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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.