Friday, 28 August 2009

What is wrong with Evangelicalism?

Ed: As with my earlier post, this is a first draft of a proposed talk to be given in Ireland in just over a week's time. Comments are welcome.

2. What is wrong with Evangelicalism?

Where we began

In my first talk I suggested that evangelicalism is best understood first from the point of view of practice, rather than theology.

This, I think, reflects the experience of evangelicals and the development of evangelical organizations. We are rather used to seeing such organizations produce ‘statements of faith’ and we therefore fall into the habit of thinking that such statements determine what it is to be an evangelical.

We might think, for example, that because most evangelicals could sign up to the UCCF doctrinal basis, that the doctrinal basis defines what it is to be an evangelical, but that is not the case.

On the one hand, the person newly converted at the UCCF mission may be thoroughly ‘evangelical’, already keen to tell their friends about their new-found faith, and yet that same person may have given no thought at all to the sovereignty of God in redemption, or the nature of biblical infallibility.

On the other hand, and rather more worryingly, there are Christian Unions which technically ‘adhere’ to the doctrinal basis, but which rarely engage in evangelism, and have very little concern for the non-Christians within their institutions.

To be an evangelical is not, first and foremost, about doctrinal correctness, but about a passion for the gospel of salvation from sin through Christ for eternity.

That is evangelicalism’s great strength. It is what, for example, allows evangelicals to recognize and work with one another despite denominational differences —even differences with which they themselves agree.

It is, above all, why evangelicalism tends to grow —why evangelical churches and organizations tend to thrive even when others are struggling —because evangelicalism is, but its nature, self-replicating.

Evangelicalism is a spreading flame, even when it is theologically untidy, incoherent and even incorrect.

Strength is weakness

But that illustrates precisely one of the principles I have found to be true throughout life, and which I think applies especially to evangelicalism: that our strength is our weakness.

It is precisely at the point where an individual or an organization is strong that you will find manifested some of the most serious weaknesses.

A classic example is the Maginot Line, which defended the eastern borders of France at the outset of World War 2. The Maginot Line fortifications were extraordinarily powerful, but they created a mentality of complacency in the French military, whilst at the same time determining that German strategy would be directed to working around them, rather than going through them.

In the same way a church or an individual may have extraordinary strengths, but these same strengths will actually create vulnerabilities in their local ministry or in their engagement with other people.

Limited vision

So what are the strengths of evangelicalism? Above all, I have suggested, it is the prioritization of evangelism itself. It is this that makes evangelicals ‘evangelical’. It is this that ensures that the gospel is, indeed, proclaimed that people are brought to know Christ, and that evangelicalism, and evangelical organizations and churches, grow.

But this narrowness of focus is also a key weakness in evangelicalism. Not least, because it creates a problem of ‘what next?’

The great danger for evangelicals and evangelical organizations is that once a person is converted, all they are offered, and all they are asked to contribute towards, is more evangelism.

At its worst, everything except evangelism, and everyone except the evangelist, is regarded as not merely secondary but second-class.

Other careers, other callings, even other enterprises, are treated as matters of indifference. A bridge will not last for eternity, a healthy patient will not live forever, so why bother being an architect or a doctor —unless it is to earn money to pay evangelists?

Leaking people

Now there is a certain logic and persuasiveness to this approach. But even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that the biblical life of faith is not only and always about evangelism.

More importantly, though, this narrowness of vision creates a problem of retention. People who want to develop in other ways and use other gifts tend to move out of evangelicalism and churches which want to broaden their ministry tend to become less evangelical.

At the same time, evangelicals, and their churches and organizations, are seen as narrow and limited in their concerns, rather than being able to embrace the whole of life. The evangelical life, rather than being ‘life in all its fullness’ can look like a very truncated version of life.

The biggest problem for evangelicalism is that it leaks — it leaks people who are evangelicals. Some of them openly give up the faith, but many of them remain in the church as non-evangelicals, post-evangelicals or even, sadly, anti-evangelicals.

And a key cause of this is that, having got people converted, evangelicals don’t know what to do with them next.


And this relates to a second great evangelical strength, which is also a great evangelical weakness, namely pragmatism.

This is sometimes confused with anti-intellectualism, but it is not the same thing at all. Evangelicals are not, by and large, anti-intellectuals. Rather, they are pragmatists. But as a result they often cannot see the need for anything more than a simple gospel, with a simple approach.

The focus is on ‘getting the job done’ — the ‘job’ being conceived as getting people converted. But the resources, especially the theological resources, needed for this are quite limited. Indeed, all one needs essentially is the same knowledge of the gospel by which one was one’s self converted. As Graham Kendrick famously put it, “One shall tell another, And he shall tell his friend ...” Others have spoken of ‘gossiping the gospel’.

Just on that point, however, let me read you what Jens Christensen, author of The Practical Approach to Muslims, and a man I believe was a thoroughgoing evangelical, had to say:

If you will look up the word ‘gossip’ in a dictionary you will find that, leaving aside archaic meanings, it is defined as: idle talk, tattling, spreading groundless rumours. Whoever first coined the expression, ‘gossiping the Gospel’, obviously did not look the word up in a dictionary ...

Now I will agree he is being somewhat harsh, and I will agree that we do need only a minimum of information to share the gospel with someone, and I will agree that the newly-converted layperson is often highly effective in sharing the gospel with unconverted friends and family.

But I will disagree that this is sufficient to establish, and more importantly to maintain, evangelical Christianity.

The limits of pragmatism

Evangelical pragmatism leads to the success of evangelical ministry in getting people converted and getting new converts involved in evangelism. In Norman Warren’s classic work to which I referred earlier, he writes in the section titled ‘The way ahead’,

Tell one other person within the next 24 hours what you have done, that you have surrendered your life to Christ.

Here is evangelical self-replication at its most blatant. But the average convert is in for the long haul. And that calls for more than surrendering your life to Jesus, even though that is where it begins. Evangelicals often need reminding that the wicket gate is the beginning, not the end, of the pilgrim’s progress.

We might also remind ourselves that by the middle of Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan’s characters are delivering doctrinal points to one another in numbered paragraphs — something that has never happened in any dream of mine (thank goodness).

Bunyan would doubtless qualify today as an ‘evangelical’, but he was well aware that the message of salvation must extend beyond how we become Christians to a whole range of other considerations. It made Pilgrim’s Progress rather dull in places, but we would do well to learn from him.


At the same time as they are pragmatists in the proclamation of the gospel, however, evangelicals are also acutely aware of anything which hinders this, particularly if that threat should come from within the church. They are painfully aware of the truth of Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:

... after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)

For evangelicals, these are not pious words of past concern but a reminder of a living and constant threat — that false teachers will arise, that they will arise from within the church, and that the result, when such false teaching takes hold, is spiritual disaster.

Thus they will also echo Paul’s words to the Galatian churches:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8)

Evangelicals will therefore be deeply, and let it be said rightly, suspicious of false teachers and false teaching, and evangelical leaders especially will be fiercely protective of those in their care.


Let us make no mistake. This is indeed a vital evangelical strength. The biblical warnings about false teaching are not to be taken lightly, and not just history but contemporary experience give countless examples of the consequences of false teaching in the lives of individuals, churches and organizations.

And yet, that same strength is, again, a weakness, for it leads to a certain defensiveness and isolationism with regard to ideas and even people outside their own trusted circle.

One unintended result of this, especially when combined with evangelical pragmatism, is that evangelical theology tends to be superficial.

In the Church of England, evangelical leaders long understood understand the dangers of so-called ‘liberal theology’, and yet they valued of the ministry of young evangelicals. So evangelical ordinands, rather than being steered towards the best theological training, were sent to university towns (where certain evangelical colleges happened to be) where they could work as evangelists and Bible-study leaders amongst the student population.

The theological grounding they already had was held to be more-or-less sufficient for these things. What mattered, it was thought, was the hands-on experience of ministry. The result, however, was generations of theologically ill-equipped evangelicals —fired up for evangelism, but unable to engage with, or present, much more by way of theological thinking.

Another unintended consequence is that if an individual does discover a taste for theological development, they are either lost to evangelicalism —reacting against what they rightly see as its intellectual weakness — or they become a problem within evangelicalism, latching onto some novel idea which becomes the lynchpin of a new, and by its very nature, divisive, system or movement.

In England, the latter is what I think we have seen with regard to the Federal Vision Movement recently, or Paul Blackham’s ideas a decade ago. They have the same effect on some people’s evangelicalism as Worcestershire sauce does on chips, giving zest to the dish, but tending to become the dominant flavour.

In short, the protective attitude of evangelicalism is effective so long as it keeps at bay the wolves who have ‘I am a wolf’ written on their tee-shirts. Ironically, it is much less effective at protecting against precisely those wolves about which we are warned by Scripture —the wolf who comes in sheep’s clothing, meaning an attractive and persuasive Christian exterior. Here, our strength once again becomes our weakness.


There is, however, another evangelical strength which plays into the same weakness, and that is the emphasis on the individual, not only in terms of salvation but in their consequent relationship with God.

One of the common threads of evangelicalism is that it has very little time for clericalism, and thence for institutionalism. The evangelical knows God personally, as the old Campus Crusade for Christ tract used to put it.

Just as significantly, the evangelical knows there is no need for any mediator between us and God, other than Jesus Christ himself. Thus the evangelical expects to stand on his or her own two feet spiritually.

Evangelicals tend to be ‘self-starters’ and self-motivators in their Christian life. They read their Bibles for themselves, and take responsibility for their own life of prayer. In this respect, they are ideal and welcome church members.

But these same strengths can also create problems for themselves and others. And the greatest problem of all is undoubtedly that evangelicals, including evangelical leaders, have much too high a regard for their own opinions and much too little regard for the views of others.

Private judgement

And here we come to one of the great evangelical shibboleths, namely private judgement.

There are many for whom private judgement is regarded as an evangelical essential. Give this up, it is felt, and you are a short step away from error in general and Romanism in particular. That was certainly the view of the great J C Ryle, the former Bishop of Liverpool.

And who can blame him, when Cardinal John Henry Newman was preaching and teaching that private judgement is the very opposite of Christian faith.

According to Ryle, no one should ever accept anything as true just because it is said by a man in a dog-collar. On the contrary, just as private judgement overthrew the anti-scientific dogmatism of the medieval church, so it will protect us from the predations of spiritual wolves in the Church of Christ today.

And he is right. All of us in full-time ministry want Christians who are mature in their faith, able to give an account of the hope that is in them, and not tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine.

According to Newman, however, the inevitable outcome of private judgement is that I become the judge and arbiter of what should be believed, rather than the recipient of the message of salvation.

And of course he is right, too! All of us in full-time ministry know from tedious experience that just because we say so doesn’t mean people are going to take our word for it that a particular doctrine or interpretation of the Bible is true.

And far from preventing people being blown about by every wind of doctrine, the exercise of private judgement, as Newman observed, leads precisely to constant changes and reversals in the beliefs not only of individuals but whole denominations. Thus, once upon a time, every Christian knew homosexuality was wrong and every denomination would have upheld that principle.

Yet today, both individuals and denominations condemn as sin and error what formerly was held to be truth and righteousness —but not in Rome.

Rather less dramatically, but just as importantly, there is ‘no king in Israel’ when it comes to the beliefs of the individual evangelical. Rather, ‘everyone does, and believes, what is right in his own eyes’, and the individual we have insulated against the errors of Roman clericalism regards the word of the Protestant minister as being just as lacking in any intrinsic authority.

The result, at worst, is that having begun with the gospel, people finish by believing simply what they want to believe, which may happen to be the gospel, but may just as easily happen to be something else.

Ironically, the warning of 2 Timothy 4:3-4 has become true for them, not despite them being evangelicals, but precisely because they were evangelicals:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.


All these are problems with evangelicalism. In my final talk, then, I will try to address how we might deal with them, and where this leaves us in the present situation.

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  1. Good observations - I would query the relevance of using UCCF to illustrate (though I agree with your observation that having doctrinal correctness really isn't the same as actually being evangelical, sadly), just given that UCCF is a movement in England, Wales and Scotland and not in Ireland, though there is an IFES movement there.

  2. Rev. Richardson:

    Reading avidly as you post. I will have to take my leave of "evangelicalism" as defined and stick with "Confessional Evangelicalism," at once interested in public advance and evangelism, but also with exegetical, theological and historical depth.


  3. What dave bish, I think, is trying to say is that (like some other institutions on the island of Ireland -- eg the Church of Ireland, the Irish Rugby Football Union) the IFES movement is organised on an all-Ireland basis. UCCF only exists in Great Britain (properly so called) and although there is an IFES movement in Northern Ireland, it is NOT the same body as that in England, Scotland and Wales. "IFES Ireland" exists in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In other words, the British Isles "IFES divide" is between Great Britain on the one hand and Ireland on the other hand rather than the UK on the one hand and the Republic of Ireland on the other hand.

  4. Fascinating. I studied for a number of years at Oxford, at Wycliffe Hall. And there I saw young evangelicals of quite brilliant mind giving themselves precisely NO opportunity to gain in theological understanding, because they were immersed in ministry and evangelism in the university. Baffling.

    And, as you say, the alternative to no theology, 'just the Bible' + pragmatism, is too often a bad theology...

  5. Just on the IFES/Ireland, UCCF/England thing, I think I stick with the latter since at least there I know what I'm talking about. I'll just make the point this is local to us in England, not universal. If I were in, say, Africa for this, I'd face the same problem.

  6. Michael, I often wonder if I'm going over the top in what in what I've said about evangelical Anglicans in theological training. Sadly, I think your comments suggest far from it!

  7. John,

    I don't think I've been convinced by this praxis-driven approach to evangelicalism, partly because the action of evangelism itself is inherently theological. You yourself admit this in your first talk under the "Evangelical Theology" heading. To have a confessional heart is not to tie down all the minutiae. That's why, for example, UCCF's Doctrinal Basis is deliberately small - to define what constitutes the gospel message which we seek to share; to clarify what are the matters of first importance which must be believed; to allow space for secondary issues, adiaphora, to one's conscience. This is not to say that secondary issues can have significant adverse implications to spiritual health (eg an over-emphasis on tongue-speaking) but that the primary issues are issues on which we should be willing to take a stand. The DB is not there to define everything that a new Christian should believe, but rather there to set out the essentials of the faith, which the Bible sets out clearly, and with which we hope all new converts will come to agree. The new convert may not understand that the Bible is God's word - but hopefully after some early discipleship they will come to that view, or else they will be in great danger of shipwrecking their newfound 'faith'. To have a confessional definition to evangelicalism does not mean that all new converts must sign said confession in order to get to heaven (the thief on the cross is a fine counter-example - but if he had lived on, you would expect him to come to understand the nature of God's word, as far as that was possible in the apostolic era).

    So I would suggest that it is not possible to define evangelicalism in your way without it necessarily being confessional. Furthermore, in an age of pragmatism like ours, our danger is not that we need to be wary of defining ourselves doctrinally, but rather we need to be very clear which doctrines are non-negotiable. Don Carson's work on The Gospel Coalition is very helpful - defining the evangelicalism by proximity to a doctrinal centre, rather than seeking to define certain boundaries that are in or out. I heard him speak about it at New Word Alive this year, and there was a lot of wisdom in it. Define the centre, and you define the heartbeat.

    All the best,


    PS Interestingly, when I was on a CU committee, we drafted an additional article on evangelism to add to the UCCF DB, but due to other issues, never got further than private drafting. For what it's worth, we suggested adding the following statement between points (g) and (h):
    Evangelism is the act of communicating, explaining and applying this gospel message to unbelievers using words, supported by prayer and in the context of a godly life.

    PPS I am one who has grown up through those frameworks that you describe as being rather lukewarm towards theology. I personally would find it helpful to have some examples of why such an approach is dangerous - what errors and dead ends has it led to? And if evangelicalism is defined as doing ministry - evangelism - then why is it such a bad thing to get lots of practice of ministry as training. I myself am not lukewarm towards theology, but I think your statement about theology needs more argumentation behind it if you're going to win over those for whom it is a danger.

  8. I must try Worcestershire sauce on chips!
    Regarding Michael's comments re.ordinands who spend so much time on student ministry, they neglkect study, there's an interesting discussion going on over at Cranmer's Curate:

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  9. This article exemplifies why Anglicanism is a failure and why Evangelicalism at large is a form of "Christless Christianity." Michael Horton has effectively argued that DOCTRINE IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A CHRISTIAN. You cannot be a Christian while believing doctrines which are directly opposed to Holy Scripture. This is why confessional statements are absolutely necessary to nail down where we stand on the systematic understanding of Scriptural teaching.

    Also, the Evangelical pentelateral is sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. The idea that "private judgment" is a problem is not only an inaccurate understanding of what the doctrine actually teaches but along with that misunderstanding throws out the doctrine of sola scriptura! Private judgment does not mean we can make the Bible say whatever we like and start our own cult. What it does mean is that Scripture teaches that Scripture itself is sufficient for all matters of doctrine, faith and practice. The 39 Articles uphold this principle as well. Private judgment means that we as church study the Scriptures together and allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Word for us. While we may and do err in that process and should always be reforming, it does not mean that we are free to do what works (pragmatism) or believe what we like (enthusiasm).

    I believe the Reformed Confessions are a great place to start. Anyone who has read and studied them and compared them with the Scriptures cannot come away unchanged, in my opinion. Having read the Bible from cover to cover all my life, when I began to read the WCF and the 39 Articles and other Reformed confessions (extended creeds), I knew that this is what Evangelicalism is supposed to be.

    I strongly disagree with Ugley Vicar's thesis that Evangelicalism is about experience rather than doctrine. That is an Anabaptist argument borrowed by the Pentecostals and the Charismatics. I would suggest if that is your view you are more theologically liberal than anything else. A bible believing Evangelical knows better!

  10. Ugley Vicar said, "According to Newman, however, the inevitable outcome of private judgement is that I become the judge and arbiter of what should be believed, rather than the recipient of the message of salvation."

    "And of course he is right, too! All of us in full-time ministry know from tedious experience that just because we say so doesn’t mean people are going to take our word for it that a particular doctrine or interpretation of the Bible is true."

    "And far from preventing people being blown about by every wind of doctrine, the exercise of private judgement, as Newman observed, leads precisely to constant changes and reversals in the beliefs not only of individuals but whole denominations. Thus, once upon a time, every Christian knew homosexuality was wrong and every denomination would have upheld that principle."

    "Yet today, both individuals and denominations condemn as sin and error what formerly was held to be truth and righteousness —but not in Rome."

    This is another example of Ugley Vicar's misunderstanding of the doctrines of sola scriptura, perspicuity of Scripture, and private judgment. Private judgment can only be understood in the context of the other two doctrines. What Vicar wants us to buy is that Christianity is an experience and evangelism is enthusiasm. But that isn't the biblical message at all. The Apostles went about turning whole world upside down with the "teachings" of Jesus Christ. Their Gospel message was a doctrinal one which their opponents well understood. While their doctrine was based on the OT Scriptures, the teachings of Christ, AND their firsthand witness/experience of his life, ministry,miracles and resurrection/ascension, they never rejected Scripture and doctrine as the locus of their theology.

    Furthermore, following a church hierarchy like blind sheep is the very thing which has led to the crisis we see in the Anglican Communion today. When bishops and archbishops are the primary focus of authority, then when those same leaders abandon Scripture for their own opinions we see apostasy. In fact, I would argue that this is why The Episcopal Church USA is apostate today. It was not Evangelical in doctrine since the 19th century but Anglo-Catholic! The Newman theory was dominant and it was Anglo-Catholic pageantry and idolary which has given way to a christless theology of praxis, pragmatics, and experience.

    While it is true that other mainline Protestant denominations go astray as well, the bottom line is that when Scripture is abandoned for some other locus or center of theology and doctrine the ultimate result is theological pluralism and relativism. It seems to me that Ugley Vicar is offering us the same poison laced koolaide. Evangelicalism is just outreach with no doctrinal content??? That is not only anti-intellectual, it is unbiblical and anti-Evangelical/anti-Christian!



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  12. P.S. It never ceases to amaze me that idiots still think sinful men in high offices of the church can do a better job than Almighty God can do in, with and through the Holy Scriptures! If that be the case, then why pray tell is the Archbishop of Canterbury a wolf in sheep's clothing, masquerading as an archbishop while all the while pushing the immorality and rebellion of homosexuality? Rowan Williams himself has ordained an openly homosexual priest before he became an archbishop. Having a papist or Anglo-Catholic theology of church authority guarantees one thing: when the head bishop is a liar then the whole church becomes apostate. What we need is a recovery of the idea that the local congregation is the locus of church authority and the final authority is Holy Scripture! Episcopal polity has safeguarded absolutely NOTHING. So what's the point of emphasizing a polity that is a dismal failure?!!

  13. "The great danger for evangelicals and evangelical organizations is that once a person is converted, all they are offered, and all they are asked to contribute towards, is more evangelism." - rather like the Smiths in The Matrix, producing, and aiming to produce, identical versions of themselves ? (