Am I Evangelical? (6)

WHAT NEXT FOR EVANGELICALISM?

The 2001 Evangelical Alliance Assembly in Cardiff, England, was an opportunity for evangelicals to come together and find a positive direction for the future. Indeed, Joel Edwards, then General Director of EA, said that evangelicals who seek to ‘win public arguments rather than people’s hearts … will not be heard,’ and this seems to speak against the aggressive defending of faith and doctrine that is so often the hallmark of Evangelicalism.

Is that why only 2,000 people attended the conference where 3,000 had been hoped for, causing the conference made a financial loss; or is plain apathy and disbelief in Evangelicalism the real reason? Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, noted that ‘there wasn’t anything at the conference that was not covered by events like Spring Harvest, Easter People or New Wine.’ He concluded that the Evangelical Alliance ‘needs to ask itself what it is in existence for.’ Good question.

It seems to me that Evangelicalism is rather like a bag of boiled sweets. There is apparent togetherness because they are all in the same bag, but it is only a paper bag of unity. This paper-thin unity hides a variety of flavours that are united only because they happen to be in the same place. There is a vast variety of flavours, so that, as Gibson notes, ‘the ecclesiastical supermarket offers a bewildering complexity of options,’ but the paper-thin unity is terribly fragile, and the flavours are lost upon the ground when the bag breaks. Who wants a dirty sweet?

Furthermore, as Bebbington noted, the flavour of those sweets has changed (deteriorated?) over the years, for ‘Evangelical religion in Britain has changed immensely during the two and a half centuries of its existence.’ The sweet that was popular fifty or a hundred years (or more) ago is not the same sweet that is around today. As Bebbington said, ‘Nothing could be further from the truth than the common image of Evangelicalism being ever the same.’

While Protestants like to consider their evangelicalism as fundamental, such an association is fictional, rather than real according to Bebbington: ‘Because Evangelicalism has changed so much over time, any attempt to equate it with ‘Fundamentalism’ is doomed to failure.’ I would therefore contend that Evangelicalism is not real life. As Reverend Peter Barber once wrote: ‘I too was brought up in a pious evangelicalism which seemed detached from real life … the fellowship I attended was remote from the real issues of the society around it.’

I further contend that Evangelicalism is actually little more than a preservation society. Or, more accurately, a self-preservation society. An ineffective self-preservation society, according to Frost: ‘The members of the preservation society prefer the kingdom of God to be housed in a museum; the church embalmed in lifeless institutionalism; the people of God stored safely as dried bones. Sadly, while they are labouring to preserve the life of the church, they actually hasten its death.’ The self-preservation society is, itself, now crumbling away to dust, and it will continue to do so.

The self-preservation society of Evangelicalism claims that it is guarding the truth and protecting the purity of the gospel, but where is the openness to receive and consider what other evangelicals are saying? Clark Pinnock has stated that ‘the truth claims that we make are all open to discussion and we ought to be teachable and ready to learn because none of our work rises to the level of timeless truth.’ Yet anything that he says or writes is treated and judged as if it were trying to be timeless truth and both he and his words are viciously attacked.

Evangelical ‘unity’ did not outlast the publication of books about Open Theology by Pinnock and others, for some evangelicals were denouncing as heretics the very evangelicals who were writing these things that they did not agree with. This so-called ‘defending of the faith’ destroys the myth of Evangelicalism united. As Pinnock himself confessed, ‘I am not particularly concerned about my reputation as an evangelical theologian, having advanced new proposals in the past and taken the heat of criticism before, though not to the extent of being called a heretic.’

Furthermore, other evangelical writers can identify with the experience of Alistair Ross who said that he ‘has been on the receiving end of a scarcely veiled judgementalism which seeks to measure evangelical purity, and he has encountered the narrowness of mind by which some define spirituality in the blinkered terms of the evangelical world.’

Will Evangelicalism never learn that a house divided against itself cannot stand? And that in-fighting among its own members is leaving unchallenged the true enemy of our souls? This infighting highlights the fact that, for far too many people, Evangelicalism is about theology, not about knowing the God of theology. It is about proving why they are right and someone else is wrong.

WOMEN

All too often, Evangelicalism is not about God at all, but only about man. For Murray, ‘A recurrent feature in the history of the church has been the significant role played by women in first generation church planting movements, and their marginalization in subsequent generations.’ Why do Evangelicals so deny women their place and function in the body of Christ? ‘Women can and should expect to play varying roles within Christian leadership,’ said Beasley-Murray, making himself friends and enemies simultaneously.

Is there any unity among Evangelicals about the role of women? No, and neither is this a new issue. ‘I would like to discuss the place of women and the degradation of women in our day,’ said Tozer more than forty years ago, ‘but I may as well shut up. There is just no use.’ He was not the first to feel that way.

‘It is important to note that our God is bigger than just our favourite type of Christianity.’ Said Goldsmith. What Goldsmith said of the church is equally true of Evangelicalism. In 1979 Cook wrote of four ‘strands of evangelicalism’, each of which had its ‘own approach to Scripture.’ As a collection of everyone’s favourites, Evangelicalism is an organisation (of sorts) and Thwaites observed that ‘the challenge is that we have taken the organisational dimension of life and placed it over us. The outcome is that most leaders and saints now live to serve it. Evangelicalism is neither a good servant nor a good master.

VARIOUS FLAVOURS

Any thought that a move of God might bring Evangelicals together or promote Evangelical unity has nothing in history to support it. The arrival of the Charismatic Movement from 1963 onwards drew ‘many recruits from Evangelicalism’ as Bebbington noted, but it opened a gulf between Pentecostalists and the Charismatics because many Pentecostalists were suspicious that the new movement emphasised testimonies at the expense of Bible teaching.

Surely Evangelicalism should welcome any move of God? Are people not people the world over? Is it not possible for people to be in the kingdom of God unless they are also inside Evangelicalism?

The House Church movement did not promote unity among Evangelicals, and Professor Hollenweger asserted that ‘the House Church movement is the result of a failed attempt at reviving the existing churches and thus will become – not immediately, but in time – another denomination’. Is Evangelicalism in reality just another denomination? As the Professor has observed, ‘conformity of theology does not create unity! (What an important insight for our ecumenical committees!)’ And Evangelicalism certainly does not have conformity of theology!

Many Evangelicals pray for revival, talk about revival, long for revival; so surely revival would unite the Evangelicals? Yet the simple fact is that ‘revivals’ (whatever they may be) are all too often accompanied by marked disunity among Evangelicals. Duncan Campbell was opposed during the Lewis revival of 1949 to such an extent that that the revival appeared to cease for a while. It has often been said that disunity among churches was the apparent reason for the ending of some revivals.

Wright has said that Scottish Evangelicals have ‘a tendency to speak out only when there is something to protest against, and normally when this is a matter of ‘sin’ rather than of the unjust ordering of society.’ This is a very negative image for Scottish Evangelicals, but it has a great deal of truth in it. Evangelicalism in general will find itself spending most of its time trying to patch up its own wounds and prevent further self-fragmentation when it should be known for something positive in society; Evangelicalism should represent something good.