Unfaithful To Holy Things

 In Culture, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, People, Politics, Scripture, Theology, Uncategorized

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.

 

 

 

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Showing 15 comments
  • John
    Reply

    My opening thought as I read your piece was to ask myself, as an evangelical, when is the last time I explicitly shared the Good News with someone? How many of us claim the label but don’t live up to the heart of its definition? I know I’m guilty of that.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, John. I did not want to join the growing list of screamers about the death of evangelicals but thought I wanted to say something.

  • Todd
    Reply

    A great word Fred. Reading your thoughts I was reminded there are 3 places I know of in the Scriptures where we are told how the world will know we are His followers: John 8 (by how we abide in His Word), John 13 (by how we love one another and clearly to your point), and then John 15 (by how we bear fruit)….
    Thanks for challenging us! As usual!

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Todd.

  • Michael
    Reply

    Fred, this is another good post! I would like to push your argument further, however, and ask where do we go from here? If the turn to politics was the wrong one, where is the right turn of repentance? I do not think it would be away from cultural engagement, but doing so in an alternative way. As I’ve shared with you before, Hunter’s “To Change the World” book lays out a different way forward, that is not focused on politics but other aspects of engagement inter-related with proclaiming the good news. As I’ve thought about this issue, evangelicals need to repent from a political and legal focus — which is driven by power to control others — and rather be given to other aspects of culture around the 1) university, 2) the arts, 3) media, 4) science, medicine, and technology, and 5) finance. These latter issues, in contrast to politics/law, are dialogical by promoting conversation and are far less threatening than political control.

    Likewise, Christians should not start their own institutions, which draws needed resources from existing institutions, but work within those that exist. As we work in those institutions, we prayerful look for small and large ways that we can orientate our lives by the gospel, and highlight a path for a good society within each sector.

    This is the “new evangelicalism” that we need to reimagine and call others to join. This time seems like a cross-roads to me, and we near an opportunity to change the way evangelicals have expressed themselves in America.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      I think this is what James Piereson did when he was at the Olin Foundation. They invested in secular institutions because they had a long term view.

  • Gordon D. Loux
    Reply

    Well done
    Couldn’t have said it better.
    Our grandchildren deserve better models and thinking
    than we have given them
    Keep making us think

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      You probably could have said it better many years ago and long before I said it!

  • Myself
    Reply

    Maybe you need to speak for yourself. I just see self-loathing and self-hatred, which had become so pop in Western Academia. I don’t think define myself or our church by what people outside think of us.

    And remember, “Christian” WAS first a term of derision.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      That’s the beauty of a blog, Scott. I can only speak for myself. Yes, “Christian” was a term of derision but the early Christians by my reading had little interest in political power.

  • Andy Fletcher
    Reply

    American Evangelical Christians have become more American than Christian, lovers of America more than lovers of Jesus. Books to read: One Nation Over God: The Americanization of Christianity, and its companion book, Love Story. Link: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/andyfletch42.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Andy. These are good resources.

  • Walter Hansen
    Reply

    Thank you, Fred. You express my thoughts.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Walter.

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