic set that sets the overall contours of “evangelicalism,” that is. But it’s become apparent to me and to many others that these are no longer interconnected, or kept in proportion with one another. I believe that’s why the term has been drained of its original intent and meaning. What were integral parts got separated and stagnated.
I think what we saw in the 2016 elections is evidence that some time, way back when, those four living elements were dissected, then each part grown into clones separately in an isolated lab, then unleashed on the outside world as a social experiment. But each part is being called “evangelicalism” by adherents to that particular starter part – or being labeled as being the whole thing by outsiders who don’t know the difference. Either way, the term has taken on social baggage because of these groups’ theologically reduced mini-systems that may do some good but also inflict much harm. They don’t live up to the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
CONVERSIONISM as one element in evangelicalism has transmogrified into forms of consumerism, such as “born-again fire insurance” that is without follow-up transformation, or transformation that is less about following Jesus than an entryway into prosperity.
ACTIVISM has developed into forms of cultural authoritarianism – seeking to impose Christendom views on the masses through social and political coercion, whether in “conservative” or “liberal” forms, instead of influence by embodying Christlike character in our relationships with our neighbors.
BIBLICISM has turned into legalism by changing wisdom options into a list of supposed biblical mandates, often implemented in punitive group environments that maintain control through authoritative overlords who become the sole sources of interpreting and applying Scripture to/for people.
CRUCICENTRISM has overfocused on penal substitution theology to the point that either there is no need for or mention of the Holy Spirit any longer, or that, because we are saved, anything goes because God’s grace will cover it.
These sickly, reductionist forms of what was once robust “evangelicalism” have devolved into digressions that became transgressions. And there is no doubt – they are each and all harmful perversions of the real-deal discipleship. For a decade now, spiritual abuse survivor bloggers and related survivor communities have been shining the spotlight on malignant leaders, and their toxic doctrines, tactics, and organizations. Various combinations of these inverted elements of what was once holistic evangelicalism pop up frequently, such that, supposedly in the name of Jesus and endorsed by The Evangelical Bloc, what’s become prominent are: power to impose Christendom on everyone, privilege to do whatever one desires, and prosperity that pimps the sincere stewardship of God’s people and misuses it for personal benefit.
I’m afraid we saw all too much of this – in Mr. Trump’s explicitly Evangelical Advisory Board, and in recent antics of religiously-oriented individuals with positions in the Democratic and Republican parties. Frankly, I don’t see “evangelical leaders” there I can deeply identify with as role models whom I want to follow.
But that’s not the only storyline here. What amplifies the whole situation is that we’re witnessing the tail end of the implosion of modernity, with its drive to analyze and categorize everything in ways that turn medicine into poison. We’re seeing it in either-or antagonism of politics, cultures, racial relations, theology, ministry … anywhere various kinds of hierarchy classify and separate people from one another. There is no humility or wholeness in this; but there was in the original form of evangelicalism. The original term has had the power of its integrity co-opted for other purposes.
So, those who resonate with the old-school distinctives need to find another term, and other ways to reconnect and reintegrate with one another. New terms, renewed definitions, new coalitions. And, actually, that gives me hope, because the dross that’s seeped to the surface because of these divisions helps us see what needs healing.
Who wants to take part in that paradigm shift to a revised form of what was “evangelicalism,” but one that seeks to stay intact and do good plus do no harm?
“Evangelicalism” in the Future – the Way Forward Involves Going Back …
Regardless of what was formerly known as evangelicalism eventually gets named, I believe the way forward is actually to go back – back to The Chicago Call of May 1977. (NOTE: Do not confuse this with The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978.)
Historical Background. In late 1976, Dr. Robert Webber (Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College) called together a planning committee consisting of Richard Holt, Donald G. Bloesch, Jan P. Dennis, Lane T. Dennis, Gerald D. Erickson, Peter E. Gillquist, Thomas Howard and Victor Oliver. The purpose of the committee was to plan a National Conference of Evangelicals for Historic Christianity. This group met nine times during December (1976) and January (1977). They decided that the goal of the conference would be to bring together selected Evangelical leaders to draft an appeal to fellow Evangelicals which would stress a recovering of the theology and practice of historic Christianity and to call them to a Christianity truly catholic and Evangelical. […] The conference was held May 1-3, 1977, at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Warrenville, Illinois, and was attended by approximately forty-five Evangelical leaders. The participants were broken into working groups, and each group worked on a particular section of the Call such as: A Call to Historic Roots and Continuity; A Call to Biblical Fidelity; A Call to Creedal Identity; etc. After several drafts and revisions, the final form of The Chicago Call was decided upon, and it was printed for public distribution. The Chicago Call received favorable but limited response from Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. A book was published in 1978 by the participants of the conference.
Read The Chicago Call document and see what you think, on whether what those who collaborated on it were discerning back then is similar to the dichotomies and excesses I noted earlier. The way I read it, they were attempting a holistic reframing of evangelicalism that included BOTH theological orthodoxy AND orthopraxy – i.e., social justice without social gospel, and personal morals without mere behavior modification or social colonization.
I find it intriguing that the work this group did to restore a more holistic, integrative form of evangelicalism came two years before the establishment of Moral Majority in 1979. It was “a prominent American political action organization associated with the Christian right and Republican party (Wikipedia article, Moral Majority). That movement had similar problems with labels and language – what did “fundamentalism” and “Christian right” mean back then, and how might The Chicago Call been anticipating the excesses of the Moral Majority?
Some Final Thoughts
Dr. David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary, posts regularly on the meaning of “missional” and “evangelical.” On one of his Facebook posts from April 2015, I wrote this:
For years, I’ve been watching spiritual abuse survivors from evangelical and theologically conservative churches become “nones” and “dones,” even before those terms were around. More recently, I completed case studies on two post-evangelical subcultures that came out of the “emerging ministry movement” of the mid-1990s, the Neo-Puritan/New Calvinists and the Emergent/Progressive movement. The former, centralized, hierarchical, precise/+buttoned-down in its theology – the latter, decentralized, supposedly “flat” structured and participatory, and creative/edgy in its theology. Both apparently waylaid by leaders who’ve left disastrous and damaging trails.
In the midst of this messiness, every so often I find myself cycling back to wondering if Robert Webber and the gang weren’t on to something important with The Orthodox Evangelicals (1978). They tried to come to terms with a holistic paradigm that didn’t pit liberal against conservative, nor simply try to glue the good parts of each back together.
Webber also seemed to be one who got it even that far back about Christianity and culture, when explorations of contextualization without colonization were just starting to be published. He wrote in The Secular Saint: A Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility (1979) about sojourning and serving in society, and following a balanced and historically-based way of Jesus to embody a robust Christianity.
Perhaps the vitality of a way forward for a post-evangelical Church in a post-Christendom world, is a sabbatical with such works of Webber … and, from a generation before him, Roland Allen with Missionary Methods: St. Pauls or Ours? (1912). Maybe a couple of points like those along a 100+ year arc would give us a better trajectory …
Going back to reconsidering “orthodox evangelicalism“ doesn’t answer all questions about differences among groups that might otherwise consider themselves overlapping at least some with what has been labeled as evangelical. But it may be a way forward for what a more integrated coalition to replace it could become.
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