evangelicalism: the best version of Christianity (or not)

evangelicalism: the best version of Christianity (or not) May 12, 2014

In recent months, in various venues, I have seen the following claim made or implied, in one form or another: evangelicalism is the best iteration of Christianity because it is most faithful to the Bible and most in line with the history of the church.

Several observations:

  1. All Christian traditions say that.
  2. To gain credibility this claim would need to be made with at least Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians in the room.
  3. This triumphalist claim is consistent with evangelicalism’s polemical roots and history.
  4. The claim marginalizes, if not ignores, the tremendous theological diversity in historic Christianity as well as in the church today (synchronic and diachronic diversity).
  5. The claim assumes that this diversity is a problem with God.
  6. Related to 4 and 5, the claim assumes something of the Bible, namely that it presents one detailed yet coherent spiritual narrative that can be teased out, systematized, and defended.
  7. Not all evangelicals are comfortable with this rhetoric.

Rather than asserting the dominance of the evangelical narrative with such a reaching claim, I would rather see a defense of evangelicalism’s validity mounted along the following lines:

Evangelicalism is our spiritual home and we value it. So we want to see how best we can maintain, respect, and nurture this community of faith.

But we make no pretense whatsoever at embodying the best of the Christian tradition. Rather, we seek to be a good and faithful expression of Scripture and the Great Christian Tradition in our time and place. 

We, therefore, seek peace and collaboration with other Christians. We feel we can contribute to the larger conversation among Christians as well as learn from other traditions, keeping an open mind and heart to where corrections and changes are needed, but also seeking to circumscribe our faith in some meaningful way that maintains our identity. 

For my tastes, a statement like that would be a refreshing, conciliatory, and even attractive way of defending evangelical borders rather than the all-or-nothing game public evangelicalism is known for, which often collapses into a defensive posture that only serves to build higher walls of isolation.

What would be lost if evangelicalism’s public figures adopted such a posture? Some would say evangelicalism itself.

What would be gained? Some would say needed adaptations of evangelicalism to insure its survival.

I’m sure some of you have opinions on this.

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  • Nathan Hale

    That would make too much sense.

  • Lindsey

    #7-This evangelical right here isn’t comfy with it. Although, to be fair, most of my fellow evangelicals would probably rather just say I’m not one of them at all (and therefore maybe not even a believer mind you) than admit it doesn’t sit well with everyone.

    • I am in the same position Lindsey. I am an evangelical, though many evangelicals would disagree.

  • Brian P.

    By analogy, consider dialing it up a level. 1. All religious traditions say that. 2. Would need to have those of other traditions and none in the room. 3. Consistent with Christianity’s polemic tradition. 4. Marginalizes all religious and non-religious diversity globally. 5. Again, assumes a problem with God–that there is a God with such problems. 6. … Might need to bump up Bible a level too in the original proposition to beliefs/what’s revealed/known within the tradition. I think, as such, the subfaith delineations provide something much better than a last line of defense.

    • Ryan

      I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, the problem with this is that Christianity is, to an extent, an internally consistent system and arguably even closed system (in the sense that certain creeds define Christianity, and to defy those creeds is to cease being Christian), whereas religion in general is not.

      For example, Evangelical’s claim that their tradition is the most faithful to historic Christianity is blatantly and demonstrably false. We know this because there is a certain fixed sense of what it means to be Christian (belief in the Trinity, belief in the Incarnation, belief in the death and resurrection, etc), and of the people throughout history who held to those beliefs, by and large they have not been evangelical, nor have many of them held to doctrinal positions that would be considered distinct to evangelicalism.

      On the contrary, I’m not convinced that the idea of “historic religion” even makes sense. Saying “our religion is the most in line with historic religion” isn’t a meaningful statement because “religion” lacks any specific parameters – and frankly I’m not convinced that it’s something that all religious traditions say.

      The reality is that evangelicalism vs the rest of Christianity and Christianity vs all other religions are two very different contexts, and while there are some similarities I see no reason to believe that they are directly analogous.

      • Brian P.

        You could have just said it was guilty of the weak analogy fallacy. Which it is to a significant degree. That said… meh…

        • Ryan

          Nah, that wouldn’t really have been all that constructive. A pet peeve of mine is the way that logical fallacies are often reduced to being points in a verbal fencing match.

          They’re tools for sharpening and clarifying our thought, and in my opinion, the statement “You’ve committed X fallacy!” is only marginally more helpful than “You’re wrong!” in most contexts.

  • Nijay Gupta

    Thanks, Pete. Many evangelicals think it a contradiction when I refer to myself as an “ecumenical evangelical.” I think one of the keys to learning this is cross-cultural religious experiences and occasions where we partner with different kinds of people and learn – “oh, that catholic is not just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Or, “hey, I kinda like that person…”

  • Great post, Pete. This pretense of was one of the barriers that kept me from finding a healthier local church for so many years. One I saw it for the farce that it was, I gave myself permission to leave Evangelicalism. Best choice for my spiritual and mental choice I’ve ever made.

    And now I’m trying to remember the ways in which I can lift up, celebrate, commune with, and work with evangelicals of various stripes. I’d hate to import that claim into the denomination within which I now reside!

  • I, too, am an evangelical that is not comfortable with the rhetoric of those overly vocal in our tribe. Fortunately, many evangelical scholars are acting much more ecumenical these days.

  • rvs

    It’s #5, in particular, that I find most helpful: “The claim assumes that this diversity is a problem with God.” This problematic assumption leads to so many grim and absurd attitudes.

  • Well said.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I’ve never seen the work of John H. Armstrong mentioned here when ecumenical evangelical topics come up. He has a lot of experience in building bridges, particularly among Catholic and Protestant evangelicals. You can find him at ACT3 Network and his blog is at http://johnharmstrong.com

    • JL Schafer

      Yes, John is a fantastic resource. It was at an ACT3 event where I first got to hear Pete.

  • JL Schafer

    Memo to Baby Boomer generation: Claims like this one (evangelicalism is the purest form of Christianity) have essentially no face validity with most Millennials. They are too connected to the world, too aware of diversity, for this to be plausible.

  • Wayne Coppins

    Thanks for a perceptive post on a way that evangelicals could enter into a more fruitful dialogue with others, one that assumes that they have something to offer and something to learn

  • Bill Norton


    How are you defining evangelical and evangelicalism? What does this “spiritual home” look like?

  • I appreciate your decision to use a graphic from your personal bladed weapon stockpile, instead of using clipart.

    • Guest2

      Unkind, untrue and nasty !

      • Don’t be fooled. Dr. Enns has an entire closet full of blades, including a pretty sweet replica of Galadriel’s blade from Lord of the Rings, which I am not the least bit jealous of.

    • Guest2

      What about the metaphor of the Word and the sword rightly dividing the truth ?

  • tearfang

    “But we make no pretense whatsoever at embodying the best of the Christian tradition.” Why the hell would anyone ever try to embody anything less than the best of any tradition. This makes no sense whatsoever- insanity.

    The claim assumes that this diversity is a problem with God.

    Or perhaps it assumes that truth is objective, and not relativistic.

    wrt to (1) of course they all claim it… for the simple reason that its denial is also a denial of the relevance of the tradition. People tend not to follow traditions when they think there are better ones available.

    • Nobody said evangelicals shouldn’t *try* to embody the best of their tradition. The question for all of us, evangelical or not, is: are we going to be honest with ourselves about the fact that past generations didn’t have all their tradition and doctrine right. . . and that we probably don’t either? It’s about humilty – admitting that human fraility and limitations constrain our unfettered access to truth, and always will. Evangelicals’ complete confidence in God is a great thing. . . evangelicals’ complete confidence in their own interpretations is not. The real truth is there’s more than a hint of pride masquerading under a declaration like: “I have fully committed myself to following the absolute Word of God.” (Because the truth is you are only elevating your OWN interpretation of the Bible)

      So this has less to do with the relativity of the truth, and more to do with intellectual and spiritual humility.

  • leighcopeland

    One at least starting out as a theist and confronting the evidence for evolution will probably say, “Well, if there is a God this must be how he did it.” Your proposal appears to be consistent with the God who uses freedom/randomness/diversity as the engine or method of his loving creativity and his creative love.

  • Jerry Shepherd

    I believe part of the problem with this article is that, in places, you are not reacting to the statement as you first laid it out, but to a different one entirely: “Evangelicalism has cornered the market in its iteration of Christianity because it is the only one that is faithful to the Bible and in line with the history of Christianity.” These are two very different statements. I agree with the one that you presented, but not with the one you actually ended up reacting to. As for your observations:

    (1) This is demonstrably false. There are groups that at least refer to themselves as Christian which both consciously and intentionally depart from the Bible and historic Christianity.

    (2) I agree, but, of course, this happens all the time; e.g., in volumes like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.

    (3) This is not a triumphalist claim. To argue that one belongs to a group that puts forth the best iteration is not the same thing as claiming that it is a perfect iteration or that it has “arrived.”

    (4) It neither marginalizes, nor ignores. There are no evangelical professors of church history? There are no evangelical students of historical theology and the history of interpretation?

    (5) Diversity is not the issue. After all, there are evangelical Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Calvinists, Arminians, Amillennials, Premillennials, etc. There will always be a certain amount of diversity. But this diversity is not, as John Franke claims, irreducible. There are errors to be weeded out along the way.

    (6) Yes.

    (7) If there are evangelicals who think there are better iterations of Christianity, they should align themselves with those expressions.

    I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in advocating an iteration of the Christian tradition that is only valid and faithful for our time and place (a la Leander Keck). I want a Christian tradition that is valid and faithful for every time and place.

    “Keeping an open mind and heart to where corrections and changes are needed”? Of course, but this is by no means inconsistent with the statement you presented.

  • I would welcome a more conciliatory note. Sadly, it seems to me from my experience that institutionally as well as individually, Evangelicals cannot conceived that they might possibly be wrong about some of their interpretation of scripture, of Church history, or of what God might actually think about events and the ways people live their lives current and past. Simply making the comment I have will usually elicit a response that demonstrates the truth of my point. The thing is, no matter what we think or feel, NONE of us have a whole picture on what God thinks or feels about nearly anything in thought and experience. Too many of us assume we have *nothing* to learn from people who are not of our “spiritual tribe,” and the longer I live, the more I realize that is an insular, sad, destructive approach, very un-Christlike I believe.

    • While I agree with the desire for a “more conciliatory note”, this stubbornness of belief is not consigned strictly to evangelicals. Anyway, if evangelicalism adopts an all-inclusive version of the truth, it is no longer being true to itself.

  • Michael Mercer

    Alas, “Bible alone” leads to “Us alone.” Here we stand. We can do no other. Kyrie eleison.

  • AlanCK

    Peter, it seems that evangelicalism’s iteration of the Christian faith has understood the task of the church as one of apology. If defense of the faith is central to evangelical praxis, is there not a consequent posture vis-a-vis the world and other Christian traditions that results? Is there not a consequent interpretive method and tradition that arises? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts (hint: a future blog entry) on whether the New Testament calls the church to apology or to witness, and if distinguishing between the two could enable evangelicalism to free itself from spending enormous amounts of energy trying to defend its iteration of faith.

  • On the historic Christianity point – I’ve noticed conservative evangelicals often fall into weird anachronisms when addressing Christians in the past – such as their acquisition of everyone from C.S. Lewis to St. Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (see Eric Metaxas’ 2011 book which attempts to “evangelicalize” the latter.) Basically, anyone in history who they like, they attempt to squeeze under the very circumscribed umbrella of evangelicalism – as they’ve constructed it. Which gets us to the odd place where C.S. Lewis is trotted out as a paragon of evangelical thinking and apologetics (at least this is the case with evangelicals in the U.S.). However, there is NO CHANCE someone like Lewis would be considered an evangelical today, with his views on a host of things. So why not just admit that these people were not conservative evangelicals, but simply admirable Christians who we can all learn from? The reason is this: if we admit that, we are admitting that conservative evangelicals may not hold a monopoly on truth. It’s an issue of authority, and it’s why evangelicals don’t trust otherwise qualified experts or exemplary testimonies – if they don’t belong to the tribe.

    • Justin, I have long contended that C. S. Lewis, the darling of evangelicals, is actually very dangerous to evangelicals. It was Lewis who first got me questioning, among other things, about those outside of Christianity who might be accepted by God, what the destination might be for those who reject God, and whether teetotalism is a terrible sin.

      Lewis was very instrumental in RESCUING me from evangelicalism.

      In fact, one of evangelicalisms most quoted argument from Lewis–Lord, Liar, or Lunatic–is actually a very weak argument.

      • JWB – Perhaps one of the reasons the trilemma is so popular is because it is similar to the false dichotomies presented elsewhere by evangelicals. We’ve heard them all before:

        + “Young Earth Creationism, OR the entire Bible is completely fraudulent.”
        + “Sex within heterosexual monogamous marriages with no previous divorces only, OR Sinful Lifestyle.”
        + “Evangelical Christian Beliefs, OR Satan-inspired deceptions.”
        + “Contemporary Christian Music, OR Good Music.” (Sorry, that last one was a cheap shot.) 😉

        To use a test-taking analogy – conservative evangelicals prefer only True/False questions or at most multiple choice with only ONE RIGHT ANSWER. They hate multiple choice with more than one answer, or nasty wishy-washy essays. If faith were like math or hard science, I would agree with that approach. But it is not like that. In fact, healthy faith must struggle with difficult questions and not rest easy on its laurels, whether handed down from the past or from personal prejudice.

        I feel evangelicalism becomes defensively parochial when it addresses the past, because the past is a foreign, alien country. Christian communities of the past 2 millenia were unlike us – and such diversity is a problem for those who think they’ve got the Full Unalterable Truth on every subject. Conservative evangelicals implicitly expect that if St. Paul or St. Peter were suddenly deposited into the 21st Century, they would quickly identify evangelical lifestyles and opinions as the “most biblical” – and find other “Christians” as failing in some respect. But the very idea that there is a recoverable, executable “one-size-fits-all” Christianity is just objectively not true. There are certainly some core things which unify Christians throughout history. But before we can even focus on those things, evangelicals need to acknowledge their non-evangelical brothers and sisters who are living today – Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, progressive/emergent, etc.

        I had an encounter last year I’ll never forget. I was talking about the bad circumstances of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to a very unsympathetic evangelical. It wasn’t the focus of the discussion, but I mentioned off-hand that there were thousands of Palestinian Christians. His face visibly contorted (“DOES. NOT. COMPUTE.”), and after clarifying that I meant ethnic Palestinians who are Christians. . . his eyes quickly narrowed. And he brought forth the question, “Well, they may say so, but are they *real* Christians?” Now, if they had been *real* Evangelical True Blue Christians in his mind, would he have given their case for grievances greater weight? Would he have listened and treated them as legitimate brothers and sisters? And if he would have treated them differently, isn’t that a problem? It just goes to show that these kind of questions are not academic at all – they are practical and ethical.

        • Justin, I pretty much agree.

          No Christian group can claim to be custodian to the (detailed) truth. And were Paul to visit us in the 21st century, I think he would be horrified to find his letters promoted as the inerrant truth of God.

          True Christians? Who are the true Christians? A true Christian is anyone who is drawn to follow Jesus.

          • MattB

            A Christian is someone who knows Jesus as their Lord and Savior.. Period. Liberal theology teaches that Jesus is “a” way and not “the” way. That’s where the problem arises. It’s not a matter of political views but theological views. All religions don’t lead to God because they all contradict each other. Each one has a truth claim to it. Jesus not only claimed to be God but proved it.

        • MattB

          A Christian is someone who knows Jesus as their Lord and Savior.. Period.

  • tee kay

    Well, I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that evangelism is the best form of Christianity but it is a very effective way if done properly to outreach and bring new souls to Christ. I have a lot of agnostic friends and skeptic friends that say if God is real why can’t we see Him. I always reply is not seeing Him reason enough to discredit His existence so I find this video below to answer that question awesomely:


  • Peter Bylen

    To what was Christianity faithful to before the Bible?

    • Andrew Dowling

      The Gospel??

  • BT

    It seems like peter agrees that the fundamental premise is flawed. Any one Christian tradition should be judged less by our current understanding of how close it hews to our ideas of the bible and tradition. Rather, it should be judged by the quality of the disciples it produces and how well it brings the kingdom of God to earth.

    On that scale, I’m not so sure it’s the best. Not the worst, but with lots of room for improvement.

  • Ian

    Peter, could I just ask something, in respect of this point, “Related to 4 and 5, the claim assumes something of the Bible, namely that it presents one detailed yet coherent spiritual narrative that can be teased out, systematized, and defended.”

    I have heard it argued that the divine inspiration of the Bible requires that it does present a consistent spiritual narrative that mankind can access. Otherwise how can we say it is the word of God for us?

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts here