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.
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?
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.
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.Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
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