Whose Evangelicalism?

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Much has been written about the “quiet exodus” of African-American Christians from predominantly white evangelical churches. Often those observations seem to suggest two things:

  1. That those African-Americans are no longer evangelicals and may be in danger of leaving the faith altogether; and,
  2. That evangelicalism as a movement belongs to white evangelical Christians.

The first assumption need not be feared merely because folks are leaving predominantly white churches. “Evangelicalism,” despite the assumption of some, is not a synonym for true Christianity. The Lord has a people—a vast innumerable people—who are not and who do not belong to white evangelical churches. Praise his holy name!

The second assumption bears some reflection. If we think well about who “owns” evangelicalism, we may find a way to caulk the cracks in our fellowships and keep people from slipping through.

If “evangelicalism” gets defined sociologically, even implicitly or tacitly, we would think “evangelical” equals “white.” We might even hear “white evangelicals” as redundant. We get a hint about whether we’re thinking sociologically by asking ourselves who we mean when we say “our church.” If we say something along the lines of, “We would like more diversity at our church” and the antecedent to “our” is our ethnic group, then we may be thinking of our ethnic selves as the owners of the local church. It may not be a self-conscious thing. We may not ever want people to feel excluded because of our ethnic identity. In fact, we are expressing the opposite desire. But the unexamined assumption that this is “our” church—by which we center our culture, our habits, our preferences, and so on—can be felt by every person not a part of our group. In this way, a sociologically defined evangelicalism, with its centering of one group’s identity, perhaps hidden from conscious intention, tends toward the division of the church along ethnic, cultural, ritual, and preferential lines.

If we defined “evangelicalism” politically we might think it belongs to politically conservative and Republican types. This is certainly a media understanding, but is also the self-understanding of many evangelicals. Nowadays, some people are tempted to think Trump voters “own” evangelicalism. But an essentially political definition may be there even if a person rejects Trump. Many consider conservative politics an expression of a “biblical worldview.” So conservative political philosophy (which is in actuality, like all secular political philosophies, a form of worldliness) becomes in their view normative for all Christians. Those who aren’t conservative are then not “good Christians” or deemed “immature.” To be fair, this happens with any political philosophy that becomes rather synonymous with the term “evangelical.” It just happens that “evangelical” is most often associated with varieties of political conservatism. When that happens we create a political litmus test by which potential members are vetted. The church belongs to a political group in that case.

If defined theologically, evangelicalism belongs to all who hold genuine evangelical theological commitments. What are those? For shorthand, I would commend Bebbington’s quadrilateral. In light of recent squabbles, specifically note Bebbington’s fourth category in the quadrilateral: activism. Historic evangelicals were activists in all kinds of good causes. Sadly, nowadays it’s common to hear some professing “evangelicals” calling such activism the “social gospel,” “Marxism,” and the like. Effectively, then, some evangelicals hold a trilateral understanding of the movement. In cutting off activism they become “evangelical gnostics,” retreat to an isolationist fundamentalism, fear any venture into public witness leads only to liberalism, or simply hold a view inconsistent with evangelical heritage. But whether quad- or trilateral, these self-conscious evangelicals tend to distinguish themselves from the first two groups and claim to be the true “owners” of the movement.

As you might have guessed already, these categories are not mutually exclusive. If we put these things together we get a pretty powerful cocktail for exclusion calling itself “evangelical” when it’s really a narrow sociological, political, partly ahistorical, and socially withdrawn expression of faith. That such a view exists is demonstrable and plain all over the place. It’s been most startlingly and uncomfortably revealed in social and political events across the country these last four to five years.

What might be surprising to some inside this kind of evangelical subculture is that people who do not fit in the subculture can feel excluded in these environments. And sometimes this evangelical subculture makes the subjective feeling quite explicit and objective with boundary-maintaining shibboleths. Elements of the subculture become the price of admission and “discipleship” becomes a form of assimilation. Ironically, a people meant to be gatherers fulfilling the Great Commission become scatterers instead (Matt. 12:30).

If we want a greater experience of Christian unity in local churches we must become aware of when “our” centers one group and when “our” tacitly or explicitly imposes extra-biblical cultural requirements on others. We must be alert to our extra-biblical shibboleths, and we must tear them apart so others may easily move in. Whoever occupies the “our” in the local evangelical church must radically embrace and include the people on the margins if they want to diversify the center.

Which brings me back to the issue of the quiet exodus. Should people leave? Or, should others be forced to change?

If “evangelical” is meant to be a nickname for something like “biblical Christian community,” then evangelicalism belongs to all Christians who hold the quadrilateral (or some other suitable definition for the movement). Evangelicalism is mine as much as it’s anyone else’s. If I feel alien and unwelcome, I should not acquiesce to those feelings and should not concede evangelicalism to people who have no greater claim to the movement than I do. But I should also avoid the impulse to find a church “for us” that returns the exclusionary favor. Unity is worth fighting for even if we fight against ourselves and our tendency to want to be comfortably at the center.

True Evangelicalism belongs to Jesus. I belong to Jesus. You belong to Jesus. The church belongs to Jesus. So we must “do” evangelicalism the way Jesus would have us do it. We get our cue from the first “T4G” where the apostles in Jerusalem faced the question of whether and how Gentile believers were to be included in the church. They wrote a letter to churches with Gentiles documenting their decision. We read it in Acts 15:22-29.

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

The majority who could have centered the church on their Jewishness, instead used their position of privilege to include the Gentiles on the margins “to lay no other burden” on them other than avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality. In this way they simultaneously made Jesus the main thing, affirmed biblical morality and worship, and welcomed the “other” just as they were as Gentiles. May the same Holy Spirit who moved the apostles and elders to do this 2,000 years ago move their supposed evangelical heirs to do the same today.

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