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How Bishop Curry’s Sermon Revealed the Four Evangelical Tribes

The following is an extended version of an article I published yesterday on Christian Today.  After I wrote about the Royal Wedding I was faced with two direct challenges/accusations – can you do any better (what would you write)?  And what do you mean that this sermon has indicated the faultlines in Western Evangelicalism? I will get to the former later – but I have been thinking a lot about the latter.  So here is something that I hope will help explain what I was trying to say and why this is so important.

One of the biggest surprises of That Royal Wedding sermon is the way that is has shown up the fault lines within evangelicalism in the West. I have been reflecting on this over the past week and it appears to me that there is a great deal that we can learn from the reactions.

Michael Curry
ReutersBishop Michael Curry preached at the Royal wedding 

What is an evangelical?

David Bebbington, a history professor at the University of Stirling, in his classic work, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s,gave four marks of evangelicalism which have stood the test of time: biblicism, crucicentrism , conversionism and activism. Evangelicals have traditionally been united across denominations, ethnic and social divisions (though not always) but often divided by issues such as believer versus paedo-baptism, charismatic versus cessationist, right versus left and Calvinist versus Arminian.

But today’s world is very different. As the West increasingly rejects its Christian roots (while attempting to retain the fruits), the church overall is struggling to respond – and evangelicals seem to be losing their way. The key question is how we relate both to the Bible and to the culture.

I offer the following as a tentative way to understand what is going on in the evangelical church today. There are four major tribes within evangelicalism, each existing on a spectrum.

1. Liberal/Conservative Evangelicals   

 These evangelicals are primarily determined by their political/social positions, which they allow to determine their theological ones. The liberal side will identify with any ‘progressive’ cause going and re-interpret the Bible so that they can find ‘biblical’ justification for whatever is the cause celebre of the moment. Conservative is used here in a political/social, rather than a theological sense. Like the liberals they tend to find justification for their views from the Bible. Although they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum in many ways the two groups are very similar theologically – they determine their understanding of the Bible by their political/social views rather than the other way round.

As such they are often liberal in theology, with at least three of Bebbington’s marks weakened; the only thing they are left with is the social/political activism. The Lib/Cons tend to capitulate to the culture. Many of the larger personalities in the evangelical world and sub-culture belong to this group.

In terms of Curry’s sermon they generally loved it: the liberals because it pushed every one of their progressive buttons and was therefore clearly a ‘gospel’ sermon, the conservatives because it was after all a Royal wedding and one mustn’t be critical of the Royals.

2. Broad evangelicals

 These are those who would hold to all four of Bebbington’s distinctives but see themselves as influencers of culture. They don’t want to major on theology (in public) and are willing to work with others, while maintaining evangelical distinctives. They do not like to appear narrow and believe in a methodology which could best be described as both ‘infiltrate’ and ‘trickle-down’. As regards the latter they believe that the best way to reach society is to reach the decision-makers, the gatekeepers, and so they place great emphasis on what could be termed ‘strategic’ evangelism. Aim for the top and there will be a trickle-down effect (of course they recognise the importance of the poor and will talk a great deal about social justice issues, but the reality is that the vast majority of the effort is spent on reaching those at the top – which is also where the money is that they need to resource their outreach).

They also tend to be much more willing to work in mixed denominations and with people of differing theologies because they believe that they can have an influence. They don’t agree with wrong theology, but will tolerate it for the sake of peace and for the opportunity to influence. A seat at the table is more important than determining the menu – because you can’t determine the menu unless you are sitting at the table.

Many of the large interdenominational evangelical organisations belong to this group. Its corporate methodology and tactics seem more conducive to them – as well as its focus on connecting with the culture and using the culture.

They regarded Bishop Curry’s sermon as flawed, recognising it was not a gospel sermon, but believe it did contain gospel truths – which could be used as discussion starters or gospel opportunities. They are reluctant to criticise in case it makes them appear negative or too closely linked with the next group.

3. Separatist evangelicals

They too would hold to all four of Bebbington’s criteria, with perhaps a little less emphasis on the social activism, because they fear being associated with a social gospel connected to liberalism. In fact this fear factor is an important element in their psychology. They have seen how the gospel has been contaminated by worldliness and heresy and so they desire to keep themselves as pure as possible.

One of the big problems for the separatists is that they are never quite sure who they should separate from. After beginning with separation from those who deny the gospel on primary issues (the atonement, the Bible, the resurrection, the virgin birth, sin, heaven and hell, etc) they quickly move on to secondary issues. They never know quite when to stop. Personal egos and empire-building can be as much as factor with this group (as indeed with all the others) as any doctrinal issue.

If they were watching the sermon at all (not being over keen on ritualistic state Anglican ceremonies) they would instantly have recognised it as heresy and immediately felt justified at their separation from evangelicals who did not have the discernment or the willingness to dissociate themselves from this kind of thing.

My problem is that when I look at these three groups I can, to some extent, sympathise with all of them. I understand the social activism and political engagement of the Lib/Cons. I admire the outreach and desire to influence of the broad evangelicals. And I appreciate the emphasis on purity and holiness of the separatists. But I just don’t belong to any of them.

The Lib/Cons distort the gospel so much that sometimes I wonder if they have left the faith altogether – some have clearly moved far away from biblical evangelicalism. The broad evangelicals seem to tie in biblical theology with worldly methodology and ultimately I think that is to the detriment of the church and the gospel. I don’t agree with the corporate trickle-down strategic approach – nor the low ecclesiology often found in these quarters. And the separatists are just too narrow and out of this world, although in another sense they are as worldly as anyone else. What tends to happen is that they separate their theology, worship and church life from their work and cultural lives, with the result that there is little interconnection between the two. So is there a fourth way? I think there is.

4. Puritan evangelicals

I can immediately sense the reaction. Weren’t the Puritans the arch-separatists, a joyless bunch of theological nitpickers who were the Christian version of ISIS in their day?

Not at all. In general they combined a deep love of Jesus and scripture with an intense spirituality and a commitment to the reformation and renewal of both church and society. They did so on the basis of purity (hence the nickname) – not their own but the purity of the gospel. They were theologians of the Holy Spirit and passionate about the inner life being the key to the outer. Their attitude to culture was to engage with it without compromising their core beliefs, and also being prepared to challenge the culture whenever it went against the principles of the gospel. In this they could be regarded as prophetic. At their best their zeal was directed towards the goal that God would be glorified in church and society. At their worst they were miserable hypocrites.

A Puritan view would be both to abominate Michael Curry’s sermon because it distorted, deceived and ultimately denied the Gospel, but at the same time to pray for all involved, love our enemies and to boldly and publicly proclaim the real gospel, whatever the cost.

My view is that we need a return to that Puritan view (although if anyone can come up with a better name please feel free). We need a high view of Scripture, prayer, preaching and the church. We need a holy courage and compassion in engaging the culture and an emphasis (in reality) on the poor and the voiceless within society. We need a clear commitment to orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice) because we are in danger of being torn apart by adopting the world’s values, especially on social media: tribalism, virtue signaling, identity politics, subjectivism, emotionalism and a lack of rationality.

Defeating the forces of evil will need all the spiritual weapons, fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit at our disposal. In a world of alternative facts we need the truth of Jesus Christ more than ever. And how we need to truthfully, boldly and lovingly tell that truth.

If Bishop Curry’s sermon prompts us to react in that way then we truly will know that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Additional note to the Christian Today article.

It is possible to be a Christian and to be in any one of these tribes (just as it is possible to be in any of the tribes and not be a Christian – the Lord knows who are his).  However I believe that the liberal/evangelical route moves away from the God of the Bible and many within this move away from Christianity altogether.  You will note that I have not named any individuals, organisations or churches – because that would have been a distraction – and not everyone fits neatly into these categories – they are on a spectrum.

Secondly I want to say that my motivation in this is not political, or tribal, or empire building, or to be a controversalist.  My concern is simply that I believe with all my heart in Jesus Christ (as he is given to us in the Bible) and I believe that his gospel is the ONLY hope for this fallen and broken world.  I believe that he has given us the means and power to proclaim that Good News but that there are significant spiritual obstacles and that we are in a real battle.    My view is that the Church in the West has in different ways assimilated to the culture and that we are in deep trouble and really do need a new reformation and renewal.

Thirdly I note that one of the ways we have assimulated to the culture is the way that we use social media to demonise and attack and the way that we continually play the ‘hurt feelings’ card.  Personally I’m tired of that and tired of the evangelical politics that goes on behind people’s backs – where people say one thing to your face, and do something different behind your back. I’m also tired of being constantly accused and faced with my own faults – (I admit them – and I suspect they are far worse than most people realise).  Of course I think I’m right – I wouldn’t say things if I thought they were wrong.  But that does not mean that I think I’m right because of my brilliance, etc..God forbid!  I write what I think because I believe it is biblical and true. But just because I believe it is biblical and true does not make it so.   I hope that I am always open to reassessment and to change.  I have often been wrong and am quite happy (usually – and even if I’m not – so what!) to be corrected.  But personal abuse or fault finding or minor complaints about style will not really help.  Give me reasons.  Give me evidence.  Give me the Bible.  Give me Christ.   I ain’t bowing down before anything else!

Finally I am fed up of both the divisions and the false ecumenicity within evangelicals.  Why can’t we disagree agreeably and agree to never let go of the main things?

I would summarise the tribes and distinctives in this way.

  1. Political -(liberal/conservative) –  they use the culture to interpret the bible and always end up capitulating to the culture (whether of right or left).  Their view of the church is more as a social/political club.
  2. Pragmatists (broad church) – they use the bible to interpret the culture in terms of theology, but the culture to interpret the bible in terms of methodology.  As as result they end up engaging with the culture but far too often at the price of  compromising with it.  Their view of the church tends to be a more corporate view with the church being there to meet individual needs, or to provide resources for interdenominational ‘ kingdom’ agencies.  They tend to have a low ecclesiology.
  3. Pharisees (separatists) – (I could not use this term because in most eyes it is a pejorative term and it would take too long to explain.  But the Pharisees were the separatists of their day – and they were not all bad – many did have a love for God and his word – and many came to follow Jesus – so I feel it is a justified term).  They use the bible to interpret the culture, but I think their methodology is unbiblical because they cede the culture to the devil.   They have a high view of the church, but one which largely closes it to the culture.
  4. Puritans – They use the Bible to interpret both the culture and the methodology.  This means that they engage the culture but often end up confronting it, because when culture and Scripture collide they don’t back down.  They have a high view of the church but one which sees it as open to being in the world, if not of it!

Of course there may be other tribes or groups.  For example I toyed with the idea of putting the Prosperity Gospel Evangelicals in a different tribe, but to be honest the Prosperity Gospel is no Gospel at all…it is what Paul calls a ‘doctrine of demons’.  I don’t recognise preachers who maintain that God has told them to ask their listeners for $50 million for their 4th jet, as being from any thing other than complete charlatans.


I offer the above tentatively and would be happy to hear other’s thoughts.  Above all surely we must unite in prayer before the throne of grace – seeking the Lord’s face and asking him to pour out his Spirit upon what has become a dry and thirsty land.

Bishop Michael Curry’s Sermon – A Distorted Gospel Divides the Church



  1. Very helpful analysis. What would be also useful is to see of the, are there one million evangelicals in the UK what % are what; if that is possible? Thanks for the article.

  2. David
    Your analysis is helpful in its clarity and updating of Bebbington’s ‘categories’. However, by default, albeit inadvertentantly, it probably intensifies the ‘fault lines’. I’m left pondering how the situation squares with Jesus’ prayer: “Father, that all of them may be one”.

    1. I think it exposes rather than creates them….the unity comes from worshipping the same Jesus and following the same bible. The devil disunites when he gets us to say ‘did God really say?”

      1. It is written “Do not go beyond what is written.” 1 Cor. 4:6, and it is written “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
        Do you have any idea what that law is Paul is referencing?

  3. Thank you David, a very helpful commentary. Two further thoughts:

    (1) The ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’ may be our best framework for understanding what evangelicalism is, but my perception is that most evangelicals have only the most generic view of their own identity. Usually, the working definition would revolve around some kind of emphasis on the place of the Bible. And that would largely be it – that would almost inevitably lead to a predisposition to be more accepting in relation to Bishop Curry’s sermon which had a kind of familiar feel to it.

    (2) The issue of how we responded to ‘the sermon’ is probably connected in some way to where we set the benchmark. These days, within the generality of the C of E (and of course there are exceptions!), it is almost impossible to establish realistic expectations which are sufficiently low. Compared to ‘those’ kinds of expectations, the sermon might (initially) have appeared in quite a positive light. If the backdrop is only the most superficially baptised paganism, we tend to be grateful for any little positive sign.

  4. I haven’t watched the sermon but I think you have perceived the church’s divisions or trends or ghettos very insightfully. I know all these churches and many representatives from each. Praise be to God, I believe we have found a home church which is of the Puritan variety. However, the temptations of all three of the other errors are always at the door.

  5. I take a simple view of evangelical. The original word relates to a messenger.
    So my question then is, a messenger of what?
    Whose is the message? Ours? Or Gods?

    All Royal Mail staff are ‘evangelists’! They take messages from one, and give them to another. They are the vessel, not source.

    So I see where David is coming from. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger!’ Let’s distinguish between messengers and their faults, and the origin of the message.
    The primary message absent from much evangelicalism that is found in the entire NT, is one of repentance. I.e. To have a change of mind. Without this message, the secondary, believe and receive, have little effect.
    If God determined that repentance was a prerequisite of the gospel, then it is to our folly we think we can leave it out of the message we bring.

  6. I think there is another significant “tribe” in evangelicalism today which in my view explains much of its weakness, and for which regretfully I believe that my generation is responsible. It is the tribe of the “post-charismatic” evangelicals.

    I grew up as a Christian in London in the late 60’s / 70’s where the evangelical climate was set by John Stott, Dick Lucas, Dr. M L-J and others. We were encouraged to use our brains to think and study the Christian faith in all its aspects, and which covered all four of David Bebbington’s marks of evangelicalism. It was a great time and place to be a young Christian.

    But into this came the charismatic movement spearheaded by Michael Harper (past curate of All Souls under John Stott) and the Fountain Trust, a movement set up to teach and encourage charismatic renewal. It was supported by some leading Christians such as Arthur Wallis, and to some extent by M L-J. And I, like many others, were swept along with the immediacy of it, and the vibrancy of the worship. They were exciting days. The Fountain Trust meetings were times I had never witnessed or experienced before. Revival was just round the corner. Many new “house churches” were formed at this time, largely led by individuals with little or no biblical training because who needs to go to theological college when you have the Holy Spirit for a teacher.

    Let me state that I no longer regard myself as a “charismatic” Christian. This is not a theological discourse, but I believe from scripture that a person is filled – “baptised” – with the Spirit at regeneration, and not as a subsequent experience, although there may be encounters with the HS on the journey. In this I know I disagree with my Pentecostal friends. I am also a “partial cessationist” – I do not believe that there are apostles today, and I do believe that anyone who stands in a pulpit and faithfully preaches the bible is being “prophetic” as opposed to someone who claims direct revelation from God. But obviously the gifts of evangelism, teaching, prayer, administration etc. all still function.

    For all its benefits (and there were many) the greatest downside of the charismatic movement was that it fed into the growing culture in the world of existentialism and ultimately post-modernism – objective truth does not matter, what you feel and experience is more important. “Feel it, don’t think it”! This has led to a generation of evangelicals who are more focused on experience, but who know little of their faith or its implications for a port-modern society.

    A symptom of this is that many Christians no longer read Christian books, and many Christian bookshops are struggling to survive (I still have cupboards full of such books – some are spiritual classics such as Knowing God by J. Packer,but those younger than me have never even heard of them).

    Of course this is part of a broad spectrum , and I am not suggesting it sums up all churches. But I believe that my generation, by focussing too much on the gifts and works of the Holy Spirit rather than on knowing Jesus, has left a legacy which weakens modern evangelicalism.

  7. Thanks, David. You ask for a better label for the Puritan evangelicals. Tentatively, I suggest classical evangelicals – ie. in the tradition of Owen, Wilberforce, Packer etc. Much as I dislike labels, I use this personally to disassociate from progressives (esp over sexuality) and and to avoid the conservative label (which is increasingly fraught in certain circles). Just in case it’s helpful…

    1. – or perhaps, ‘orthodox evangelicals’. Their position in orthopraxy, as David calls it, being clearly contained within and implicated by the Gospel itself.

  8. David, thank you for what was an illuminating analysis for me. It helps me to resolve several issues, chief of which is finding a spiritual and physical home for myself within the Church, having been detached from it, and wandering far afield in my own faith for many years. It is not easy to avoid those ditches you describe, when the embodiment of that Church is now both thinner on the ground, and subject to those confusions and errors you sketch.

    An underlying commonality which I now suspect underlies what is happening now, may be the simple erosion of belief. It is not much mentioned, but I do think that if your fundamental belief in Jesus, (I think you call it the soteriology? – whatever, basically redemption and repentance) is compromised for whatever reason, then the urge to suppress that deficit will be accompanied by one or other of those tendencies you describe. A ‘faith’ which is based on a hidden disbelief is a tragic, groundless one, and is bound to protect its hidden hollowness by just those social/antisocial strategies of assimilation, isolation or burial in the rituals of ‘process’. And I would hazard a guess that, just like other psychological adaptations to underlying trauma, it is only possible to address by addressing that hidden, central issue.

  9. Reblogged this on milfordpastor and commented:
    This is a very thought-provoking (and probably very accurate) analysis of current evangelical “tribes”; well worth a read, especially if you also use it to analyse your own position…

  10. We need to get back to talking about sin. Only when we know the depth of our sin do we then realise our need of christ and the cross. If we know that, then we begin to understand biblical love. If talking about sin and its consequenses and Gods punishment is bad news and talking about christ, his love, and his sacrafice is good news then we need to hear the bad news to understand the good news. The problem is that many of us only want the good news.

  11. I think this is a sensitive and important analysis. I would really appreciate a follow up article on the big issue I reckon all four tribes face: the shared experience of it becoming culturally unacceptable to be any kind of evangelical Christian at all. (Which may have played a part in the choice of wedding preacher.) How does each tribe address that issue? You could call it When Four Tribes Go To War, but there may be very good reasons why you wouldn’t 🙂

    Personally, I would allow Prosperity Gospel Evangelicals a place at the table. It’s just that they choose the most expensive items on the menu. And you’re right – somebody else always picks up the bill.

    Really appreciate theweeflea. Keep up the good work.

  12. Your article is very important and insightful. But, yes, I do not like the term ‘Puritan Evangelicals’ and not for the public connotations but for something that can better be expressed in the words of Christian artist Propaganda:
    I have a new proposal. Better, I think. Just call them ‘Old Evangelicals’. The evangelicalism you are talking about is the evangelicalism of Wesley, Wilberforce, Zinzendorf, Frederick Douglass, Hannah Moore, Olaudah Equiano, Countess Selina Hastings, ZacharyMacaulay, Katherine Hankey and (with mistakes as everyone else) George Whitefield.

    1. Except that Old Evangelicals also have faults. And Propaganda is just wrong – once again reading church history and theology through the eyes of 21st century American identity politics. I suspect he would not be able to name one Puritan who was a chaplain on a slave ship. Can anyone?

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