Which Evangelicalism Have You Abandoned?

Which Evangelicalism Have You Abandoned? November 9, 2017

Evangelicalism has no official membership even if there are a few who’d like to be the ones who decide. But one thing is clear: Many have left evangelicalism. That is, they say they have left. One might just answer back that “once an evangelical, always an evangelical.” I don’t think this little quip works.

In his new important book,Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.42.58 AM  In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis, Kenneth Stewart asks a really good set of questions.

He asks But which understanding of evangelicalism did you leave?

Today’s post focuses on those who have left, or say they have left, and it focuses on what your understanding of evangelicalism was.

He proposes a few different perceptions, understandings, whatever, kind did you leave? I’m slightly adjusting his categories but I got the ideas from Stewart.

First: pragmatic.

For some evangelicalism is a largely post Enlightenment, post 1860s, largely American form of evangelism, transdenominational, missionary-emphasis and culture-transformation, and not all that theologically rooted. In other words, let’s call this pragmatic evangelicalism: one concerned with making things happen in the world through evangelism and activism. Pragmatic evangelicalism is characteristic of megachurch evangelicalism but not limited to it.

Second: belligerent.

Or did you break from the kind of evangelicalism that thought America was going to hell, morality was falling into the pits, Christianity was losing its hold on America, and we need to get back to the basics all over again. This group was oppositional to the core: it was against the mainlines, against culture, against progressives. This is belligerent or fundamentalist evangelicalism.

I’m going now to nuance this a bit with my own category: some pragmatic forms of evangelicalism have combined with the belligerents to form a kind of evangelicalism that turns out to be little more than politicized evangelicalism. To be evangelical is to be a Republican. Not only do the media speak like this at times, but many experience evangelicalism this way. (I did not but I’ve seen this development.) This politicized evangelicalism is more belligerent than pragmatic, but my speaking in the last two decades convinces me that megachurches are populated by both sorts. The old activism of an evangelistic nature has been replaced by a political activism.

Third: historic.

Or did you leave the kind of evangelicalism that believed its origins where, Yes, connected to the 19th Century’s changes but also to the Great Awakening, but even more to the Reformation, and beyond the Reformation to the New Testament itself. I would add in here that some in this historic approach to evangelicalism are unafraid to speak of the patristics, the Creeds, and medieval and renaissance Christian theology. Let’s call this historic or apostolic evangelicalism.

Which was it for you?

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I think that there is at least a little overlap between these three categories. I myself identify most closely with “historic evangelicalism”, yet also believe that America has long been moving further and further away from God and has become more and more opposed to Him. Every Christian should be for God and His kingdom (Matthew 6:33). If one is for Him, then one is against Satan and the kingdom of darkness (Luke 9:49-50; Acts 26:18). I have the sense, though, that a “belligerent” evangelical is concerned more with opposition than with promotion, and is motivated more by hate than by love.

    “Pragmatic” evangelicalism sounds to me like the evangelicalism of Billy and Franklin Graham and other popular evangelists. I identify with it insofar as it is transdenominational, missionary, and, in at least one sense, culture-transformational; but I do not identify with being “not all that theologically rooted”.

    Thus I am a “historical evangelical” with characteristics of a “belligerent” and a “pragmatic”. The one type of evangelical with which I do not identify is the “politicized”, as I abhor the confusion of the Kingdom of God with America, and the confusion of the cause of Christ with the cause of a worldly political party (John 18:36).

  • Wolf N. Paul

    I would stick with Bebbingtin’s quadrilateral of conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. That does presuppose a theological basis of sorts, and it probably most matches what you call historical evangelicalism.
    To the extent that pragmatism and belligerence are not based on biblical convictions centered on the cross they are not evangelical qualities (and those who display them are not evangelicals, their own claims and ignorant media reporting notwithstanding (I am thinking of the likes of Lakewood in Houston, etc)).

  • Brent White

    Roger Olson has been helpful on this topic. He refuses to abandon the label, even though it has been been abused and misapplied (especially within the secular media). But he also distinguishes fundamentalism from evangelicalism, saying that the difference between the two used to come down to a Christian’s attitude toward Billy Graham. Evangelicals embraced him; fundamentalists shunned him.

    I became evangelical (again) through British evangelicals associated (mostly) with the Church of England, so I certainly don’t think of “evangelical” as having to do with the Republican party.

  • scotmcknight

    One of Stewart’s major points is that what the term means in the USA is not what it means in other countries. He’s right.

  • scotmcknight

    If, Wolf, you add to Bebbington both a non-denominationalism or trans-denominationalism along with historic orthodoxy, one makes Bebbington’s four-fold definition more accurate and deeper.

  • Wolf Paul

    Agreed. My main point was to dispute your identifying as evangelicalism those who may be belligerent or pragmatic without the theological foundation of a cross-centered biblical interpretation. As such those who preach mostly “your best life now” or have no problem with endorsing politicians who proudly claim not to need forgiveness, etc. do not really come under that umbrella as far as I am concerned …

  • Wolf Paul

    It ought to mean the same thing, and we need to resist and reverse this shift in meaning.
    I resent the shift in meaning of “gay” but it’s too late to do anything about that. I don’t think it is too late to reverse the shift for “evangelical”.

  • Chad V

    I too prefer Bebbington’s defined distinctives of evangelicalism. I especially like how he includes within “activism” both missionary work (presumed to be evangelism) and social reform / justice. I’ve always felt it unfortunate how many have over the years tended to pit evangelism and social justice against one another rather than see them both as important expressions of Christian outreach and service.

  • Wolf Paul

    Indeed, and THAT is not just an American problem — I see this here in Europe as well. If some kind of charitable/social project takes too long to bear evangelistic fruit it is sometimes quickly abandoned in hopes of more productive efforts.

  • scotmcknight

    Dude, Austria isn’t the place where this is experienced.

  • Wolf N. Paul

    I am not sure what you are saying. Evangelicalism in Austria, as in the rest of Europe, is still much closer to Bebbington’s description, plus, as you pointed out, trans-denominationalism, than in the US. It is the shift in meaning in the US which I resent, because these things sooner or later make their way across the pond. German secular media are already following the lead of US media in characterizing Evangelicals as right-wing, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, etc. — enough reason to resent the US situation even if I were not emotionally invested in enough people and groups in the US to resent the situation for that reason alone.

  • gingoro

    I would consider myself an evangelical given Carl Henry’s definition and ethos but not one that includes Falwell, Piper, ie the YRR category of Calvinists where holding the Bible as inerrant is an absolute requirement. Evangelicalism needs to rid itself of fundamentalists of all traditional kinds. I might be an evangelical in Britain and the continent but not in Canada or the USofA.

  • scotmcknight

    My point exactly: Austria may well know Bebbington but Falwell it doesn’t. Wolf, someday I need to return to Austria. Such a beautiful place.

  • Gregory Peterson

    “For some evangelicalism is a largely post Enlightenment, post 1860s, largely American form of evangelism…”

    That definition conveniently washes away any “conservative” Evangelical responsibility and complicity in antebellum proslavery activism by Southern Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and others, and the consequences of which still reverberate today. Though come to think of it, it would still make Evangelicals complicit in destroying the Reconstruction, white supremacy terrorism and Jim Crow.

    If you want to set a beginning date, I would go with 1830, when Southern Evangelicals began to acquire serious political clout.

    However, I would go much earlier, to my came over on the Mayflower ancestors…who signed a document, the Mayflower Compact, that essentially created a minority rule theocracy.

    The Great Awakening would seem to be a very Evangelical sort of thing…though this being America, we shouldn’t forget that unlike with most Evangelical leaders of that time, who had an antipathy towards slavery, George Whitefield was a key figure in legalizing slavery in Georgia.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Reminds me that way back when both the world and I were much younger, I studied ‘labeling theory’ in Sociological theory classes.

  • Dennis Hesselbarth

    Disclaimer: I’ve not thought or read deeply about how one defines evangelicalism, so excuse my ignorance if these questions have been discussed. I wonder, where do definitions of evangelicalism place the historic African American church, or many anabaptist groups? Bebbingtin’s quadrilateral seemingly includes them, but I don’t see them readily identifying themselves as evangelical. Witness the “Black evangelical,” who distinguish themselves from the traditional AA church. These questions keep protruding in my mind: is evangelicalism’s worldview also culturally/ethnically defined? Doesn’t it operate within a white worldview? A middle class worldview? And what about the use of power? Isn’t a unifying characteristic of American evangelicalism the belief that power can be/should be used to produce cultural change? Anabaptist groups reject this. And Black Theology has a much more nuanced understanding of power. I have this nagging sense that much of what in American we call evangelicalism is so laced with mainstream white middle class culture that the real discomfort is not with groups that fit Beggingtin’s definition but with the cultural expression of it. Is that fair, or am I missing something?

  • Gregory Peterson

    I’m stating a fact in a joking way. I did study sociological labeling theory. It’s a real thing that can give you some insight on society.

  • Filip

    It seems the writer doesn’t add Grenz’s use of Donald Dayton’s ‘convertive piety’ in the mix as a valuable theological lens.