Unfaithful To Holy Things
When I was on the Board of “Christianity Today” a number of the editors were concerned the adjective “evangelical” was losing its distinct meaning. The term had gradually become a label used in polls for voting segments in political elections. As such, it was no longer a theological term but had, over time, morphed into a broad demographic label that had little to do with theological distinctives. Yes, there were still some who defined evangelical by their doctrinal views. However, the word itself was becoming more defined by political, tribal and cultural issues than theological positions. That is why the editors came to us with some suggestions about what we might consider as an adjective with less baggage. Maybe it was time to leave the word “evangelical” behind as it had become corrupted by misuse and misunderstanding. We had a few discussions but decided the term had a rich history and for many, it was felt they would be giving up a word that had defined not only their generation but several before them. We knew what evangelical had meant and our challenge was to keep and protect it.
Well, I think we all know how that has worked out. The term in the general population no longer has much meaning other than a political description. In a conversation with Molly Worthen last week at the Faith Angle Forum she told me it would be almost impossible to change the word now – not because of theology but because the word was fixed in the language of polling. We are now viewed by the pollsters as a political demographic and not people with a set of religious beliefs. We have become part of the political vocabulary and all of the diversity and nuance of what it once meant to be evangelical has been compressed into a few cultural issues fixed in the minds of the general public.
Worse, we have become categorized as people who are angry, loud, bigoted, hypocritical and so anxious to promote our select moral views that we have made deals that make us little more than “those useful idiots” politicians have called us for years. We are, I am afraid, in danger of doing precisely what James warned us about in his letter to the churches. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”
Wendell Berry said it well, I think. “Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective.”
We have lost our birthright as evangelicals not because the world has redefined us. Rather, we have sold it cheaply as Esau did with Jacob. There is something we want so much in the immediate that we have bargained away our future – and our heritage.
One of the most conservative and patriotic pastors and teachers I knew, Ray Stedman, was teaching on the passage in Leviticus that warns the people about being unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things. “What is this kind of sin? What sort of offense is this? It was to do something with deep sincerity, with utter conviction that you were doing the right thing, and to do so in the name of The Lord, but later to find out that you were wrong, that God didn’t want that done at all. We have fomented hatred and attack against one another in the name of Christ, and have thought we were honoring God in the doing! As a result, our churches are filled with people who are going through empty religious forms and ceremonies, all because they think God wants this, while their hearts are very, very far from him. There has been a great deal of unwitting harm done in the name of Jesus Christ. And when we see it we need to repent and make restitution, to try to correct it as far as possible.”
We all, at one time or another, have used God, Jesus, or the Bible to justify, rationalize and validate our particular beliefs. Obviously, this does not mean there is no right and wrong but what it does mean is we have proof-texted and used Scripture to make what we want to believe or to make our own prejudices the rule. We twist it to fit our desires and biases. We are unfaithful to the Lord’s holy things.
It is not the nation that needs to repent but evangelicals. Yes, we may have lost a term many considered precious but continuing to foment hatred and attack against one another in the name of Christ will only lead people to give up not only the label of evangelical but perhaps Christian as well.