Is it time for a new evangelical movement? A modest proposal
It is true that Evangelicalism has always been “political.” Carl F. H. Henry, one of the early “founders” of Evangelicalism, penned The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism way back in 1947 in part to call theological conservatives to engage culture, which is inevitably political (in the broadest sense of the term). This was, of course, a good thing. The gospel does have political implications for personal, family, and social life.
It could be argued that the current identity crisis in Evangelicalism began in earnest when its political conscience became more partisan and too ideologically driven. In the decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s the Christian Right took the reins of the movement for arguably some good reasons, particularly the rise of abortion and the ongoing disintegration of the traditional nuclear family and Biblical sexuality. Good motivations, unfortunately, were too often married to particular electable politicians, only one political party, and an inordinate hope that the right political moves and elections would “restore the nation to God.” (In is interesting to note that most Christian Right leaders were theologically pre-millennial but practically and methodologically post-millennial).
In hindsight the Christian Right, a sub-movement within the Evangelical movement, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it did help solidify pro-life concerns across Christian denominations. On the other hand, it ignored too many other significant social issues, relegating them to the “liberals.” Inevitably the movement found itself let down and disappointed by too many politicians, too caught up in hyper-partisan politics, and as such alienated too many younger Evangelicals who agreed with the movement doctrinally but were repelled by the assumed political ideology and machinations.
And here we are. Just say “Evangelical” and the average American thinks less of theology or lifestyle but rather thinks about a particular narrow political ideology. Now, even if that political ideology were largely correct, should Evangelicals necessarily be identified with it? Do I, as a self-identified Evangelical, want to be automatically identified with any political party, politician, ideology, or cultural worldview? Or, do I want one of my theological labels to be primarily identified with something else more Biblical, more transcendent, and, dare I say, more global? The answer, I hope, is obvious.
Back to the Future: A Modest Proposal
One of Henry’s issues with “modern Fundamentalism” was its attitude toward social engagement, which was essentially non-engagement other than preaching against sin and social evils (which is not altogether a bad thing!). I think one current problem with modern Evangelicalism is its engagement in social issues from a highly partisan and narrow ideological position, to the point that too many Evangelicals leaders have sidelined any discussion of a comprehensive Biblical ethic and a Kingdom agenda in a Faustian deal for political “access,” with only limited social and cultural concerns. Throw in the evidence that personal character and ethics no longer matter, and Evangelicalism continues to unravel. Again, the social and cultural concerns may not be altogether incorrect, but the agenda is grossly incomplete and often methodologically questionable (as when the ends justify the means).
Social engagement, therefore, is not to be given up. Neither is the doctrine of the gospel, for as Henry notes, “The evangelical task primarily is the preaching of the Gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration by the supernatural grace of God. . .” and “It is impossible to shut the Jesus of pity, healing, service, and human interest from a Biblical theology. The higher morality of redemption does not invalidate moral consistency.” Perhaps, therefore, a new evangelical movement would in part simply be re-capturing much of the old, original movement.
What could this “new Evangelical movement” look like? Quite briefly:
1. It would hold to the traditional Evangelical doctrinal distinctions, such as authority of Scripture (see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), orthodox doctrines related to the Trinity, the need for personal regeneration by grace through faith alone, the duty of each believer to participate in the Great Commission, and the belief in the personal, visible second coming of Christ.
2. It would return to an emphasis on the Kingdom of God, inaugurated but not yet consummated. Agreeing with Henry, the Kingdom is not to be identified with any culture, although we might argue that “Cultures with tend to be democratic rather than totalitarian may be preferential for many reasons.” This means that any global Christian can and should be a patriot and a lover of his or her own country, people, and culture. That love, however, should always be secondary to and subsumed to the love of God’s Kingdom and God’s global people. There is no room in the movement for racism, sexism, or any type of cultural or ethnic superiority.
3. It would insist that being salt and light through social engagement should not only continue but will be more necessary than ever due to growing secularism, an anti-Christian mood, and the continuing disappearance of Biblical morality. The challenge is to engage in overarching Kingdom politics and not narrow partisan or nationalistic politics, which is certainly far easier said than done. This requires judging every culture, every worldview, every political position, and even every suggested solution through the lens of a rigorous Biblical theology. It will mean that a pro-life (anti-abortion) stance will continue to be central to Evangelical social ethics, for it involves at the least the defense of the innocent and the defenseless.
It also means that related dignity of life issues, which have been a growing part of the agenda of younger Evangelicals, must also occupy much of our time and effort, including: poverty, racial justice and reconciliation, immigration, criminal justice, cultural violence, militarism and warfare, healthcare, ageing issues, and, yes, even reasonable gun control. These issues, and others, are where the greatest debate and disagreement will arise; however, can there be a new commitment to work hard at moving away from partisan solutions to Biblical solutions? Can we learn what it means in this post-Christianized society what it means to be a Kingdom citizen and for our churches to be Kingdom outposts? The reality is as R. Alan Street argues in Heaven on Earth, that “A Christianized government is not the solution. A kingdom-driven church is.”
These suggestions obviously need much fleshing out, in particular those in number 3, for that is where the greatest disagreements usually lie.
Finally, what to call this new movement? “Neo-Evangelicalism” is not an option, not the least because of the potential associations with both “neo-orthodoxy” and political “neo-conservatives.” “Progressive Evangelicalism” is also not an option, because “progressive” has become a euphemism for liberalism, particularly as it relates to sexual morality issues. “Younger Evangelicals” has already been used often, but it is insufficient y because younger Evangelicals do get older (me, for example) and many older ones are also fed up with the disintegrating status quo.
I have thought of “Missional Evangelicals.” The term “missional” is problematic because it has been used by so many to label so much that it almost means nothing. Still, it is a good term. It implies “being on mission,” “being subject to the mission of God (kingdom of God),” and “being salt and light” rather than a withdrawn believer in a Christian ghetto believer. It implies prioritizing the gospel of the Kingdom, with all its global implications, first, with everything else being a distant second.
So, I am throwing it out there. Is it time for something new? What could and should it look like?