a book that actually claims there is actually a future for evangelicalism that doesn’t involve killing each other

a book that actually claims there is actually a future for evangelicalism that doesn’t involve killing each other May 18, 2015

HeieiMy friend Harold Heie has a passionate commitment to fostering respectful conversations on the internet about difficult topics among evangelicals. Heie is Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College (full bio here). He is the author of Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking and Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation.

His recent book tackles another difficult topic:  A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation, where Heie summarizes and reflects on an eCircle conversation he hosted on his blog in 2013, “American Evangelicalism: Present conditions, Future Possibilities.” (See also my earlier post.) That conversation took place among 26 evangelical thinkers, including me, John R. FrankeKarl GibersonJeannine Brown, Christopher M. HaysRichard MouwAmos Yong,  John Wilson, and Molly Worthen.

After two brief introductory chapters (“American Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition” and “Continuing the Conversation”), Heie covers over the next 7 chapters the issues that were addressed in the original eCircle conversation.

  • Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity
  • Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture
  • Evangelicalism and Morality
  • Evangelicalism and Politics
  • Evangelicalism and Scientific Models of Humanity and Cosmic and Human Origins
  • Evangelicalism and Higher Education
  • The Future of Evangelicalism

Nothing controversial at all in these topics. Back to your homes, citizens. Nothing to see here.

In this volume, Heie does what he does best: he assembled a group of thinkers representing diverse points of view, who are (see subtitle) committed to what they believe, are open to hearing what others have to say, and demonstrate that openness by engaging in a respectful conversation with others.

I have to say, that’s hard to pull off for a person like me, seeing that I know I’m basically right most of the time (just ask my wife) and wish everyone else would see it so the world would be a happier place.

On the other hand, Heie opens the volume with a favorite quote of his from the late Ian Barbour:

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity (Myths, Models and Paradigms, p. 138).

True, that is “by no means easy” but a worthy endeavor nonetheless. I promise to try harder. In the meantime, Heie is already pulling it off.

If you want a break from internet rancor and ideological battles, Heie walks the walk and talks the talk.


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  • I’m torn.

    On the one hand, I think open yet civil discourse in evangelicalism promises great hope and honors our common bond in the Spirit.

    On the other hand, I’m about to finish a series of post-apocalyptic novels revolving around the premise of various evangelical camps building fortresses, scorching the Earth, then competing for resources in a Mad Max-like wasteland of armed gangs. I guess I could still market them as science fiction, but I was really hoping to market them as eschatology.

    • Gary

      Some sci-fi and some eschatology are more incarnational than escapist in their emphasis. Consider the cultural tops of Star Wars, Star Trek, the Terminator, and the Matrix. All of these are more centered in making an imperfect world better if not fully broken world right, somehow, again even through difficult noble struggle. All of these offer competitively better eschatological visions than getting Left Behind.

      • newenglandsun

        My cousin, who died recently, was a big time Star Wars fan. When my dad, who went to the funeral to support my uncle (this would be my dad’s brother), he got home the day after and started a conversation with my mother about how there was no evidence of my cousin’s spirituality…only Star Wars quotes. I was rather upset they would try to judge someone’s spiritual state like this. I shared this with a Catholic friend of mine and she replied that Star Wars actually contains some great spirituality within it.

        • Gary

          IIRC, it was by way of Star Wars and George Lucas that I became familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell. I think Campbell as well as Carl Jung and Alan Watts to have helped me get a more helpful handle on Christianity and its motifs too.

          In some regards, it’s made it easier to consider and discuss good forms of Christianity but not necessarily with openness wrt the tools I might be using.

          Personally, I’m quite into Christianity and most centrally the Person of Jesus Christ, but also quite lucidly and perhaps a lot like your nephew was into Star Wars.

          Perhaps when your nephew was young he really believed in the Galaxy long ago and far away. Perhaps he lost simple belief yet kept something of the imagination.

          More significantly, it is always sad when children pass before their parents. Wishing eternal rest for the departed and deep peace for the living.

          • newenglandsun

            Cousin. No nephews for me quite yet.

    • newenglandsun

      When you say you’re finishing them are you reading them or are you writing them?

      • Ha! Thankfully, nobody has actually written such a series.

  • newenglandsun

    Just got done talking to your wife. She says you’re wrong…for the 1,000th time today…out of 1,001 times that you had the chance of being right. She said that she was right the other 1,000 times.

  • gingoro

    Why bother! Between the fundamentalists renaming themselves to evangelicals and the New Calvinists restricting the name to those who accept inerrancy it seems to me that evangelicalism as we knew it is dead. I gave up the designation of Evangelical quite a few years ago. DaveW

    • newenglandsun

      I stopped paying attention to Evangelicalism when they started to equate Biblicism ( the idea that the Bible needs to be the final “trump card” in all spiritual decisions) with being “Evangelical”. Of course, “Evangelical” just simply means “one who spreads the good news”. And where was the Bible when the early Christians were around? I guess they weren’t “Evangelical” enough seeing as they didn’t let the Bible tell them which books should go into it.

      Reminds me of a video by one of my favourite YouTubers–MatoJelic. Commenting on a possible variation in a game played by GM Mikhail Tal…”Where is the king going? How about to…off the board?…no…e8 should be safe…wait…this is checkmate.”

  • Mark K

    I wish I could be hopeful that there is a future for Evangelicalism, but alas…

    I believe that the point you make on the eCircle discussion, that what is needed is the possibility of change that is focused inwardly rather than simply outwardly, points to a solution, but one which will never be adopted by the Evangelicals I was counted among all my life.

    • Gary

      Indeed. Reciprocal listening is counter to a central Evangelical zeitgeist. If it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?

  • Gary

    For Evangelicalism to be Evangelicalism there has to be this something, this fuel for the fire, this angst, this dissatisfaction, a protest, some sort of wrestling with something within or someone else or something. It needs this energy. It can find its way into evangelism, into culture wars, into ex tempore prayer, into Biblicism, into Dominionistic politics, into temperance, into energetic preaching, into charismatic expression, into Zionism, into anti-sex trafficking, and much, much more.

    The heritage in commitment, openness, and conversation is a tradition to talk more than a tradition to listen. Ironically despite coming from origins of dealing with abuses of clerical powers and idealisms of Western individualism and such centered spirituality, Evangelicalism is very much a two caste system between those who talk (some sort of clerical role) and those who listen and give and follow (the lay role).

    There is some heritage of civil (ironic word really…) conversation in the laity, but not among Evangelical leaders. Heie is going against the thematic energy that makes Evangelicalism Evangelicalism. The project is doomed in its conception.

    The type of maturity of commitment and inquiry that Heie pursues is not the center of American Evangelicalism. Instead, follow the money and power. This will lead to clear comprehension of what Evangelicalism is and isn’t.

    If you really want a break from internet rancor and ideological battles, leave behind the rancorous battling that defines Evangelicalism. Keep its edges, but let go of this dissatisfied and dissatisfying core.

    • newenglandsun

      The two caste system of clergy and laity (even though we Evangelicals never even wanted to admit we were clerical) was part of the reason I left Evangelicalism. The theology of the Church does not rest in the hands of a few individuals who have been “specially trained” in the field of theology. St. Therese of Lisieux had no theological education whatsoever and she is considered a Doctor of the Church in the Catholic Church.

      • Larry Robinson

        this misrepresents Evangelicalism and the roles in the Body of Christ for evangelizing the world.

        While there certainly is a “office” gift of evangelist and evangelism, the primary function of evangelizing the world lies with the entire body of Christ. Paul laid this out very clearly in Ephesians 4:11,12

        “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,”

        My role as a Pastor/Teacher is not just to shepherd, but to prepare and equip the body for the work of ministry. All Christians are called by Christ to declare the Good News

        • newenglandsun

          I don’t think it misrepresents it at all. From my experience, the pastor claimed he was “equipping” us but all he was really doing was proclaiming his own theology as truth and we have to do the same. Considering that there are numerous strands of Evangelical theology, actually being honest about the rampant clericalism of pastors would be a step in the right direction. It might also be good to just follow with what the Catholics and the Orthodox are doing and start actually displaying the entire body of Christ as contributing to the theological instruction of the Church.

          As a lay person in my own Evangelical non-denominational church, I was generally looked down upon when my views on the corny pop music they played were expressed. I generally just tried to keep silence and put up with the nonsense because there was no way they would appreciate my comments. In my Evangelical Covenant Church, the pastors find it their duty to tell you what is and is not “Biblical” so you don’t accidentally fall into heresy…I was always worried that if I had actually proclaimed that you could never prove what is and what isn’t “Biblical” unless you borrowed an outside source.

          In my Anglican church right now, the priest equips us by having the authority to administer and confer sacraments for the Christian life. He isn’t the sole owner of theological indoctrination like you (being an Evangelical pastor) are. It isn’t he that tells us what to believe. It’s the Church. It’s one reason I can’t stand some people thinking their role as a priest gives them some sense of superior spiritual entitlement. Important role, yes. But it doesn’t make you more theologically knowledgeable than the laity nor does it mean you can tell the laity what they ought to believe. This is an act of the whole church, not an individual pastor like in sects of Evangelicalism.

          Thanks for not paying attention to what Gary and I were describing in our experiences though.

          • Larry Robinson

            You have mis-characterized my points and the Biblical teachings so badly that a detailed rebuttal seems pointless.

            But let me ask two questions. What do you believe the role of the gift and office of pastor-teacher to be if not to properly teach and equip the saints for the work of ministry?

            Should all the members of the local body be required to be equally educated as thelogians? And if so, why do we need the office of pastor-teacher?

          • newenglandsun

            You are assuming “pastor” equals “the teacher”. It does not. In my church, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well, laity also participate in teaching. Many catechists are members of the laity. I do not believe there is an “office of pastor-teacher”. Ordination is a sacrament. Not a spiritual gift.

          • Larry Robinson

            I don’t assume this. It is the word of God that instructs us

            The text of Ephesians 4:7-11 is quite clear
            In Ephesians
            4:11 the postpositive conjunction, de,
            and the article, tous,
            are not repeated before
            didaskalous. This suggests
            that these two words, pastors and teachers, express two functions performed by
            the same gifted man.
            In this instance the two are associated in a special way, as one who teaches
            engages in a measure of pastoral work.

            Additionally, the text makes it clear along with other scripture that these “offices” are both a Charis (grace) dorea (gift) and a calling. Being called is insufficient for the task if you are not also gifted through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

            Paul’s admonition in Galatians 6:6 about compensating the teacher is clearly not a command to pay everyone who can teach

            Titus 1:9 shows us that the Overseer/Elder/Bishop (episkopos) must be empowered (dynatos) to teach. This empowerment must come as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

            Finally, the word sacrament is a non
            biblical term. And certainly no “sacrament” of ordination is
            recognized by scripture.

          • peteenns

            Uh Oh. Protestant biblicist vs. RC non-biblicist smackdown coming.

          • Larry Robinson

            Really? I’m simply interested in seeing an accurate portrayal of evangelical theology instead of misrepresentations and some outright slurs against brothers and sisters in Christ.

            And Peter, that doesn’t mean that some of those stereotypes are not justified criticisms. But blanket stereotyping is hardly the kind of dialogue one expects among the family of Christ

          • peteenns

            I’ve been around that block for decades. Not sure the is an accurate portrayal…

          • Gary

            It’s a very accurate portrayal in that it is yet another of a million incidents of the dissatisfying core.

          • newenglandsun

            In this instance, Anglican non-biblicism.

          • newenglandsun

            I read in both the NRSVACE and RSVCE that “some would be…pastors and teachers”. I don’t take that as indicating that the two are the same exact office as you seem to do. I take that as expressing that one should be a teacher if they are going to be a pastor and one should take pastoral care if one is going to be a teacher. This does not indicate to me what it seems it does to you.

            There are many people who are gifted with the ability to teach who are not permitted to become priests in my church but still function as teachers. My godmother, who is one of those odd-ball Anglicans who opposes women’s ordination, is an incredibly gifted catechist and teacher who was primarily responsible for me adopting Anglo-Catholicism.

            What does Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:6 have to do with our conversation? We don’t pay everyone who can teach. Being a catechist is an unpaid service.

            With respect to Titus 1:9, the RSVCE says “give instruction” and the NRSVACE says “preach”. Preaching is not entirely the same as teaching. It is just simply reiterating what is correct doctrine. So technically, it is in a sense teaching, but as bishops (episkopos) also must give homilies I can see why. I am not saying a priest does not teach. I am saying a priest does not have the sole power within given church to preach.

            Yes, sacrament is an unbiblical term. Do you believe in the Trinity? Trinity is an unbiblical term. Homoousia is an unbiblical term. “God the Son” and “God the Holy Ghost/Spirit” are unbiblical terms. Calvinism, Arminianism, etc., are unbiblical terms. The word “Bible” is an unbiblical term.

    • J. Inglis

      ” rancorous battling that defines Evangelicalism”

      Some evangelicals may battle rancorously, and get an outsized amount of press that makes it seem like they are the definition of evangelicalism, but they are not. Evangelicalism is lived out by many thousands of peaceable christians who do not battle rancorously, but rather worship together peacefully, minister to those in need, seek out the hurting, etc.

      • Gary

        Most of the rancor I observe isn’t necessarily of culture war grade but simply more people that–while doing the things you mention–just don’t really seem to be robustly satisfied in their spiritualities. Most of the rancor I seem to observe is simply within.

    • hoosier_bob

      I pretty much agree. I also have little hope for reform within evangelicalism, for many of the same reasons.

      As you note, most evangelical churches have a caste system, where pastors and ruling elders expect to do 100% of the talking and the laity is expected to agree obediently. Meanwhile, at the denominational level, the pastors and ruling elders spend the better part of their time with pointless infighting.

      I suspect that something will emerge that carries forth the broader evangelical ethos. But I expect the Henry-Lindsell variant of evangelicalism to fade along with the denominations that have been the standard-bearers of rancorous biblicism (e.g., PCA, SBC, etc.).

  • Derek

    That’s a great quote from Ian Barbour. It pretty much sums up my quest to be faithful to the word of God while simultaneously having a posture of open-mindedness toward modern insights, so as not to repeat the mistakes of history (geocentrism).
    I think evangelicalism absolutely has a future if they hold onto the gospel and keep the main things the main things. Evangelicals need to preach Christ crucified and go into all the world and makes disciples.

  • I missed the eCircle conversation of 2013 so maybe this was covered: I find it frustrating that most Evangelicals won’t seriously interact with, listen to, etc. many who came from within their ranks and still say complimentary things but now are in a more progressive “place” (paradigm). They’ll squabble like siblings IF one is still considered part of the family (or possibly so), but if one has removed oneself, generally all interest in conversation and learning from you has ended.

    • Gary

      My experience is that *reciprocal listening* fundamentally is not an intrinsic value of Evangelicalism. Note Enns phrasing and need to offset: “who are (see subtitle) committed to what they believe, are open to hearing what others have to say.” Commitment to believe is opposed to openness to hearing what others have to say.

      Is it not possible that a commitment to belief is to be open to hearing? Is it not possible that one can believe in the value of listening in and of itself?

      Howard, my personal experience have been as yours. The most polite, studied, and respectful Evangelicals will engage in conversation, but only for a period of time. And it doesn’t matter how polite, studied, and respectful one is oneself. In time, they’ll move on. They stop discussing theology, faith, history, metaphysics, beliefs, and anything else of substantial content. They’ll move on.

      Only two types of spiritual conversation can be held with the committed Evangelical about spirituality-related topics. 1) where the persons in dialogue are in sufficient spiritual agreement, and 2) where the Evangelical has position of power/authority/supremacy/witness to talk down to the other. The Evangelical will never invert the supremacy (except when they are in the laity role listening to their clerical authority) nor will they be able to participate in a mutuality of reciprocal listening.

      The nature of this is central to what makes Evangelicalism Evangelicalism. This is at the implicit core of what Evangelicalism imagines the Good News to be and how the Kingdom of God is manifest in the world.

      It is a Gospel of a preacher at a Western lectern and podium at center stage. It is rarely a Gospel of a Lamb on an Altar with invitation into co-identification into the sacred sacrifice that timelessly, kenotically, and theotically makes all things new.

      It seems predominantly theological commitments are often sadly misplaced.

      It is easy to hold beliefs for which you are willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights–this is to be certain of the mystical participation in the death of Christ and to be open to the possibility of the Resurrection. This is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes simple, basic Christian spirituality.

  • Ross

    Although a laudable aim, like others, I am pessimistic about any real structural form of unity between much mainstream “Evangelicalism” and the wider church. Whilst there is a noticeably separatist mindset and narrow definition of what it is to be a “Christian”, then there is no chance of change. I don’t think this is unique to Evangelicalism, but it may be more noticeable in the US where there is more or less a commitment to continual schism and division as the church’s main modus operandi.

    I have just read an interesting post by John H Armstrong called “The Problem of Separatism for Christianity” which gives a nice slant on the underlying issues within the American experience.

    As J Inglis mentioned below, despite the “rancourous battling” (though my view and his of this reference may be different) there are among the goats of Evangelicalism, the many many sheep who are actively carrying out the calling of Jesus day by day.

    We are all “fallen” people and I’m not sure to what level it is possible to overcome that burden and rise above it. Some of us may be very open to who are united with us in the body and others fairly restrictive, maybe there never will be a great unity in this World (Olam Hazeh). It seems that dissension and division have been with us since before Jesus died for us.

    It would be marvellous to see a sea change, but in the meantime maybe many have to live with Jesus, when persecuted by his own, and cry out “father forgive them for they know not what they do”.