Schism among the Evangelicals?

Schism among the Evangelicals? August 24, 2021

The controversies, scandals, and other troubles among evangelicals have some observers predicting an impending “schism” in the evangelical movement.  We Lutherans have experience in “schisms,” though we deny that we are schismatic, so let me offer some perspective on the subject.

Christianity Today has published an article by Bonnie Kristian entitled Is Evangelicalism Due for a Hundred-Year Schism?  It compares today’s conflicts among Christians over Donald Trump, critical race theory, LGBTQ issues, and the other culture wars to the Fundamentalist/Modernist split of the 1920s and 1930s, in which J. Gresham Machen said that liberal theology constitutes a different religion than Christianity and many conservatives left their mainline Protestant denominations to form new church bodies.

The article points to a post at Mere Orthodoxy by Michael Graham and Skyler Flowers entitled The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, which sees the movement breaking up into six different factions:

(1) Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelical  (pro-Trump culture warriors worried about secularism)

(2)  Mainstream Evangelical (concerned mainly for evangelism)

(3) Neo-Evangelical (anti-Trump, with concern for social justice issues)

(4) Post-Evangelical (no longer wish to be called evangelical, migrating to mainstream denominations)

(5) Dechurched (but with some Jesus) (no longer go to church, but still say they believe in Jesus)

(6) Dechurched and Deconverted  (leave the Christian faith completely)

Except for #6, all of these factions, according to the writers, still profess faith in Christ, belief in the Bible, and adherence to orthodox Christianity.  The “schism” is mainly over politics (pro-Trump or anti-Trump) church culture (such as the treatment of women), and relationship to the outside secular culture (fight it or accommodate it).

Here, though, are some points for consideration:

1.  Evangelicalism is not a church.

“Evangelical” is an adjective that can be used as a noun, describing someone who believes in “the gospel,” the “good news,” the Greek word for which is transliterated as evangel, as well as an overall commitment to the authority of Scripture.  The word was first used to describe us Lutherans, but while it can be applied to particular church bodies, it is properly used of individual Christians.

Evangelicalism became a movement in the late 20th century, begetting various “parachurch” organizations, such as Christianity Today, various Christian publishers, and mission organizations.  But evangelicalism is not a church.

Baptists, Assemblies of God members, non-denominational megachurches, conservative Presbyterians, Wesleyans, etc., are evangelical in their beliefs, though they also have beliefs and practices that distinguish them from each other.  Those denominations might have a “schism,” a split over some of these issues.  But, technically, you need to be a church to have a “schism.”

And yet, many evangelicals have very little sense of ecclesiology.  They hold their evangelical commitments with little reference to a specific theology or church tradition.  For example, the Mere Orthodoxy post says this of “post-evangelicals”:  “Some remain firmly in Protestant circles and others have crossed over to mainline, catholic, or orthodox traditions while still holding to the basic creeds.”  Notice the dichotomy here between belonging to a church and believing in the creeds.  That is an indictment, I suppose, of the theological “traditions,” some of which have lost their creedal commitments, but it may suggest why evangelicals are having some of their problems.  Without an ecclesiology, movement evangelicals are outside the circle of church supervision and discipline, as are church bodies built on the model of evangelical individualism.  That makes misconduct, abuse, and other disillusioning behavior harder to stamp out.

2. Divide over doctrine, if you must, but not politics or other transient reasons

Again, most of these factions still hold to the “evangelical” commitment to the gospel and to the Bible.  The basis for the “schisms” is mainly political and cultural.  The catalyst for these divisions was Donald Trump.

We confessional Lutherans, for the most part, really do keep our political beliefs distinct from our religious faith.  We may relate the two, and our pro-life convictions may be a factor in our voting.  But most of our congregations will include both Republicans and Democrats.  This is evident in the comment threads on this blog, which often involve debates between Lutherans who disagree with each other politically but agree with each other theologically.  You find that in other historical church bodies, and evangelicals of all stripes should emulate it in their congregations, lest they slip into a social gospel of either the left or the right.

I know that President Trump was a flash point for many other issues, but you shouldn’t really have a schism over him.  For one thing, he will eventually fade from the scene.  And his legacy may prove more complicated than both his supporters and detractors realize.  Trump’s ideological successors, for better or worse, will be the politicians who advocate “common good capitalism,” rather than the laissez faire profit motive of global corporations; opponents of military invasions for the purpose of nation building, as opposed to the “neo-conservative” interventionists; and defenders of the working class poor, as opposed to the old Republican party of “the rich.”   Once the dust settles and passions settle down, Neo-Fundamentalists and Neo-Evangelicals may have more in common than they realize.

Even then, though a healthy congregation will include all kinds of people, who, for all of their differences, are united in their common faith.


Photo via Piqsels, CC0, Public Domain


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