Evangelicalism with a broad brush
The editor's personal overview of where we are now
I get asked this question: ‘What do you make of evangelicalism?’
It’s a tough one. There are some negatives and some positives. But first we must set the scene.
What is an evangelical?
The word ‘evangelical’ is rooted in the Greek word for gospel. Evangelicals are gospel people. Paul gives a short summary of gospel essentials at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15.
We are told that the gospel is about eternal salvation (v.2), death swallowed up in victory. The need for salvation arises from human sin (v.3), our moral failure before God. The truth of salvation is found in the Scriptures (vv.3,4), God’s self-authenticating word. The agent of salvation is Christ (v.3). The achievement of salvation was through Christ’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection (vv.3,4,5). The acquiring of salvation is through faith (v.11), and therefore personal conversion is required. Together these constitute the sole means of salvation (v.2).
This, in brief, is the gospel for which evangelicals stand.
Lord Macauley (1800-1859) wrote that the world’s greatest democratic nations had a life expectancy of about 200 years. He said they go through the following cycle: ‘From bondage to spiritual faith; from faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again into bondage.’ If we see any truth in his assessment of the rise and fall of nations it is not hard to see where our country is at. In the last century we have set aside God and faith, gone over the hill and are now on the downward slope.
This has consequences. For example, there has been a change in my lifetime from Britain being a moral society, with individuals concerned to be ‘decent people’, to a culture of emotion in which enjoyment takes priority. Religion and morality have been forced from the public square to become purely private matters. ‘Good’ has been redefined as ‘enjoyment’. In biblical terms, when people lose sensitivity towards God they give themselves over to sensuality, in other words ‘feel good’ (Ephesians 4.19).
However, the gospel is predicated upon a moral view of life. Mankind’s greatest problem is sin before a holy God, and so salvation must take place first and foremost in moral terms; atonement must be made, sinners must be justly forgiven and made righteous.
Evangelicalism, if we can still call it that, is very divided. There are now numerous conferences, for example, each playing to a niche market. Some see the entrepreneurial pragmatics as one camp and the theological conservatives as the other. My take is that the switch from a moral culture to an ‘emotional’ culture has been key in wrenching evangelicalism apart.
On one side are Christians who, enamoured by the culture of emotion, have become embarrassed by the Bible’s moral framework and the great evangelical doctrines which flow from it, like original sin, the cross as penal substitution, God’s judgment and hell. Darwinism, death as natural not the result of sin, also undermines the moral view of life. They have begun to flirt with theological liberalism and to fall back only on works of mercy for evangelism. At one campus, the CU is encouraged not to share the gospel with fellow students but simply to give out ice creams in the name of Jesus.
On the other side are the more Reformed. They cling to the truths of evangelicalism but show extreme suspicion towards emotion, except conviction of sin. Whereas an older evangelicalism would have made room for personal experience of God, the Reformed tend to turn faith into an intellectual exercise. To express too much joy, or to testify to feeling God’s leading in prayer, is to be deemed ‘charismatic’.
And it is not as if there is even unity within these two camps. Evangelical churches are often in competition. Satan laughs and Christ is grieved.
We have been aware for years of the problem of how to hold the Word and the Spirit, mind and heart together. Perhaps the rapprochement between Terry Virgo of New Frontiers and the conservative evangelical Anglicans and Free Church people found at New Word Alive is a step in the right direction. Meanwhile lack of unity is a reason why the churches often lack power. Where brothers live together in unity, there the Lord commands the blessing (Psalm 133).
As society has waved goodbye to moral norms, so we have seen the increasing worldliness of the church. This is most obvious in the lack of requirements for membership in many churches, and the subsequent lack of discipline for sinful behaviour (1 Corinthians 5, etc.).
Sin is the breaking of God’s law as enshrined in the ten commandments. First, there has been a downplaying of the commandments. We can preach a gospel stressing that we are saved from the curse of the law while failing to mention that we are saved in order to keep God’s law (Romans 8.4).
Second, there are those that uphold the law but in a legalistic way which lacks humanity, or in a way which strains at a gnat but swallows a camel. All this makes many ordinary Christians throw up their hands in despair and opt for a Christianity of simply being ‘kind’, tending towards situational ethics. Christian obedience has lost direction.
But the culture of emotion produces another, perhaps greater worldliness in the church. Emotion is about ‘me’ and churches can become man-centred rather than God-centred. The congregation has become consumer. There was an article in the Anglican journal Anvil some time ago about the ‘advertising discourse’ used in church services: everything is ‘special’ and about ‘enjoying’ it. The comment was that the priest no longer genuflects to the host, the minister genuflects to the congregation, ‘Please, please come back to the next service!’ Lack of God-centredness leads to lack of real prayer and also leads to a lack of spiritual power.
The shift from the moral outlook to the culture of emotion adopted by the modern world has left many evangelicals out of touch with society.
Some are judgmental towards their neighbours, rightly perhaps identifying their sins but unable to love them because they don’t understand Generation Xers and beyond. Others, given the private/public divide, simply feel the barrier to introducing talk of ‘private’ issues with non-Christians. They know that any mention of sin will be seen as bigoted. So they retreat into a Sunday ghetto mentality. Along with the popular misconception that our faith has no basis in fact, this retreat adds to the gospel appearing irrelevant. By contrast, such was the quality of the lives of the early Christians that non-Christians were asking them about their faith (1 Peter 3.15).
Those are the negatives. But, thankfully, that is not all that is going on among evangelicals. Here are some great positives.
Evangelicalism 50 years ago tended to be narrowly pietistic and na?ve theologically. Perhaps that was the reason, for example, that evangelicals said relatively little in opposition to the abortion act of 1967. They simply had not thought the issues through.
Starting with the rediscovery of the 17th-century Puritans in the 1950s, there have been huge steps forward. New theological colleges have come into being. Evangelical theologians have dug deeper into Scripture. Theological liberalism has been put to retreat in many areas. Churches have been able, in various ways, to upgrade and spread more widely good biblical theological training. Not long ago a conference like New Word Alive would have been impossible. A new generation of young people are being raised up who love good preaching and have a taste for Bible truth.
This was rare 50 years ago. We have begun to respond to the needs of our nation by planting local churches to both hold out and live out the gospel in a neighbourhood. We are still finding our way, but many valuable lessons are being learned. New churches are being planted and old dead churches raised back to life. Christians are prepared to move house to help plant a church. We are rising to the challenge of how to share the gospel with unchurched people who have no Bible background. This is thrilling.
There is much opposition. The ‘new atheists’ pour scorn on faith. We see Christians losing their jobs over matters of conscience. When we realise that churches are being planted and growing against such a background, it is marvellous in our eyes.
Black majority churches
Though it is a ‘hot potato’ politically, much immigration has actually brought blessing. Not only do people from overseas tend to be more open to the gospel, but large churches have grown among migrants. Whereas in 1979 London had the lowest percentage of church attendance of any city in the country, by 2009 it had the highest. With the black churches able to organise all night prayer meetings of 30,000 or more people at the ExCel Centre, this should not surprise us. Such churches can be tainted by a ‘prosperity gospel’ outlook, but many are basically evangelical and Bible-based. My own understanding is that had it not been for the efforts made by the black churches, the ‘religious hatred bill’ of 2006 would have become law.
Facing legal challenges
Another marvel has been God’s provision of the Christian Institute, the Christian Legal Centre and other organisations to help believers at a time when it can seem that Christianity is becoming a criminal offence. How God led Colin Hart to leave his teaching job all those years ago and set up the Christian Institute is a great story of our day.
Many of the legal difficulties in which Christians find themselves, especially at work, have their roots in the cultural change mentioned earlier. As the old moral values are set aside and the primacy of not offending anyone (emotions again) has become enshrined in various ‘equality’ laws, so Christians can find themselves at odds with the authorities. But, interestingly, it is through such challenges and such organisations as the Christian Institute that Christians are being drawn to stand together and support one another, perhaps in a way which we have not seen for a long time.