To me, the most powerful moment so far in Mike Cosper’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill comes near the end of Josh Harris’ deconversion story, when Ted Olsen, executive editor at Christianity Today, reflects on his disappointment and sadness in covering so many fallen leaders in recent years. “It hits you in the gut every time,” he says.
At one point, having seen more and more ugly truths come to light, Ted looked out over the evangelical landscape and asked:
“Are there any Christians? Are there real Christians? Are there Christians who believe this stuff and act on it? Or are most people doing this just as a grift or because they’ve been grifted?”
As someone who, like Ted, has sometimes seen the underbelly of hypocrisy in the church, I have felt a similar sense of disappointment and disillusionment.
But lately, that sentiment hasn’t been due only to the moral failure of leaders but also to the inability or unwillingness of many influential voices to recognize and pass on the riches of the evangelical heritage we’ve received. I’ve watched as seminary professors, writers and leaders, pundits and pastors disregard the whole evangelical effort as misguided (at best) or dangerous (at worst).
Although some might not express their concerns in such stark terms, people on both the right and left make claims that leave bewildered observers with the impression that evangelicalism is either (a) rotten at the root, conceived in racism and misogyny, and corrupted by right-wing political influence or (b) compromised at the core, prone to syncretism and liberalism, corrupted by a left-wing social gospel.
And so, the critics say, the gospel has been utterly compromised everywhere you look within evangelicalism, either by the extra-biblical excesses of key leaders or by the trajectory of once-sound pastors away from biblical truth. If it’s true that evangelicalism is hopelessly corrupted, what response is there but to disavow the whole movement and malign its remaining leaders as problematic or complicit?
For this reason, the question I’ve been asking lately isn’t if there are “real Christians” out there, but whether there are “classic evangelicals.” Is there a future for Christians in various denominations and different countries who share the instincts of leaders like John Stott and J. I. Packer, Tony Evans and Tim Keller, Rebecca Pippert and Ajith Fernando?
I worry that the debates of the last decade may have jeopardized one of the primary insights from this cross-denominational renewal movement—that the gospel in its biblical fullness frees us from the false choice between a separationist fundamentalism that personalizes the gospel to the detriment of its public implications, and a social gospel liberalism that prostitutes the gospel for other agendas by shedding fundamental doctrines that get in the way of “progress.”
To trace the history of classic evangelicalism would take us back to the Reformation, but the manifestation most familiar to us today gained traction in the middle of the last century, as leaders like Carl Henry and Billy Graham sought to inspire a renewal movement that would embody Christian witness at its best—a rock-solid commitment to the evangelistic ethos and doctrinal commitments of fundamentalism combined with a Great Commandment passion for social action and ministry.
- Evangelicals stood against a liberal revisionism that would deny the ultimate authority of Scripture, sever ties with the historic witness of Christianity, and transform the church into “errand runners” in line with the world’s agenda.
- Evangelicals stood apart from a separatist fundamentalism that would privatize the faith, romanticize the past, divorce the gospel from its social implications, and transform the church into a “fortress for the faithful,” where surviving a siege matters more than reaching the culture.
“Neo-evangelicals” sought to recapture the ethos of earlier Protestant leaders like John Wesley and Richard Allen, Amy Carmichael and William Wilberforce—men and women who embraced the fundamental truths of Christianity and demonstrated the power of the gospel in ways that shaped the culture. Their vision was admirable, even if their efforts didn’t always lead to success.
As part of a renewal movement, evangelicals have helped to reinvigorate their denominational and confessional homes with passion and devotion, driven by a commitment to follow Jesus in ways that rally the faithful, reaffirm central Christian truths, and reform what’s broken in our churches and culture.
It’s true that sociological confusion surrounds the term “evangelical” today in the United States. That’s due to the label’s politicized meaning in recent decades. But the political definition doesn’t apply to evangelicals of color; neither does it apply in other parts of the world, especially now that most evangelicals can be found in the Global South. Lest we forget, the American side is only a sliver of this worldwide movement.
Still, pointing to evangelicals outside North America doesn’t resolve the angst I feel about the state of evangelicalism in the United States. Too many of us have been fooled into thinking the only answer to evangelical corruption is either (a) the abandonment of doctrinal essentials in favor of a “progressive faith” more in line with contemporary sensibilities (that’s the path of the revisionists) or (b) the abandonment of contextualization in favor of a purer, more isolated faith that is radically privatized in some ways, yet oddly politicized in others (that’s the path of the neo-fundamentalists).
One of the primary purposes of the evangelical movement has been to cry foul on the falseness of this dichotomy. Evangelicals at their best have always insisted on two truths that should never be separated: a commitment to the total truthfulness of the Bible and a passion for loving our neighbors and seeing society transformed. The combination of word and deed in Scripture calls Bible-believing Christians to both a high view of Scripture and concern for the world.
That’s why—in contrast to what you may hear from some of the loudest and most passionate voices today—calling out the danger of privatizing the gospel or conflating Christianity with right-wing politics doesn’t make you a squishy “social gospel liberal.” And calling out the danger of prioritizing new proposals for “social justice” to the diminishment of personal evangelism doesn’t make you a “fundamentalist” or a methodological “white supremacist.”
On the one hand, I don’t want to kiss evangelicalism goodbye because there really are dangers in certain ideologies and movements that align with an incipient liberalism—a trajectory that, over time, will devastate the church and deny the gospel. The specter of the “social gospel” is not a ghost story.
On the other hand, I won’t kiss evangelicalism goodbye because there really are pitfalls in groups that love to engage in perpetual conflict, to look for lesser distinguishing marks to battle brothers and sisters over until they cocoon themselves into ever-smaller enclaves of uniformity on the minutest doctrinal detail. Separatist fundamentalism, ironically, cedes societal influence to social activists whose churches have strayed from the gospel.
There’s one more reason I won’t kiss evangelicalism goodbye: I love the local church.
Happily, it was his local community of faith that brought Ted Olsen out of a season of disillusionment. He rediscovered faith through the camaraderie he felt in his congregation, in encountering brothers and sisters whose faults and failings were evident but whose passion for and commitment to Jesus were solid. Ted found people he could point to and say: These are real Christians.
There’s a lesson for us all here. When I log off Twitter and look at what King Jesus is up to in local congregations in this country and around the world, I’m encouraged. I can find plenty of church leaders and church members who, having been formed by years of scriptural study, know instinctively to reject the false dichotomies presented by political partisans. In the years to come, I pray that tribe will increase, until the life-giving words and deeds of classic evangelicals drown out the noisy battles between neo-liberals and neo-fundamentalists, to show a better way.
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