Friday, April 4, 2014

Evangelicals Seeing the Fault Lines

Rachel Held Evans quit evangelicalism. For like, three days, anyway. But she's back now. Angered at the Christian response to World Vision's change/non-change of its policy on same-sex marriage, she is evidently apoplectic. "Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars." I've said this before, but this really just sounds like she's describing the liberal mainline churches. She wouldn't have to fight any culture wars over there, at least. They've already capitulated, so there's no war to be had. But I digress. That isn't to be my focus.

I'm intrigued by the idea of someone dropping evangelicalism. If RHE did "step away" from the evangelical table, how would that look any differently for her? The last I read, she doesn't even go to church (much like the Blue Like Jazz dude or Rob Bell or my friends who were reading Brian McLaren back when it was hip). There is no "evangelical roll call," after all, where you can remove your name. There is no President of the Evangelicals who will note your departure. It is no denomination with a written set of views that you can compare to see who does and doesn't belong. The idea of evangelicalism has really been precariously held together over the past fifty years with a bit of shoe-string and duct tape. As long as everyone who called themselves "evangelicals" believed and behaved like evangelicals were supposed to, the movement had some assumed identity.

But things have begun to visibly splinter. Some, such as RHE, desire to keep the name of 'evangelical' but allow and even celebrate unrepentant sinners (note that I say unrepentant). This has become something of a fault line for the movement. Others think that "the bible" itself is up for debate. Yet another fault line. Women's ordination... you guessed it. Fault line. Issue after issue have crept into the evangelical discussion until one day evangelicals raised their heads, looked around, and realized they were running a china shop over the San Andreas Fault line. The problem, of course, is one of definition. As Trueman tautologically put it, "If evangelicalism has no boundaries, then no boundaries [can be] transgressed."

Way back in the olden days (2011 to be exact) Carl Trueman released a prescient little book titled The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book he argued that evangelicalism is bound to fail as a coherent movement because it cannot agree on what the "evangel" even is. This problem will become progressively more evident as cultural pressures push in until some just can't take it anymore:
There may be a bright side to evangelicalism's decline. When the fog has lifted and it becomes clear that all talk of evangelicalism as a clearly defined movement was a category mistake...then new alliances may emerge...Once various groups are no longer competing for ownership of the evangelical brand, they might be able to assess one another in a less defensive manner...The cultural referee is about to call time out on evangelicals and evangelicalism, if not traditional religions entirely. No evangelical leader or organization can prevent it. The gay lobby, militant secularists, and atheists who deride any religious belief as distasteful will force Christians either into capitulation to their demands or a sectarianism that thrusts us to the margins. Abandoning the myth of the evangelical movement can only help us, as it will free us to be who we truly are and to speak the gospel in all of its richness as we understand it. This is what our day and generation needs. 
Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, pg. 40-41.
Trueman is right. Groups who are not content to let evangelicals remain on the sidelines are forcing them to take sides on all of these issues. Some are capitulating or assimilating, following a hybrid, Borg-like ethic that (in their minds) looks like the old evangelicalism (because it embraces "love"!) but functions like moral libertinism (because it doesn't know how to tell anybody "no"!). The rest are left calling themselves evangelicals, functioning in the older ways with historical precedent, but all the while being slandered by the Borg (who claim to only want peace and no war) as unscientific, misogynistic, racist, justice-hating troglodytes. This uneasy union of evangelicals has been destined to fall because it is a boundary-less coalition without creed or confession or standards of any kind. It's been a gentleman's arrangement up to this point, you might say. RHE holds a significant voice within what one might call emergent evangelicalism. The fact that she spent three days wanting to get out of town over the evidently non-negotiable issue of gay marriage says something about how deep the fracture has grown.

I'm with Trueman. The sooner Christians realize that the term "evangelical" is empty, nebulous, undefined, and unhelpful, the sooner Christians can start to be honest about their views and engaging with one another in a way that allows authenticity and (almost paradoxically) less infighting.


  1. Correction/clarification: "The idea of evangelicalism has really been precariously held together over the past FIVE HUNDRED years with a bit of shoe-string and duct tape."

    When will these thousands of mutually-contradictory, fractious factions quit quarreling and heed Jesus' will expressed in John 17? Why not give up the radically individualist Reforbellion and come home to the peace & unity of the ONE Church founded by Christ Himself?!

  2. By the way, Tonyro: It was Rome who left the one true church established by Christ when she anathematized the gospel at the council of Trent.



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