I notice that one of my colleagues in the church, Malcolm Round has been trying to define what an Evangelical is. Now, I’m very fond of Fr Malcolm and do believe he does a power of good though I have been surprised at how damning he has been in public about liberals in the church recently. One might think by reading his blog that he’s never read any good liberal theology and I’m sure that can’t be true.
However, I’ve been someone who has been an Evangelical and someone who has been greatly moved my much that people would label as liberal. Perhaps having heritage from both parts of the church I’m able to offer something helpful to the question of what it is that makes someone an Evangelical that Malcolm has been trying to answer. Those two strands, evangelical and liberal have contributed to who I am and how I live and how I try to spread the good news about Jesus.
I thought I might help Malcolm out with 10 things about Evangelicals that Evangelicals tend not to tell you when you first encounter them and when you first encounter an Evangelical church.
- Evangelicals believe in hell. By that, I mean that they generally believe that there is a real existence beyond this life where individual souls will be punished because of the choices that they made in this life – particularly the choice of whether or not to accept that Jesus is their personal Saviour and Lord. [Evangelicals are not the only people to believe in hell but that very personal view of salvation is pretty distinctive].
I tend to share the view of the mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, who had a vision in which she said she had seen hell, knew that it was real but found it to be empty.
- Evangelicals claim to read the bible and claim to take it very seriously but curiously, they don’t read much of it in their churches. I think this is one of the oddest things – if you come to a church like mine you’ll find a place where the bible is read out loud every day – a couple of readings and some psalms on weekdays and Sunday evenings and three readings and a psalm on Sunday mornings.
I think that one of the reasons that Evangelicals differ from other Christians on issues like sexuality is that other Christians are used to hearing passages of scripture read in the context of other passages which leads them to do a lot of compare and contrast thinking about different things in the bible.
- Evangelicals tend to view only one theory of the atonement as valid. The atonement is the business by which we are saved, put right with God etc. I’ve already indicated above in #1 what that view of atonement is.
I find different, sometimes competing views of what can put us in right relationship with God in the bible. (This isn’t surprising since different people wrote different bits of it at different times in history). I find different people today speak of coming into relationship with God in different ways. I sing hymns in which that diversity is recognised. I am moved by different views of the atonement at different times in my life. I can’t see how only one can be true. God doesn’t seem to be in that business.
- Many Evangelicals believe the modern State of Israel to be a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The idea is that God promised the land to the Hebrew tribes of old, preferring them over other tribes who once lived in that land. Pressure from American Evangelicals causes this view to directly influence US policy.
I think this view directly contributes to deaths in the Middle East and persecution for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. I’m aware that not all Evangelicals hold to it but I’d like to hear Evangelical leaders who do not subscribe to this view call out those who do.
- It is a common view amongst Evangelicals that it is only Evangelicals who are the real Christians. After all, if you only believe that there’s one way to put yourself right with God, you are only going to accept those who take that road.
I think that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy and that it isn’t my business speculating on who is in and who is out.
- Despite reading the bible and claiming to believe it, many evangelicals believe simony to be a legitimate way of getting what they want in the church. Simony is the practise of trying to buy and sell religious favours, posts or power for money. The term comes from Acts chapter 8 where a character called Simon Magus tries to buy a holy spirit experience. You don’t have to delve far into the current politics of most denominations without being told that if the denomination is nicer to gay people then the Evangelicals will withhold their financial contributions.
I think simony is a sin. In contrast with the God of Acts chapter 8, I don’t think it should be punished by instant death, however I think it is a sin that shouldn’t be indulged.
- Evangelicals form the core of the opposition to lesbian and gay people in many denominations. They claim that this is because “it says so in the bible”. Other Christians who also read the bible don’t think the bible says this and/or don’t think this is a legitimate way of reading the bible.
I think that accepting that gay and lesbian relationships are as legitimate as straight relationships does indeed cause many of the presumptions on which Evangelicalism is built to begin to feel very shakey. I’m interested in the new emergence of gay-friendly Evangelicals but I struggle to see how that works. Once I’d accepted that I thought that gay relationships could show forth the love of God as much as straight relationships then, for me, a lot of the rest of Evangelicalism crumbled. There are good theological reasons for this. Evangelicals have very good reason to be very frightened of the inevitable move towards accepting gay people and gay relationships in churches.
- Evangelicalism tends to follow the cultural trends of society 30 years later than other types of Christianity. Once upon a time, the examples above would have been about women in leadership in the church – now lots of Evangelicals have got over that. In 10 or 15 years time the examples relating to sexuality will be obsolete as large numbers of Evangelical churches will somehow have come to accept that gay people are OK. However, by that time they will be arguing furiously that other Christians have gone too far in accepting, loving and embracing people of other faiths. Expect “the uniqueness of Christ” to be something you hear a good deal more about.
I think that Evangelicals need to learn from their own experience of thinking about divorce and about the ministry of women. I wish someone within Evangelicalism would write a history of how Evangelicals have changed their minds.
- Evangelicals tend to think that the personal is more important than God’s good news for society. It is another consequence of that dogged adherence to one view of the atonement. The paradox is that Evangelicals are suspicious of those social movements such as feminism or gay rights which have emphasized that the personal is political.
I think that God’s love for the world is never merely personal and that’s part of what I was preaching about on Sunday.
- Evangelicals are a modern phenomenon. Evangelicals think that they are getting back to the original (authentic?) version of Christianity practiced by the early, first Christians and that there has tended to be a faithful remnant through the ages who have believed what they have believed. They tend to be ignorant or suspicious of histories which show modern Evangelical views to be responses to rationalist thinking emerging amongst, for example, Renaissance humanists or the new rationalists of the Enlightenment.
I think that I’m a child of the Enlightenment and I think that God still loves me. I think that most of the tenets of Evangelicalism would have been completely incomprehensible to most Christians during most of Christendom.
I hope this is helpful to Malcolm and to others who wonder what Evangelicalism is all about. Sometimes you can’t see things clearly whilst you are very close to them. That’s certainly my experience of Evangelicalism. Notwithstanding all the things above, Evangelicalism remains the place where I learned to love Jesus and where I met a God who loves me still. It also feeds many other churches – we’ve lots of people at St Mary’s who have been touched greatly by Evangelicalism but who now need to find somewhere to work out what bits of the Christian faith are true because they know that what they’ve learned so far is inadequate for them at the moment. I have much for which to be thankful to Evangelicalism.
The above list is a list of generalizations. That means that there are exceptions to just about all of them. Trust me, I’m aware of that.
But are any of those generalizations downright wrong?
And does this help explain Evangelicalism to those who encounter it from the outside.
You are welcome to chip in with a comment.