10 Evangelical Distinctives

I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

Three lessons from Brené Brown at Leadership Summit

One of the highlights of last week’s Global Leadership Summit was hearing Brené Brown speak. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and a TED Talk sensation since her 2010 talk went viral (more than 8 million views). That talk is embedded at the bottom of the page. Her research has focused on the interplay between vulnerability and empathy, encouraging people to experience “whole-hearted” living.

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Here are three lessons I learned from Brené Brown:

  1. When you judge yourself for requesting help, you invariably judge others when they ask.How many of you feel shame when you ask for help? Just yesterday I tried to figure out to run a report on a database at work. I had a call scheduled with my boss and part of our agenda was to create and discuss this report. I wanted to know how to do it before I got on the call–to save time. I’ll be honest, I tried for about 15 minutes and never did figure it out.

    Once on the phone I admitted that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to run the report. As I did, I noticed within myself a twinge of shame. Not much, just a little shame. After all, I use a computer all day long. I blog, use social media, etc. I should–I reasoned–have been able to figure this out.

  2. We lose people in the gap between profession and practice.Professing love (in all its forms) is fairly easy. What is not easy, not simply, what is incontrovertibly complex is practicing love.

    How many of us make vows at our wedding–a profession–only to find it require intention, effort, humility, and sacrifice to remain true to the words that so easily dripped from our lips?

    How many of us take vows when we join our church and in fairly short order recoil from a significant decision made and once more experience the difficulty of keeping vows?

    When the gap between what we say and what we do becomes too immense, we loose people. Marriages collapse. Church fellowships rupture. Friendships end.

  3. Courage and comfort are mutually exclusive.By its very definition courage requires that we confront something that is difficult or that causes us to experience fear. When comfort becomes our objective in life, we cannot be courageous for we will always turn away from anything that causes us to be uncomfortable–it could be making a phone call, following a dream, initiating a difficult conversation, restoring a broken relationship. Interestingly, we may claim that we’re not satisfied with our life, but as long as comfort is our chief value our life will never change and we’ll settle into a begrudging comfort.

I’ll be reflecting on these lessons for a while. What stands out to you from Brené’s talk?

Why the “wall of separation” must be porous

Ruling on appeal of a preliminary injunction, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has–in a divided decision–ruled that a for-profit business may absorb the religious beliefs of its owner. This carves out space for Hobby Lobby, Inc. to continue its non-compliance with provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) known as the contraception mandate without the threat of daily fines of $1 million. While it is a procedural ruling, the notion that a for-profit company can “absorb” the religious beliefs will require clarification from the court and will be significant for future decisions.

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Regardless of what you think about this decision, it does illustrate a deeper issue: religion and society cannot be separated by a wall that is not somehow porous. We can disagree with how porous the wall ought to be, but a complete separation of the two tends to favor tyranny rather than freedom.

Why? It’s imperative to acknowledge that there are things that matter more deeply than the way we order and govern our life together as a nation. In a highly pluralistic society, its imperative to recognize that “secular reason” cannot be the sole arbiter of our decisions without doing violence to the large number of people who acknowledge an authority deeper than that of the state. As a result, it is important to carve out exceptions for religious people and religious organizations and corporations as the court has intimated it may do in the case of Hobby Lobby.

Can the gospel reunite a divided country?

Though not commanding the attention of the news cycle, tensions between North and South Korea continue to simmer. Since the nation’s division at the end of the Second World War and the subsequent war between the North and the South—proxies respectively for communist USSR and capitalist US—in the 1950s, tensions have intensified and lessened periodically.

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Korea, consequently, is a divided peninsula that has experienced more than its fair share of suffering. The brinksmanship of North Korean premiere Kim Jung Un provides a glimpse of one possible future for the peninsula: the continued economic and political isolation that has caused immense suffering for its citizens.

On the other hand, according to theologian Syngman Rhee, the gospel of Jesus Christ could be a significant catalyst for reconciliation. Speaking to Duke University’s Faith and Leadership, Rhee remarked, “There is a particular need for reconciliation between North and South Korea by the teaching and the love of Christ.” In other words, Rhee envisions the Korean church as central to the process of re-uniting the modern enemies of North and South.

According to Rhee reconciliation will necessarily involve South Koreans re-envisioning Christianity as something inherently opposed to communism. It will also require a shift in Northern thinking away from the notion of Christianity as “the religion of our enemies.” More than that, it will require the fortification of the weakened Christian community in North Korea. There are fewer than five hundred Christians and only two officially recognized congregations in the country.

While recognizing the decline of American mainline denominations, Rhee contends that, at its foundation, American Christianity is stronger than it first appears. The American church is, implies Rhee, learning to live in a new context where society no longer lends her its aid: “we all experience decline, both in membership and in influence, as society has become more secularized and churches have failed to make Christianity relevant to the younger generation.”

It’s difficult to measure the intent of Rhee’s remark, “we all experience decline.” Is he being flippant? Is he simply making an observation? It’s hard to know. However, Rhee’s use of “decline” ought to be modified by the adjective “precipitous.” What we’re witnessing is nothing less than the implosion of the mainline churches. There’s little consolation in noting that others are experiencing the same thing or will fifty years from now (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention). As Rhee later notes, “I think mainline denominations were so involved in bearing the fruits of our faith that they neglected nurturing the roots of our faith—basic things like the importance of Scripture, devotion and worship, and so on.”

In reflecting on prospects for reconciliation, Rhee argues it will be important for South Koreans Christianity as something not inherently opposed to communism. He remarks, “Christianity was not created to fight against something. It is life-giving and can be a catalyst to create a new history in any kind of society, capitalist or communist.” In a sense this is true, Christianity came into existence at the initiative of a God who in Christ entered a rebellious world and by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension established a new community, a kingdom beachhead in the midst of traitors. It isn’t simply another system or a movement established to counteract communism. Quite the contrary. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that communism has typically been more hostile to Christianity than Christianity to communism.

Given that the world is in rebellion and tainted by sin, it’s really not accurate to say that Christianity doesn’t exist to fight against anything. This rebellion, this sin, is the enemy against which the Christian faith strives. Christianity aims its sights slightly higher than communism, which is simply a particular expression (or symptom) of the fall, of sin and rebellion itself, and rather aims to defeat the cause behind communism.

Certainly in the two generations that have passed since the partition of the peninsula, it is possible that Christianity in South Korea has come to identify itself more with being against communism than for Christ. To the extent that this is true, it is both sad and wrong. It is always a temptation to identify one’s faith in Christ with something less than the gospel of the kingdom itself, one to which we American Christians have periodically succumbed.

Can Christianity and communism coexist? The answer has to be a qualified, “yes.” Just as Christianity coexisted with the Roman Emperor cult in the early church, Christianity can coexist with communism. As it does so, Christians will be working to subvert it. The two outlooks are at odds, but in the end Christianity is able to exist and even flourish as a minority belief in an atheistic or panentheistic system.

A more insidious interpretation is that Christianity and communism are somehow compatible. Rhee never clearly states that, although comment, “A growing number of Christians in South Korea insist that we — Christians — can no longer be enslaved by the belief that Christianity equals anti-communism,” seems to indicate an openness to the notion. This is problematic since the foundation of Marx’s philosophy is materialist—that is, it assumes only the existence of matter and ignores anything beyond matter (i.e., spirit or God). Christianity places values on the material as well. Yet, that value is derived from the notion that all that is has come from the hand of God. At the level of presupposition, therefore, the two are incompatible.

Rhee clearly believes that South Koreans needs a change of heart with respect to communism. He also contends that North Koreans need to reject the belief that Christianity is, “the religion of [our] enemies.” Surely this is a change of attitude that can happen only by the grace of God.

Christianity, according to Rhee, is poised to play a pivotal role in the work of reconciliation in the Korean peninsula. It is difficult to know how this will actually play out, but we can be hopeful that the witness of the church can provide a framework for the difficult work of reconciliation.

You cannot have mission without discipleship

Over the fifteen years since the publication of Darryl Guder’s landmark book The Missional Church, North American Christianity has become enamored of the word “missional.” This is no bad thing, but Mike Breen observes in this post that the future of missional may not be quite as bright as we hope. Could it be that in the next several years “missional” will sound in our ears much the same as “seeker sensitive” does today? Perhaps.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.

Breen points out something that congregations often overlook: mission and discipleship are interdependent. Discipleship that fails to participate in the mission of God in some practical way isn’t really discipleship. Mission that isn’t rooted and sustained in Christ-centered community isn’t really mission at all.

 

 

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The real problem in today’s church is that we’re not at all sure how to root our lives in the presence of God and in Christian community. Skye Jethani notes:

Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.

As we engage in mission, it is critical that our minds and hearts be connected God through a life of vital piety. 

It’s often assumed that evangelicals do not have the theological resources necessary to provide a foundation for missional discipleship. In the Reformed tradition, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin’s central critique of the monasticism of his time was not it’s practices, but that it was limited to a select few (see Boulton, Life with God 2011). Calvin saw the church as company of believers united around Word and sacrament and whose lives were marked by the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines used by monastic communities. The difference–Calvin’s Christians were “monks” in the world and it was not a peculiar calling, but one that is universal to all believers–the democratization of the monastic spiritual disciplines.

In order to be missional in an authentic and sustainable way, we need to recapture Calvin’s sense of our being monastics in the world–people practicing the presence of God in the midst of our secular callings. Only then can we successfully integrate mission into life without simply burdening ourselves with another project for God.