Monday, May 05, 2014

The Necessary Identity Crisis of Evangelicalism

Over the past few weeks, Evangelical Christians have been struggling with their identity--but in a good way. First, there was righteous indignation expressed toward one who claims to be one of us.  While speaking at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin made ignorant, heretical and unnecessarily provocative comments comparing Christian baptism to the practice of waterboarding, thereby blaspheming the Biblical picture of conversion, and giving Muslims in particular a false, militaristic view of Christian faith.  Many prominent evangelical leaders were quick to condemn her words, thereby separating themselves, and evangelicals as a whole from Mrs. Palin's very unChristian words.  

Then just last week, it was reported widely that Steve Chalke and his organization Oasis Trust, were removed from membership in the Evangelical Alliance of Great Brittain.  

One on the far-right, the other on the far-left.  But what they held in common should be obvious: both are more committed to their ideology than to Jesus.  

As a servant to more than 60 churches, all of which would call themselves "evangelical," I was encouraged by both of these developments. Often evangelical Christians are pigeon-holed into one particular cultural, political, or societal sector, when the truth is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most globally inclusive message in the worlld!  

At the same time, any movement with a center also has a boundary line.  Over the past few years, a number of prominent writers, pastors, musicians, and others who identify as Christian have struggled with whether they should continue to wear the term "Evangelical," or if they should seek to reform the meaning of the term by re-drawing those aforementioned boundaries.  In short, Evangelicalism in the west has been in an identity crisis.  And given the subject matter we have been discussing that has led us to this point, count me among those who think this is a good thing. .

Sometime ago, I wrote an article aimed at non-Christians outlining a more precise, and ironically, a more global view of Evangelical Christian identity.  The article was picked up by, and an edited  version can be found here.  But my original draft appears below.  My hope is that those seeking more information about Evangelicalism will hear in the following words who we really are, and what our common and central passions are.  Who are Evangelicals?  Keep reading!

“Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate.”  -Henry Louis Mencken

“To be Evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the Good News of Jesus.”  -An Evangelical Manifesto 

“Truly truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  -Jesus, John 3:3

For some, no group in North America is easier to hate, or more difficult to understand, than evangelical Christians.  Admittedly, some who wear this label often fit the negative stereotype that has come to be associated with the term, and too often, loud voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals spread a message that is less like Jesus Christ, and more like a political agenda or a cultural crusade.  Reactions to the term “evangelical” can be quite strong.  “Isn’t that the group who hates women and gay people?”  or  “Aren’t these the people who are afraid of science and societal advance?”   These assumptions understandably make some people nervous, and leave many wondering “exactly what do these people believe?”

But at its core, the evangelical message is not captive to any political philosophy or particular social agenda.  The core of the evangelical message, in fact, transcends political party, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and culture, and points ultimately to a God who loves all and desires for all to know Him.

Where did they come from?

Historically, Evangelical movements in the west emerged in the 17th century.  At that time in the United States, the movement was primarily forwarded in churches led by men such as Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts pastor who also served for a brief time as President of Princeton University.  The movement continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and stressed virtue and personal devotion to God.

A great number of our nations hospitals (such as Vanderbilt) and institutions of higher learning (such as Princeton University and Brown University) were started by evangelicals. In fact, every educational institution started in the United States up until 1789—with the single exception of the University of Pennsylvania—was started by a Christian denomination. The men and women who founded these institutions applied the message of Jesus to the enlightenment mindset that was prevalent at the time.  Their goal was to affect society as a whole in a positive way through the tangible expression of their Christian faith.  Literary works of this time period were also produced in this environment.  Today, students come to the United States from all over the world in order to attend western universities.  All of the top ten MBA programs in the world are in the west (8 in the United States, 1 in Canada and 1 in Great Brittain).  This reality is due in large part to the contribution of evangelical Christians who, centuries ago, implemented a vision for the betterment of culture through top quality and accessible education.

Additionally the “scientific revolution” was started in large part by Christians, who introduced an inductive “scientific method” to the world.  Christians believed then, as they do today, that God has revealed Himself in nature, as well as in the human psyche.  The 17th century chemist Robert Boyle stated that nature “is nothing else but God acting according to certain laws he himself fixed.”  Assumptions such as these provided an environment for the study and extension of mathematics and science in the west.  Though there were certainly those within Christian circles who opposed scientific advance, the truth is that these objections never represented the consensus of the Christian community

Evangelical thought has affected virtually every part of modern western society.  It was Christians who gave the world of art such notable painters and sculptors as Botticelli and Raphael.  Western classical music likewise, continues to be informed and inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and Handel’s “Messiah.”  Sociologist Rodney Stark admits that “the modern world arose only in Christian societies…..all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.”

What do they want?

Though evangelicals are often portrayed as being “against” culture, the aim of this group of Christians is to see culture redeemed and restored to God’s original intention.   Complementary evangelical beliefs in original sin and the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ have fueled attempts to create the kind of ideal environments in which this redemption can truly take place. 

Such were the convictions that led England's William Wilberforce to champion the cause of the abolition of slavery, eventually putting it to an end throughout the United Kingdom by the early part of the 19th century. The history of this group of Jesus’ followers demonstrates their strong contribution to uniquely western ideals.  

Freedom of religion is based on the evangelical belief that only personal faith in Jesus saves and therefore, the state should not dictate religious belief to the masses.   Principled pluralism rests on the evangelical conviction that “forced conversion” is in fact no conversion at all.  It is rooted also in the conviction that adherents to all faiths should learn to live peaceably with each other, and that each should be free in mind to pursue the truth. Belief in universal human rights and just warfare are grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s own image and likeness, and that therefore, each is worthy of dignity and respect.  Even the idea of separation of church and state owes its existence to a group of Baptist evangelicals who  were concerned about the encroachment of the state’s power into the life of the church. 

Throughout history, evangelicals have sought to advance civilization through principles that they believed were found within God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture and in nature.  That same spirit permeates the evangelical mindset today.  Evangelicals’ interaction with science, education, sociology, and culture at large is for the purpose of utilizing all those domains to better society, and communicate the Christian message in the process. 

What do they really believe?

These aspirations are motivated by the core beliefs of evangelical Christianity—belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the role of the church in society, and the urgency of global missions and humanitarian work.  Most importantly, evangelical action is based on the conviction that God has fully and finally revealed Himself to all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. 

So to truly understand what it means to be “Evangelical,” one must unplug this term from its occasional ties to American politics and culture wars.  Evangelicals can be found in “red states” as well as “blue states.”  Members in good standing of Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green Parties include devoted followers of Jesus, and all believe that the great unifier is not political affiliation, race, gender, or societal status, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At heart, evangelicals are simply bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, who Himself loved humanity enough to enter our world and do what was necessary to bring healing, understanding, and deliverance from ourselves into a genuine relationship with Him.  Evangelicals don’t always follow Him perfectly, but more than anything, their desire is that the world would see who Jesus is through their words and actions.

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