Skip to comments.The evangelical-mainline shell-game
Posted on 09/21/2012 11:00:07 AM PDT by Alex Murphy
Ellen Painter Dollar extends an invitation to young evangelicals exhausted and frustrated by their community:
While I am sympathetic to those who wish to bring reforms, of feminist and other natures, to the evangelical movement, I also want to remind those who are fed up with how women and their voices are welcomed (or not) in evangelical churches, publications, and conversations that there are many churches (that is, movements, denominations, and congregations) where women and other marginalized groups (such as LGBT Christians) dont have to fight for respect, equality, and a voice. I think many frustrated evangelicals would be amazed (and breathe some huge sighs of relief) to discover that issues that are hot within their circles are non-issues for many other dedicated Christians. And that Christians of an evangelical bent can find a home alongside those other dedicated Christians, even in communities that dont define themselves overtly as evangelical.
But if these young evangelicals have grown up within the evangelical subculture, then they’ve learned what “everybody knows” in that subculture. Everybody knows that evangelical churches are more theologically conservative and orthodox. And everybody knows that mainline Protestant denominations are liberal and heterodox.
Everybody knows this, but is it true?
Well, no. We don’t “know” this because it’s true, we think we know this because we’ve been hearing the claim for decades.
It goes something like this:
1: Find the most liberal theologians you can from mainline Protestant denominations — Tillich! Spong! — and then sketch caricatures of them that make them seem as outrageously liberal as possible.
2. Make these caricatures the avatars for mainline Protestant churches, always suggesting that they are typical, hugely popular and influential.
3. Cite this outrageous theological liberalism as the cause of mainline “decline.”
4. Contrast this mainline liberalism with the orthodoxy of evangelical churches.
5. Cite evangelical orthodoxy as the cause of the rapid growth of evangelicalism.
6. Lather, rinse, repeat. For years and years and years.
This is propaganda. It’s the shell-game that we evangelicals have been playing for decades now. And it’s a shifty, dishonest trick.
It’s a sleight-of-hand game of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. The trick is an inconsistent, self-serving, cherry-picking approach to who counts as “mainline Protestant” and who counts as “evangelical.”
Consider Anglicans and Episcopalians. These are liberal mainliners — boo, hiss! Their reprobate liberal theology can’t hold a candle to that of good, solid evangelical theologians like, say, N.T. Wright.
But wait, isn’t Wright an Anglican bishop? Doesn’t matter. If he seems to fit our ideas of “conservative” theology and orthodoxy, then he counts as one of Us and not one of Them. So it doesn’t matter if Wright is Anglican, we’ll count him as an “evangelical” instead. And we’ll count Eugene Peterson as an evangelical, too, even though he’s part of the mainline PCUSA. Clearly we can’t consider him Presbyterian, because everybody knows that all Presbyterians are post-Christian liberals.
And so on.
All of the thousands of orthodox pastors, scholars and theologians among the mainline denominations are disregarded. They don’t count. And all of the millions of mainline Protestant laypeople who share their views don’t count either. They may constitute the majority, but we refuse to regard them as typical. According to the shell-game, the majority of mainline Protestants are an aberration.
We pull the same trick in the opposite direction when we’re trying to prove that evangelical theology is more orthodox and conservative. Thus someone like John Stott or Richard Mouw counts as a “real” evangelical, and as evidence that evangelical theology is orthodox.
But we do not count Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Tim LaHaye, Ken Ham, Bob Larson, Bryan Fischer, John Hagee, Jim Garlow, Rick Joyner or Cindy Jacobs because including any one of those people would destroy the pretense of evangelicals’ theological “conservatism.”
According to the shell-game, the most popular and influential evangelical leaders, the authors of the best-selling evangelical books and the voices of the most pervasive evangelical media, do not really count as evangelical. They may constitute the vast majority, but we refuse to regard them as typical. According to the shell-game, the majority of evangelicals are an aberration.
Part of the trick here involves using different weights and measures depending on whether we’re on Step 4 or Step 5. When evangelicals are arguing that we represent the more orthodox and conservative theology, then it suits our argument to pretend that many branches of Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicalism do not exist. (Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn? Who are they? Rick Joyner? Never heard of him.) But when evangelicals are citing explosive church growth as evidence of the rightness of our theology, then the argument doesn’t work without counting every furthest fringe of the Pentecostal and charismatic world — including every faith-healer, prosperity-gospeler or self-proclaimed prophet who ever advertised a conference in the back pages Charisma magazine.
Now, by any meaningful measure, people like Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn cannot be called theologically “conservative.” Nor can Tim LaHaye, Ken Ham, Bob Larson, Bryan Fischer or Cindy Jacobs. But guess what? They’re all evangelicals. We can’t pretend they’re mainliners, that’s for sure.
The truth is that the mainline = liberal, evangelical = conservative framework is hogwash.
The truth is that both strains of American Protestantism include a huge diversity of theological views, with both strains including many people who can aptly be described as “theologically conservative” and both strains including many people who can aptly be described as — well, some are liberal, but even more are just kind of wildly idiosyncratic, Gnostic or freakishly freaky in their theology.
Ellen Painter Dollar is right:
I think many frustrated evangelicals would be amazed (and breathe some huge sighs of relief) to discover that issues that are hot within their circles are non-issues for many other dedicated Christians. And that Christians of an evangelical bent can find a home alongside those other dedicated Christians, even in communities that dont define themselves overtly as evangelical.
This is propaganda. It’s the shell-game that we evangelicals have been playing for decades now. And it’s a shifty, dishonest trick. It’s a sleight-of-hand game of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. The trick is an inconsistent, self-serving, cherry-picking approach to who counts as “mainline Protestant” and who counts as “evangelical.”...
....Now, by any meaningful measure, people like Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn cannot be called theologically conservative. Nor can Tim LaHaye, Ken Ham, Bob Larson, Bryan Fischer or Cindy Jacobs. But guess what? Theyre all evangelicals. We cant pretend theyre mainliners, thats for sure. The truth is that the mainline = liberal, evangelical = conservative framework is hogwash.
The truth is that both strains of American Protestantism include a huge diversity of theological views, with both strains including many people who can aptly be described as theologically conservative and both strains including many people who can aptly be described as well, some are liberal, but even more are just kind of wildly idiosyncratic, Gnostic or freakishly freaky in their theology.
In the end, most find out that liberals do not make good friends any more than they make good Gospel doctrine.
There is no question however that the Liberal-controlled Episcopal and ELCA Lutheran churches have become officially hostile to orthodox Christianity, and are glad to see the traditionalists driven out, as long as they leave their buildings and funds behind. I'm not aware whether the evangelicals have reached that stage.
I live in the buckle of the so called “bible belt” and the largest most prestigious (old money, elite primary school, etc ) Episcopal church has a “priestess” minister and openly gay lay clergy. It was real eye opener as to how far things have come. Its like watching beautiful Roman cites being conquered by the barbarians.
I think I’ll just disassociate myself from both.
Presenting quotes from their books, and transcripts of their appearances in various venues is "sketching caricatures."
...and i don’t think many evangelical churches,
permit practicing homosexuals as ministers...
i thought God was pretty clear on that issue.
and that Jesus basically said, if you love him,
then obey the laws of the Father.
...a man marries a woman.
no Christian should belong to a church,
that teaches otherwise.
I’m sorry, but when you have groups like the Episcopalians, who OFFICIALLY VOTED to demand that congregations hire active homosexuals and cross-dressers for pastors, deacons and staff—there IS a conservative/liberal divide between mainline denominations and evangelicals.
Say what you will about the PENTACOSTALS/CHARISMATICS like Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen, (which is a different subset of the almost now meaningless word “evangelical”), but they don’t tolerate and approve of SODOMY, as the mainline Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Church of Christ, and (almost) the Methodists do...
To bring in Englishman NT Wright—whose country does not have full free-exercise of religion like the USA (and hence does NOT have the multitude of denominations...and therefore what, 90% of all Protestants there are Anglican?) just muddies the water. Wright while conservative theologically...is actually (barely) Protestant...since he denies the classic Protestant doctrine of substitutionary atonement...
The fact of the matter is the word “evangelical” because it is applied to all socially conservative Protestants NOT a part of the mainline churches, has become so broad as to become useless.
That does NOT mean however, to be a part of mainline denominations—whose organizations actively support sodomy, abortion, and, anti-Semitism (in the guise of “anti-Zionism” (anti-Israel)) is acceptable for bible-believing Christians...even though “evangelical” is an increasingly worn out word.
Right. Just be a part of one of those mainline churches for a year or so, get involved on the district, state or even national level, too, if you are so inclined, and see how welcome your conservatism is. Diversity, my foot.
This is total nonsense. If an evangelical church embraces liberal orthodoxy, then by definition it is no longer evangelical, regardless of what it is called.
But I do agree. If you don’t like the evangelical church you are in, find something else and stop trying to get people to validate your choices.
That does NOT mean however, to be a part of mainline denominationswhose organizations actively support sodomy, abortion, and, anti-Semitism (in the guise of anti-Zionism (anti-Israel)) is acceptable for bible-believing Christians....
Can you point me to an evangelical-wide, accepted definition of "evangelical"? Can you point me to the evangelical-wide, accepted creedal statement that addresses the sins of sodomy, abortion, and anti-Semitism?
Can you point me to the evangelical-wide excommunications of individuals who have commited sins against this group-wide statement, or acted contrary to the definition of "evangelical", or been part of a "Protestant" church?
"In 1648, the first printing of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly were made available for distribution and sale in England and Scotland. They remain the clearest expressions of Reformed Protestantism ever formulated..."
- May 13, This Week in Religion History
Pat Robertson and John Hagee aren’t conservative? By whose standards . . . Wesley Swift’s?
You are aware, are you not, of the John Birch Society's assertion that the old money elite American Establishment is the power that is "secretly behind Communism?" That's right . . . it's a plot to rule the world by the people who already do.
The word “evangelical” is an informal term not a title, like the word “conservative,” hence one cannot point to one accepted definition.
It originally applied to the first followers of Luther in the 16th Century. In the 20th Century it was resurrected after World War II, by folks like Bill Bright, Billy Graham, Carl Henry and the original editors of Christianity Today, as an alternative to the word “fundamentalist” which at that time was increasingly taken up by more extreme, legalistic, independent churches (like those associated with say, Bob Jones University).
The word “fundamentalist” was first applied in the early 20th century after a series of pamphlets called “The Fundamentals” was published, in an attempt to distinguish between those who accepted basic, orthodox, creedal Christianity (with a literal virgin birth, and a literal resurrection, literal miracles, etc.) and those who did not...(like many in the seminaries of 100 years ago). Unfortunately “fundamentalist” got taken over by the most extreme & narrow of the orthodox—hence the move to use the word “evangelical.”
This post WWII usage of “evangelical” generally meant people, inside and outside of the mainline denominations, who believed in the inerrancy and authority of holy Scripture, the priority of the Great Commission and evangelism (hence the Billy Graham connection), and usually—from it’s pietist heritage, the importance of a mature, personal commitment to the Lord, or a born-again experience.
Most of the mainlines even by the early 1970s weren’t dreaming of ordaining active homosexuals, but there was significant toleration for those (like Spong or Tillich) who denied the essentials (or fundamentals...) of the faith —hence, the beginnings of such denominations as the PCA, and the growth of more conservative Bible Churches or other non-denominational, culturally conservative, self-consciously “evangelical” groups.
Even today, except in Lutheran circles (where the word “evangelical” has an historic attachment), you will very rarely find a church which calls itself “evangelical” which will support sodomy, abortion, antisemitism...or other Leftist causes. Churches that are left on social issues are almost always (but not quite) mainline denominational churches—since ALL the mainlines (with the exception of the Southern Baptists, and the LCMS Lutherans) do, as a denomination—promote the above left social issues.
On the issue of women’s ordination, evangelicals are divided—”conservative evangelicals” are generally complementarian (no to women pastors), while others who call themselves evangelical—including especially Pentacostal/Charismatic groups—may well promote women’s ordination (egalitarian).
Evangelicals are also divided on whether or not charismatic gifts (tongues, prophesy, healings) are proper for today.
Muddying the water further today also we have “emergent” churches...which typically are independent, and led by disaffected ex-evangelicals (e.g. Rob Bell, Brian McLaren). The best description I’ve heard for the Emergents is that they are to post-modernism, what liberal Christianity (Spong, Tillich) was to modernism. Many Emergents still cling to the term “evangelical” even though they do not really accept the inerrancy and authority of scripture....
So while the term is increasingly muddied and difficult to use—since so many want to claim it, “evangelical” still does have usefulness—for those Christians that honor the authority of the Word of God, the primacy of evangelism, and the importance of personal commitment & relationship to Christ.