Defining is not Belonging

Defining is not Belonging November 5, 2019

Surely if evangelicalism had an ecclesiology, that is a doctrine of the church, church membership would matter to any effort to understand what evangelical Protestantism is. But as is so often the case with studies of evangelicalism, Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is An Evangelical?, goes for definition over institutional ties. Here is his simple definition:

Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This definition hinges upon three aspects of what it means to be an evangelical: being born again, the primacy of the Bible, and the divine presence of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. As we shall see, evangelicals of the mid-1700s saw themselves as different from other Protestants because of their born-again experience and the way that they “walked” with the Holy Spirit. . . . This intimacy with God has marked evangelicals since the 1700s. (4-5)

A couple of quibbles at the level of definitions. If the Bible has primacy, why doesn’t it lead off the “three aspects”? The reason, is that experience and intimacy are actually more important than the Bible. All Protestants in the 1700s would have had a high regard for Scripture. That means that what set evangelicals apart was not reverence for the Bible but the conversion experience. A related quibble is that the Bible is not a book of intimate encounters with God. Yes, the Psalter has its moments, but if you want more intimacy, you generally wind up allowing for God to speak to you directly, whether through Beth Moore-like intimations or full-blown anointing by the Holy Ghost in tongues.

Beyond the questions that plague this definition, how is it that a Christian belongs to evangelicalism? Simply calling yourself one, or responding to a pollster over the phone, does not actually qualify. In fact, the crisis of evangelicalism may be precisely the result of handing over to social scientists and opinion poll administrators the difficult work of evaluating whether someone’s profession of faith has credibility. That is what church officers do when they examine someone who wants to become a member of a church. And what goes with this process is often a series of vows that the new member takes before joining. Here is what those vows look like in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (my own communion):

(1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

(2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?

(3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

(4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?

(5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

It’s not exactly “in sickness and health, to death do us part.” But church membership certainly has much more bite than identifying some ideas and practices that seem to be important to a certain swath of Christians and then putting a label on those believers and joining them in that definition.

Imagine if you took a dictionary definition of liberalism, took a survey of a sampling of Americans based on that definition, and concluded that 33 percent of Americans were liberal (roughly 100 million). Do the same for conservatism and say you find that 12 percent of Americans answer survey questions that indicate a conservative outlook. That would mean the United States has roughly 32 million conservatives.

Now compare those numbers to membership in the Democratic Party (45 million), the Republican Party (32 million), the Democratic Socialists of America (56,000), and the Green Party (250,000). Look how much bigger a group can be if it relies only on definitions.

But definitions require nothing. Membership requires paying dues, reading mail, voting in elections, serving the organization.

If evangelicalism has a crisis, it is relying on an identity that is only on paper, in someone’s head, or a social scientific measurement. Shouldn’t scholars be able to see this?

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