(This is a reworking of the previous piece I did as my 'third' Ireland talk, which I wasn't entirely happy about. I'm still not wholly thrilled, but I have to get a plane in a couple of hours! Those who read the other might scroll down to 'No desire for division'.)
The future for Evangelicalism
What, then, do we need to be doing to strengthen evangelicalism, and where does the future lie for evangelicalism as a movement and for evangelicals within a denomination like the Church of Ireland?
One of the things impressed on me by my old friend Canon Harry Sutton was that evangelicalism needs to be a theological movement. And so if we are to strengthen evangelicalism, we need to start from our theology, and specifically —as we are evangelicals —our theology of evangelism.
I want to tell you a story, or rather to read you a story from Scripture, and to ask you if you can spot the difference between this and most contemporary evangelism. Its from Acts 9:26,
“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”
Now let me pause there and ask how many of us would have done the same. My guess is, we all would have done. We would have seen it is a golden, God-given opportunity to proclaim the gospel.
But now let me ask, how many of us would then have got the response Philip got:
"And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’"
Why the difference?
My guess is none of us. On the contrary, the way gospel was presented to us, the way we present the gospel to others and the way we teach others to present the gospel, would not lead anyone to ask, “What is to prevent me being baptized?”
Yet compare that with Acts 2:41, “So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized ...”, or 8:11, “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women,” or 9:18, “Then Paul rose and was baptized,” or 16:32-33, “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”
What I want you to notice is not ‘that they were baptized’, but how baptism follows naturally from the gospel in Acts, and then to ask why it doesn’t follow naturally —in fact doesn’t even get a mention —in most contemporary evangelical evangelism.
No need for baptism?
The first reason, I would suggest, that we do not lead people to baptism is that we still live within a ‘post-Christendom’ culture where many people —perhaps even most in Ireland —are already baptized.
We therefore identify the key issue as belief, not baptism —and to a certain extent we are right. The Bible is clear, and my understanding is that Anglican doctrine since the Gorham judgement upholds, that we are not saved simply by being baptized.
On the contrary, we must take proper account of St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel ...”
Nevertheless, we again see here our pragmatism —most people are baptism, many don’t believe, let’s focus on belief, and not worry about baptism.
It also reveals, however, that we have not yet come to grips with the growing difference between the Church and contemporary culture. Society is no longer divided into the baptized and the unbaptized.
However, that difference is going to confront us more and more, and a sign of that difference will be fewer and fewer people getting baptized. When that happens, baptism will mark the transition from one culture to another as emphatic as the current difference between Christian and Muslim or Hindu or Jewish cultures.
No desire for division
Another reason I would suggest is that we are rightly afraid of division. We experience evangelical unity across denominational divides as a good thing —better, then, to stay away from debates which might destroy that unity.
Once again, we are revealed as pragmatists, and there is much to be said for our pragmatism.
However, we must seriously ask whether it is always justifiable. How strong is a relationship (for example with other Christians) that does not confront real disagreement?
And how helpful is an attitude which means that we ourselves don’t think through our position on a core issue because we are afraid that if it became too explicit is might disrupt our unity?
The problem with this habit of mind is that it spills over into other areas —what about the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, for example? How strong can this be if we do not confront our differences? And does it just become a flag of convenience against homosexuality?
And this is not just a question of working with Anglo-Catholics, but also Charismatics. I was very struck by an interview Nicky Gumbel recently gave for the Guardian in England where he refused to describe himself as ‘an evangelical’.
At the heart of this is the Alpha movement’s commitment to institutional belonging and ecumenical cooperation. But must this be bought at the price of deliberate doctrinal ‘fuzziness’? Can we be ‘all one in Christ’ and yet indifferent on core issues? And can any Christian organization thrive which fails to agree on something as basic to the New Testament as the outcome of evangelism?
As far as I am aware, incidentally, the Alpha Course is typically evangelical in that it doesn’t mention baptism at the point of bringing people to conversion.
No effect from baptism?
The fourth reason I would suggest, however, why our presentations of the gospel leave out baptism, is that many evangelicals are unclear what baptism does, and many of these evangelical ‘don’t knows’ are also ‘don’t really cares’.
Indeed, I have heard of Anglican clergy who have said at an infant’s baptism that ‘we are doing nothing here —just making the baby’s head wet’.
Now I have no doubt that those who take this view of baptism believe that in their daily ministry they are fulfilling the Great Commission. And yet they regard one key element of this —baptizing people —as almost an ‘optional extra’.
Once again, though, I want to emphasize the problem is not first of all in what we are doing —baptizing or not baptizing —as in what we are thinking about the gospel itself: why does our presentation of the gospel not have a New Testament outcome?
A detachment from tradition
And here I would like to consider the effect of this on the people we lead to Christ. When Paul found a funny group of disciples in Ephesus, as we read in Acts 19, and was trying to work out what was the problem, the question he put to them was, “Into what then were you baptized?” (19:3). Where do you fit? Where do you belong? How did you get here?
Now of course this is not a question about liturgy. It is not a ‘mechanistic’ question about the process of Christian induction. Rather, it looks to how they received the faith, from whom they learned it, and what they had learned.
We see this from the way that the answer, “Into John’s baptism” results in an explanation about Jesus. Nevertheless, notice, v 5: “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
There may be interpretive disputes about what this actually meant —was it ‘by hearing this’ or ‘subsequent to hearing this’? But it is there: the gospel leads to baptism and thence incorporation into the Christian mainstream, which is to say, into the Church.
By contrast, the typical evangelical presentation of the gospel privileges the individual in relation to the Church. So Norman Warren, in telling you how to “grow strong as a Christian”, writes,
"The Bible is the Christian’s food. It is a living book and through it God will speak to you. Read it every day."
This reading is clearly, however, on your own. And on praying, he writes,
"Talk to Jesus Christ naturally as to a close friend, yet respectfully remembering who he is. Spend time alone with him every day."
Here, praying is explicitly ‘on your own’: “alone with him”. God speaks to you in the Bible, you speak to God in prayer, but essentially you do this alone. True, he adds, “never miss being with Christians in church on Sunday.” But that is point three, not point one.
And it is my suggestion that this individualization of the gospel sows the seeds for later problems for evangelicalism as a movement because it has created problems within the individual evangelical.
Correcting the problem
It is my conviction that evangelicalism needs to be strengthened in three specific areas: in understanding tradition, in developing theology and in engaging with culture. And this can and ought to apply from the point of delivery of the gospel —it ought not to be something added on afterwards.
The key to this is not baptism. The key is our understanding of the gospel. It is the gospel, not the liturgy, which saves people.
At the same time, however, we need to see that in the New Testament the call to ‘repent and be baptized’ is the same as the call to ‘repent and believe’.
Baptism is not a sign of belief but an act of believing. And as such, it is also an act of obedience to something outside and beyond ourselves which brings us immediately into a relationship with others, not least because we cannot baptize ourselves, and indeed would not naturally think of baptism as a first expression of our faith.
If we preach repentance and faith as merely inward experiences and personal decisions, we privatize the faith. Then, when the individual is confronted by the church —by the lives and beliefs of other Christians —there is a fresh challenge: “What has my faith got to do with these people?”
Baptism, however, confronts us immediately with the reality of the church and shifts the centre of gravity from us and our faith to elsewhere, and that must be good for the development of our understanding.
What I also received
In 1 Corinthians 15:3 the Apostle Paul declares that faith in the gospel involves a chain of transference: 2For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received ..."
And it is his declared intention that this chain should be unbroken. In 2 Tim 2:2 he writes, "... what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also."
Of course, we know the importance of selecting ‘faithful men’ to pass on the tradition. What we seem less quick to recognize is that we ourselves are part of that process —or should be— that we are to pass on what we have received.
Faithful teaching does not start with us! We are neither the originators nor the arbiters of what is true. We are indeed to discern what is true —but not to decide what is true, and the difference is fundamental, for it puts us in a position of learning.
The people of God
Now there is clearly a danger here of creating a false ‘Apostolic succession’. Yet that is itself forbidden by Christ: “Call no one ‘teacher’”. But it is important for us to understand that we begin the Christian life as learners.
Paul has no problems in reminding the Colossians that they first learned the gospel from Epaphras. And although Paul received the gospel from Christ, those whom Timothy selected received it from him.
Indeed, when we read the New Testament it is clear that in the Church the ‘learner-teacher’ relationship was basic to the community. God’s people were ‘disciples’ — yes, of Christ, but through those whom Christ had given to the Church as apostles and prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers.
The gospel calls us —or should call us —into a community of teaching and learning, of admonition, exhortation and edification in God’s word. That is the vision in the Old Covenant and it is the vision in the New. In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, we read,
2And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
And in Colossians 3:16, we read,
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom ..."
The Christian community —the Church —is to be literally a community of learning. But that is not what we find in many evangelical circles. Rather, we find diversities of opinions, and if you’re wondering where you’ve heard that phrase before, it is in the preface to the Thirty-nine Articles in the Book of Common Prayer, which are given “for the avoidance of diversities of opinion.”
The shocking thing is how far Anglicanism has departed from this notion. Indeed, it is now an article of faith that Anglicanism exists to embrace the diversities of opinions.
But are evangelicals any better? I suggest we are not, because we have individualized belief and therefore, in the end, enthroned personal opinion about the faith. And we do this as the point of conversion.
Reestablishing our theology
One of the challenges I would present to evangelicals, then, is to present the church as a learning community within which the tradition is discerned and by which it is passed on.
John Chapman once said that if you heard a preacher or a minister say from the pulpit or platform, “I am not a theologian,” you should shout out “Boo!” And I suspect he would.
Evangelicals have got to get over their fear and suspicion of theology. I could quote at some length what men like Luther, Wesley and Spurgeon have all had to say about the need for learning in ministers of the gospel. But let me just quote Jonathan Fletcher speaking about John Chapman’s early influence in England:
"We didn’t need to be encouraged in evangelism —we’ve always been flat out at that. We needed to be rescued for reformed theology."
And here are equally telling words from Dick Lucas: “When [Chappo] first came to us he did a series on God and his sovereignty, and so on. I remember then being amazed at the theological nous of this man. After all, he’d come across to do evangelism and we weren’t used to travelling evangelists quite like this!” (Chappo, p202)
Again, we see our evangelical pragmatism. The focus of many evangelicals in the middle of the last century on evangelism rather than theology lives on, and it is not helped by our institutions, where such theology as is taught is often bad theology.
Rather than despair, however, evangelicals should begin by creating ‘communities within the community’. As monks and monasteries once preserved Western learning, so evangelicals, in societies, colleges, symposia and seminars should seek to establish and preserve the truth of ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
We can see, however, that we sit light to the church by the way that our evangelism leaves out the things of the church, such as baptism. It is not the cause of our problems —it is a symptom —nevertheless, attending to the symptom may lead us to both the cause the cure.
And then, finally, evangelicals need to resume (for it was there in previous generations) their engagement with human culture and the development and deployment of a truly Christian culture —a culture which is developed from a gospel understanding of life, humanity and the human calling.
Too often, being an evangelical has meant abandoning notions of culture. Alternatively, we have sought to rule over the culture from a position that owes nothing to the gospel and much to traditional understandings of power.
Today, we are becoming like refugees and scavengers on our culture. We feed from the scraps of the media and television —criticizing it sometimes, but generally simply absorbing it.
We emphatically do not live as ‘the baptized’. Indeed, the world not only seeks to force unto into its mould, it has largely succeeded in overthrowing Romans 12:2 (do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind).
This was brought home to me recently by a request from the Guardian to write a short piece on how the conservative Christian attitude to homosexuality has been a defeat for them in the wider culture.
What is truly bizarre about this —and at the same time very revealing —is that the commissioning editor apparently thinks that the rest of conservative Christianity could pretty easily be absorbed by our prevailing culture.
But isn’t that true? As we engage with our non-Christian friends and colleagues, are we different from them? Are our attitudes and aspirations different from theirs? Certainly they are at the level of believing in God. But are they different in what we believe about life? Above all, are we different in the way we think: are we transformed by the renewal of our minds.
You might think it is a long stretch from here to baptism, but as I have indicated, it is not for a Jew or a Muslim. The Muslim, especially, knows that in baptism he is leaving not a religion but a world —an entire culture which permeates everything: food and shopping, sex and family life, finance and politics.
The Christian leaves what? The Christian enters what? We have hardly begun to realize the difference this ought to make.
To give just one example, I was listening on the radio yesterday to an item about troublesome youth and one of the key problems identified was lack of a father figure in many boys lives, especially.
But the premise for dealing with their problems was that, ultimately, the choices they make for themselves must be sacrosanct.
Now I would suggest that the Christian view of fatherhood rejects the notion that the choice is sacrosanct, because it introduces the idea of ‘sonship’ and obedience, exemplified in the obedience of the Son of God to God the Father.
So in this apparently small way, Christianity conflicts with one of our core cultural assumptions.
Christians need to know they are different. But more than that, they need to know they are different together, as the community, Luther called it the gemeinde, of the baptized in the Church.
Of course there are dangers in this, not least of tribalism. That is where the rôle of pastor-teachers is so important. We must ourselves challenge the culture of tribalism, which is of the world, not the gospel. We must teach and preach the faith.
But we will increasingly do it in a world which stands apart from us, and from which we must ourselves stand apart. Evangelical compromise with the culture has always been an issue. But then evangelical awareness of the community of God’s people has never been a strength.
As we become what we are meant to be, so we will be equipped to face the challenges. And in the end, both evangelicalism and evangelism will be the stronger.
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.
When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.