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Is Evangelicalism outdated? Facing up to times of public shame, rejection and hostility

Is Evangelicalism outdated? Facing up to times of public shame, rejection and hostility

By Os Guinness
March 5, 2018

The word "Evangelical" is a scoff word among secularists, and an embarrassing word to many leading American evangelicals, but to author and social critic Dr. Os Guinness, Evangelicals should not be ashamed of the word, and he himself remains unashamed to identify as an Evangelical.

The author of some 30 books spoke to a symposium at Faith & Law on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, recently and reiterated his allegiance to Evangelicalism, and said Evangelicals could learn from Jews how they sustained their faith over many centuries in the face of intense persecution and scattering across the globe.

The week Guinness spoke, he said, was especially poignant because on the one hand there was an outpouring of tributes to Billy Graham, the most admired Evangelical in the world, and on the other hand, the bitter accusation by Juan Williams, a FOX news commentator, that Evangelicals were "selling their souls to Donald Trump."

"Over the last 10 years there has been a swelling chorus of voices, including Evangelicals such as theologian Scot McKnight, journalist Pete Wehner and activist Russell Moore, who have made sweeping criticisms of Evangelicalism and even suggested that the term is no longer useful. Three major charges have recurred repeatedly. First, the charge of moral hypocrisy. Second, the charge that Evangelicals have undermined their own movement -- some say forever. And third, that it is time to abandon the term and the label and look for different forms of identification."

Guinness was one of the lead drafters of The Evangelical Manifesto in 2008. The catalyst for him was conversations with some fifteen people within a fortnight who were abandoning Evangelicalism. In each case, the reasons were political, cultural and social and had had nothing to do with theological considerations. "They had an incredible lack of biblical theology and little sense of Evangelical history."

"William Wilberforce, for example, was the greatest social reformer in all human history and he was an unashamed Evangelical, and a shining example of historic Evangelicalism."

The Evangelical Manifesto was written because of the corruption and confusions surrounding the term evangelical, which were so deep that people could no longer see the character and importance of the term. Those outside the movement thought it was no longer positive, while those inside the movement said that it no longer served any purpose for them. The Manifesto is more relevant today than when it was published.

"I am Evangelical and unashamed," Guinness said. Rightly understood, Evangelicals are those define their faith and lives by the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. (As proclaimed, for example in Isaiah 61, Mark 1, and Romans 1). Evangelicals are people of the Gospel, of the Good News of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Historically, Evangelicals have been people of good news who are trying to live by truths and the way of life to which Jesus called his followers.

"The Reformers did not call themselves Protestants, but reformers or Evangelicals. They were first called Protestants by their enemies." They were out to restore the heart of the Good News of the Gospel through a direct and unmediated relationship to God himself through Jesus Christ.

"The definition therefore has to be theological. Evangelical has nothing to do with politics, society or culture. It is a theological principle, and as such it identifies one of the three great traditions of the Christian Church -- Evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic. If this principle is understood, "evangelical" is arguably the earliest, the deepest of the core principles that shape the three traditions. Whenever there are people who desire to follow Jesus more faithfully and closely, they will rightly and inevitably be "evangelical." When Francis of Assisi met Pope Innocent and declared his aim to endeavor to live as Jesus lived, the Pope called him "evangelical." Even Nietzsche, who admired Jesus but despised the Christian Church, repeatedly described Jesus as "the bringer of glad tidings" and "evangelical."

Guinness said he did not want to be misunderstood, because truth and theology are crucial and foundational. But he believed it was a mistake to define Evangelicalism merely according to a checklist of doctrines, as many Evangelicals do. Nothing could be further from the Good News of Jesus. Jesus, of course, taught many things, including the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Evangelicals, therefore, believe these truths with conviction and with undying faithfulness, but Evangelicals are first and foremost called to him and to live his Way, and out of that relationship to believe and affirm all that he taught.

"Needless to say, all this means too that Evangelicalism, properly understood, is profoundly and overwhelming positive. It is not negative. It is Good News, in fact the best news ever, and it is a tragedy when Evangelicalism is known only for its noes and not its yeses. Such negativism is a symptom of fundamentalism and not of Evangelicalism.

"All of which means," Guinness argued, "that many of the criticisms of Evangelicals today are accurate and fair. The tragic irony of Evangelicalism is that we have always sought to be the reforming, restoring movement in the church -- especially when heresy, revisionism, dead orthodoxy, and formalism were rife. Yet today, it is we who need revival and reformation. This Evangelical scandal is part of the wider scandal of the American church. As we look around the world, the Christian faith is the most numerous faith on earth, and the fastest growing faith in many parts of the world. But that is the story of the Global South, and not the West. Europe is the most secular continent in history, and the heart of the secularity is a massive revulsion against corrupt, oppressive state churches in the European past. In the U.S., Christians are still a huge majority, but they are not "salt and light," and they have less cultural influence than many far smaller groups who advocate for, say, the sexual revolution.

The weakness, superficiality, confusion and worldliness of the Evangelical movement in America is a salient part of this overall scandal of the American church.

If you examine Evangelicals in public life over the last hundred years, you can see a further problem. Throughout most of the 20th Century, Evangelicals were "privatized." With their warm-hearted pietism, they were able to rest on the broad Jewish and Christian consensus that was still strong. But their faith was described in the 1960s as "privately engaging but publicly irrelevant." In one word, their faith lacked integration. They did not practice the Lordship of Christ over all their lives.

The year 1973 was the wake-up year for Evangelicals. (The convergence of Watergate, the OPEC crisis, and Roe v Wade stunned them into seeing that the culture was slipping way). The trouble was that many went from an overly "privatized" faith to the other extreme: an overly "politicized" faith, which in one word lacked independence. There were two mistaken tendencies in what then became the "Christian right." First, many Evangelicals plunged into politics and trusted politics to do more than politics can ever do. The sleeping giant had woken up, and all it needed to do was seize the levers of political power. But politics is always downstream from the sources of the damage, and there is wisdom in the maxim: "The first thing to say about politics (is) that politics is not the first thing."

Second, many Evangelicals forgot the old principle that "The Lord's work must be done in the Lord's way." For example, one of the most radical demands of Jesus was that his followers were to love their enemies. Doing just that despite physical assaults and intense vilification was a feature of Wilberforce's public life, but recent American Evangelicals have become known for the opposite -- stereotyping, ad hominem attacks, and at times even hate, so that the name of the Lord has been dishonored and Evangelicals disgraced.

"But is it time to abandon the term Evangelical? Emphatically not. Evangelicalism needs reforming, not abandoning," Guinness argued. "There are three major errors in the proposal that 'Evangelical' is beyond repair."

"First, the charge is based on a spiritual mistake. It is always wrong for Christians to be defined by others. When God called Abraham, he called him to leave and to break with his surrounding cultures -- first Mesopotamia and later Egypt. To follow the way of God is to walk alone, and to count the cost of dong so. It is the same for followers of Jesus. For Jews, this meant that defeat came either through liquidation or accommodation to the surrounding cultures, and always they had to be defined before God and not before the misconceptions and prejudices of the societies in which they lived. To be defined by the perceptions of others is to be vulnerable to the problem of self-hatred.

"As followers of Jesus, Evangelicals are defined by one audience -- the audience of One. Pollsters and critics can say what they like. Evangelicals are defined before God. Their social standing is irrelevant, except as a potential spur to self-examination and repentance."

"Second, the charge is based on a philosophical mistake. In the postmodern, post-truth era, there is a tendency to confuse "plausibility" with "credibility." Credibility is a matter of whether something is or is not true. Plausibility, by contrast, is a matter of whether something seems or appears to be true. There is no question that Evangelicalism is implausible today, shamefully so at times. Parts of our movement are an appalling witness to the glory of the Gospel. This is why it is so discouraging to be an Evangelical, but also why we need reviving and reforming. But such problems do not touch the credibility of the Evangelical faith for those who understand it rightly, and that is why the stains we have inflicted on ourselves are no reason to abandon the name and the term.

"Third, the charge is based on a political mistake. The "never Trumpers," who have lambasted Evangelicals for supporting the President, have misread the present crisis. The President did not create the current crisis. The president is the consequence of the crisis. With or without Donald Trump, the American crisis is dire. The American Republic is experiencing its gravest crisis and its deepest divisions since the Civil War. The very deepest differences go down to the profound differences between the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. If the Republicans had not won in 2016, it would probably have been set the cultural trends of the other party in concrete for eight years -- with calamitous results of the Republic as the founders set it up.

The President will not be the savior of the Republic, but his election acted like a gigantic wrecking ball that stopped America in its tracks and gave the country time to pause and consider which way it wants to go. Will the Constitution be restored or replaced? Will American freedom be the freedom of 1776 and the American Revolution, based on biblical foundations, or will it be the freedom of 1789 and the French revolution? Powerful movements such as multiculturalism, political correctness, social constructionism and the sexual revolution are all the children of 1789 and not 1776. America is therefore at a historic crossroads, and many Evangelicals intuitively understood the real nature of the crisis. Evangelicals were not voting for the president as a person. Nor were they "selling their souls for Donald Trump." They understood the nature of the crisis and the choice. Whether America will use the pause constructively is another question.

"In conclusion, then, I stand before you as a follower of Jesus, and unashamed to be part of the Evangelical tradition -- despite the shabbiness and shame of much of the Evangelical movement today. I thank God for the many great exemplars of Evangelicalism in the past. For all the present corruptions and confusions, I remain an Evangelical, welcoming all sisters and brothers in other traditions who strive with us to faithfully follow the Good News of Jesus. Like Richard of Chichester, we who are Evangelicals join hands with all who desire to "know Him more clearly, to love Him more dearly, and to follow Him more nearly."


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