The Compelling Alternative

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It was a familiar conversation, one I’ve been a part of many times in recent years. How did white evangelical churches become so captive to one political party, welcome patriarchal treatment of women and cover up abuse, become militaristic, nationalistic, anti-science and anti-environment, and racially divided from those who believed as they did but had different colored skin.

There have been a proliferation of critiques, both from other Christians as well as the secular press. What I found myself wondering as I listened to this discussion is why the alternative vision so many of my friends and I pursue has had so little sway among so many that claim the identifier “evangelical.” This is worth serious study, but I have a few very preliminary thoughts–less “answers” than hypotheses.

One is that we have focused more on critique than an alternative compelling vision of pursuing the kingdom. We focus more on:

  • What’s wrong with “making America great again” than on magnifying the greatness of God and God’s global mission of forming a great people of every language, tribe, ethnicity, and nation.
  • Criticizing patriarchy rather than casting vision for what marriages of mutual service shaped by Christ are like and what churches might be like where women and men use all of the gifts of God to serve the people of God in shared leadership.
  • We join the chorus of #MeToo discussing abuse in the church and rightly so. However, I rarely hear about redeemed, chaste, and flourishing sexuality–mostly what I hear is silence.
  • We speak against the racism of “white” evangelicalism but still have a long ways to go in partnership with believers of color, learning even to submit to their leadership and repenting of white Messiahship.
  • We denounce political captivity to one party, but offer little more than political captivity to another. Rarely do we recognize that the church is its own polis, a people of the Third Way speaking prophetically without being entangled with any party, turning neither to the left nor the right.
  • We deride the anti-science attitudes of others but fail to convey the doxological wonder of exploring the incredible world God has made, sometimes falling into a greater confidence in science than in God.

As I keep pondering this, I wonder if it is more than a matter of who has the better way? Might it be that we are both wrong? I wonder if we are looking at a mirror image of each other, and that we all have abandoned the core values that made evangelicalism such a vibrant movement within Christianity over the last couple centuries, not only in the U.S., but globally. David Bebbington has articulated this as a quadrilateral of core values:

  1. Bible-centered. We affirm the inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible. My sense is that there is very little Bible in much of evangelicalism–often only in misapplied proof texts rather than attentive listening to and meditating upon and even memorizing scripture. In particular, one challenge for us is to read scripture together with people of color and believers from other parts of the world who may not have the same blinders we have.
  2. Cross-centered. The cross challenges all our pretensions to power and influence–from gender relations to politics. The cross gives us all pause to recognize that we are sinners, and that this recognition is good news, because in the cross, the curse of sin is reversed, real pardon is possible. We believe “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” that all of us meet without distinctions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else that separates people. There is no “othering” and certainly no fear-mongering that infers the inferiority of others. We are all both base sinners and the redeemed of God.
  3. Conversion-centered. The cross shows us we need something more than personal and social betterment. We are dying people who need new life, and our hope is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Period. That both moves us to be converted and seek that of others. What I notice is how little we speak of these things. Have we so lost confidence in the transforming power of the gospel that we have turned to meagre earthly things like politics, or efforts to control other people?
  4. Activism. Evangelicals were distinguished by gospel energized activism that effected abolition of slavery, the building of hospitals, the earliest social agencies, and the founding of educational institutions, among other social goods. I wonder if much of our activism, whether of the right or left is co-opted by political connections or shaped by what is in favor in our political tribe rather than energized by the Jubilee proclamation of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

I wonder if white evangelicals of the left and right are both apostate. Have we both renounced our birthright in Christ, which is what is truly compelling? Are we both worshiping idols, just different ones? I wonder if we might begin with common confession that we have turned from our first love, a common repentance. Might that be the beginning of the revival we urgently need, both within the people of God and spreading to a deeply divided and struggling nation? Right now, we are only amplifying the divisions that exist among us when, as reconciliation people, we ought to be healing them. Might the beginning be to admit our unfitness for the work, and how desperately we need God to heal us before we can begin to bring healing?

10 thoughts on “The Compelling Alternative

  1. Do not agree in the slightest with your equating the apostasy of right and left leaning Christians. (It leaves out basic biblical principles and Jesus teachings as I can best understand) But always good to be reminded of ones own shortcomings and sins first.So, well taken.

  2. I wonder what has happened to trust, to repentance, to forgiveness and to reconciliation. Where and when did we lose them? When did we substitute them with fraud, stubbornness, vengeance and isolation?

  3. Thanks, Bob. Personally, I wear the label “evangelical” for its historic orthodoxy and its contemporary expression of the ancient faith, not for political reasons per se. Yet, values embedded in the faith do shape my political opinions.

    • I do as well, and my concern is that we have gotten away from that. I hear very little discussion of the Bible, the cross, or conversion, and our activism seems driven more by political affiliation than biblical imperative in many instances.

      • I know that’s true at a popular level. And it’s what makes the news and the supposed trends. But I wonder if it’s as true in the pew as all that. Seems like there’s a ton of quiet Christians faithfully serving as “evangelicals” who are not on social media, not shouting down opponents, not equating faith with politics . . . are we sure it’s not the more vocal 20% that are being blamed for everything?

  4. Thanks so much, Bob, for another thoughtful and challenging piece. Mutatis mutandis, we face similar challenges in the “deep south” (Australia!), and there’s a vigorous debate here too about the continuing usefulness, or not, of the term “evangelical”. The bottom-line challenge for me: why am I much more easily drawn to declarations about what I am *against* than what I am *for*? I know – but need to be much more intentionally committed to – Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral. Thanks for the timely reminder!

    • I’m not so sure about the label ‘evangelical,’ which has almost become a term of political affiliation, but I tremble with what I see of those walking away from or even excoriating the quadrilateral.

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