The Evangelical Umbrella

Evangelicals always seem to be arguing over something.  It’s in our DNA.  Protestantism is simply PROTEST-antism.  For some that means to be a protestant means I must protest.  But in our quickness to protest and defend truth, have we made Jesus and the gospel a secondary issue in evangelicalism?

Few would deny that the political landscape of America has become more polarized in recent years.  The rise of alternative media, talk radio, and the internet have not brought greater understanding of issues, but a new public square where we can yell across lines without having to listen to what is being yelled back with less difficulty.  It doesn’t take an expert to figure out this is extremely unproductive.  And we know it.  Congress is ineffective and thus receives low approval ratings from the public.

This same polarization is creeping into the evangelical church.  Like the rest of culture, we are losing our ability to listen to the other.  This will ultimately hurt our witness in the world, our ability to fulfill Jesus’ last prayer for unity in his church, and our ability to love one another.  But deeper still, I believe our increasing polarization will cause us to lose focus on the gospel and get caught up with secondary issues.

John Stott, in his book Christ the Controversalist, quotes Georg Ingle, late Bishop of Willesden, as saying that the sad spectacle of division within the church comes when “Allegiance to a church, or even to a party in that Church,comes before allegiance to Christ.”  Stott goes on to say,

“If I thought that being an evangelical Christian involved a party loyalty which took precedence over allegiance to Christ, I would give up being an evangelical immediately.  They very idea of subordinating Christ to a party is abhorrent to me.”

With posts like Joe Carter’s and John Piper’s words, I can’t help but wonder if Stott would give up being an evangelical.  I understand that last statement may cause some to spit their drink out, but it seems that being an evangelical is now, more than ever, defined by one’s loyalty to a particular party.  I have a growing sense that if one is not reformed, complementarian, creationist, and Republican-voting their legitimacy as an evangelical is, not only questioned, but in some cases out right denied.  Allegiance to Jesus and a desire to see people come to  know him as Lord seem secondary to ones stance on women’s ordination or politics or some other issue.

Some will push back and say those issues are not secondary but are in fact extremely important.  For them, the perceived problem is not about the issue (gender-roles, social justice, politics, etc.), but about the Bible.  Their fear is that more liberal interpretations of the Bible in particular areas will lead to a less than evangelical stance on Jesus, sin, and the gospel.  While I agree that we must be careful to guard orthodoxy, I can’t help but think fear is a driving motivational factor causing people to hold tight to party lines that are not meant to be held to.

Let’s take women’s ordination for example.  The complementarian would say they derive their beliefs that a woman should not be ordained to the office of elder or deacon based on Biblical authority.  Most egalitarians I know, myself included, would say they derive their beliefs that women can be ordained into these offices from the Bible.  If both tenants of evangelicalism is holding the Bible in high authority for determining how one should live, are not both being true to what it means to being an evangelical?  Might this be a party line secondary to allegiance to Christ?  This isn’t just limited to women’s ordination, but could been said in regards to social justice, politics or any of the other issues evangelicals battle over.

The question must be asked, is evangelicalism broad enough and mature enough to allow for differing views on secondary issues to exist under the same umbrella?

Please hear me.  I am not saying those issues are not important.  They are extremely important.  It would do us well to have open, honest dialogue about them so the church can be faithful to Jesus, to scripture, and to her witness to the world.  Unfortunately, it seems the kind of dialogue that would lead to greater understanding is not possible.  For years the church fought over things like communion and believer versus infant baptism.  In spite of those bitter battles, we have since come to a place where, by and large, we accept our differences in these areas.  They now have become secondary issues and new theological differences have arisen to take their place.  And new secondary issues will rise when these issues are deemed truly secondary.  Paul wrote that now, in this life, we “see dimly” and we will see dimly until the moment in which we see Jesus.  Only at that point will we see clearly.  As long as we see dimly we will always have different interpretations and understandings in regards to scripture.  Our imperfect hermeneutics will always cause us to arrive at different conclusions.

With that in mind maybe the best thing we can do is work on accepting our brother and sister with grace; to understand them rather than be understood.  James exhortation to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” may be the most needed word in an age when polarization is the modus operandi.  Maybe we would be slower to draw lines in the sand determining who is the most faithful of those who say they follow Jesus.

As we look back at issues that divided the church in the past, communion and baptism, perhaps history can help us take a deep breath and give us hope that there is coming a day in which these modern “watershed” issues will truly become secondary.  A day when the gospel and allegiance to Christ come before every secondary issue and we can be united by what truly matters; the glory of God in Jesus Christ.

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  • Lawrence W. Wilson

    Nate, your question (Is evangelicalism broad enough and mature enough to allow for differing views on secondary issues to exist under the same umbrella?) is, in my opinion, what’s driving the crisis in Evangelicalism right now.

    My own people (the Holiness Movement) were latecomers to the Evangelical party, and I for one am wondering whether it’s time to leave. As Evangelicalism retreats back into the Fundamentalism from whence it came, those of us who cherish the motto “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things unity” are feeling less and less comfortable with the label “Evangelical.” Has the word itself been co-opted?

    • Nate Pyle

      Larry, I think the word has been co-opted. It seems to have become the new “Fundamentalism.” On top of that, the increased connection to conservative politics has made me very uncomfortable with the term. In it’s original intent I am fully evangelical. But lately I find myself qualifying how I identify with being evangelical.

  • Shawn Gerbers

    This is one reason I have never been a fan of labels. When I’m explaining to people unfamiliar with the RCA what the RCA is, they often ask if it is a evangelical denomination. To which I reply “I do not know what that means.” To one person it means one thing, and to another person it means another. It might be better to ask: is evangelism important to you and are you actively living your faith?

    For many people, being evangelical is defined by your political beliefs and not your allegiance to Christ (as you alluded to). That is why I do not care if I’m labeled evangelical because I do not need a label to witness to Christ and live my faith.

  • Martin

    Mmm. This is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I married into a family who’s definition of Christianity, piety, and loyalty is this kind of evangelicalism/fundamentalism and before that, came to faith in a similar church you speak of. As this way of thinking about faith in Chris has been found greatly lacking to me over time, though I keep my thoughts secret from family most of the time, I’m very uncomfortable staying loyal to an ideology, and that is what it is, at the expense of other values just as Biblical and just as honoring to Jesus Himself. I’ve even gone so far as to tell folks I know outside of the faith that I disagree with something horrendous that is in the public mind about a particular evangelical leader to help them separate in their minds this institution from Jesus and what is really universal definitions of right and wrong.

    Uncomfortably on the fence,