Understanding Evangelicals

time_evangelicalsSome months ago I wrote about the way that the evangelical movement in Britain and America was divided into numerous ‘tribes’. Those of us who are not evangelical are always being encouraged to think that the vast range of expressions within this movement is broadly a single entity. I strongly questioned whether one can ever have a consistent description of a movement which is so deeply divided in a variety of ways.

Last Friday in the Church Times, a British newspaper on broadly Anglican topics, there was an article attempting to make non-evangelicals think positively about evangelicalism within the Anglican Church. The article by Ian Paul was claiming that a significant minority of bishops in England could now be seen to be evangelical. The same thing could also be said for the majority of Anglicans offering themselves for ordination. This situation was, the author claimed, a positive movement and it would eventually bear fruit in a healthier more dynamic Anglican church in this country.

I found myself immediately provoked into writing a letter to the newspaper questioning various assumptions that were contained in the article. In particular I queried the claim that we could all regard the evangelicals in the Anglican Church in this country as somehow united. I said that I felt that there were deep differences, even divisions, which made this assumption of doubtful value. In particular I pointed out the fact that many evangelicals were advocates of charismatic worship and ministry, while others regarded this as an aberration from the true gospel.

I then went on to describe three distinct expressions of the evangelical culture, as I encounter it, which do not link at all to theology or history. The distinctions that I observe have to do with the way self-styled evangelicals react to those who are not among their number. In the first group which I describe as open or inclusive, there are large numbers of sincere Christian men and women who, while grounded in distinctive evangelical experience and belief, are nevertheless broadly accepting of Christians who are not like themselves. Many of these Christian people are open to new moral insights on such things as gay marriage or the position of women in the church. Others in this inclusive group will take a more conservative view but they are united by a reluctance to condemn other Christians who do not agree with them.

A second group of evangelical Christians can be distinguished by the fact that they hold a belief system, whether about the Bible or the central issues of faith, which cannot be in any way compromised. They thus reject other Christians who do not take their line on scriptural interpretation, the keynote doctrines of substitutionary atonement or the place of heaven and hell. They are the exclusivist group and we have often met them in this blog. Their faith and their fervor are a strong part of their identity but they feel that part of this faith requires them to reject other Christians who hold opinions that do not accord with their own.

A third group also exists and in many ways these are the most difficult for a non-evangelical to deal with. These are the evangelical Christians who say different things about what they believe depending on the people they happen to be with. As an example of this I was thinking of a well-known theologian who knows how to speak to an academic audience on biblical matters. This same theologian will speak in a quite different way when confronted by a conservative group which has only ever heard reactionary and simplistic Biblical teaching. When you have seen such a person at work in these two different settings, you wonder which are the true beliefs that he holds. Is he a conservative at heart who wants to be heard by other scholars in his field? Alternatively is he a scholar who knows that there is a financial and political advantage in being regarded as an advocate for a reactionary conservative position? In the world of conservative networks it is very important to be considered as ‘sound’ and thus receive invitations right across the world to address wealthy congregations. Such a reputation might easily be damaged if the preacher allowed some residual academic doubts to appear anywhere within his preaching. Conservative theology and conservative congregations do not tolerate the agonising and questions of an academically trained mind.

Writing the previous paragraph, it is obvious that I have in mind one particular distinguished theological writer but I am not going to share his name with my blog. I write about him to illustrate a wider point. This is that I believe it is impossible for anyone who has had a half decent theological education not to recognize that there are problems and nuances in the way that the Bible has to be interpreted. The conservative preacher of the Scriptures has to present the Bible as having a single correct interpretation. But we know that this is a falsehood. I say this not because I am arguing for some sophisticated liberal interpretation of Scripture but because no two conservative ministers will ever be able to avoid arguing about what is correct. If the truth of the Gospel is so plain and clear, why has no one yet discovered it? The answer to the problem that truth is never plain and obvious. It needs patience, discernment and time to tease out what we should know and understand of God’s message to the world. That will never be an easy task. Even when we think we have found it, we still need the guidance of the Spirit to help us work out its implications for us and our situation today.

I will not know until Friday whether my letter to the Church Times is to be published. I suspect that it may be a bit too long for their letters page but we will see. Meanwhile it has encouraged me to have a personal rant about this issue of ‘who are the evangelicals?’ To me they are found in many forms; we should not pretend any more that they are a single united group. Such a claim may help to increase their power and status but it is, I believe, based on a fantasy.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Understanding Evangelicals

  1. Personally, I dislike a sense of there being parties within the church. I gave up calling myself by any label a long time ago. I don’t even describe myself as a Christian these days – I simply aim to be a “follower of Jesus”. My hope is that this phrase allows both the room for interpretation that Stephen craves and the sense of allegiance that the groups identified in the article want. Do you think it works? Feedback appreciated.

  2. Thanks David,
    ‘Follower of Jesus’ or ‘member of the Christian faith’ Much better! Language like; ‘Born again Christian’ is now totally discredited by the religious right in America and the happy clappy noise fellowships in this country. Good Point David.

  3. We would all love to escape labels but there is a need, perhaps interpretable by social psychology, for people to belong to an identifiable gang. It is not all bad but it gets uncomfortable when it becomes politicised both literally and metaphorically. What is going on in America is quite disturbing. Trump seems to draw on a particular culture of evangelical belief to promote his somewhat wacky ends. I may do a piece on this. Thankfully however unsavoury the ‘politics’ that is played by conservative Christians in this country, it is not usually the party political kind. There is one sub-plot in the Peniel saga which was unusual for this country. Back in 2002 Michael Reid ordered all his members to join the local Conservative party and by doing so take over the running of the local party. . There was and perhaps still is, an unhealthy codependence between the church and local politicians. Politics and religious beliefs are seldom a good match even though we need people who are Christians to get involved with the messiness of exercising power, locally or nationally.

  4. I just had a pretty comical conversation with the local vicar where we both tried to narrow down where we were coming from using the conventional labels. “Anglo-Catholic”, “Evangelical”, “Evangelical-type preaching”, “Normal”, “liberal on the Scriptures”. We both ended up laughing. I think it boiled down to “not necessarily very similar, but likely to get along alright”. Saw your letter Stephen. Don’t know if they edited it.

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