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.

Are we a church separated by a common language?

Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.

 

The curious case of the praying valedictorian

My Facebook feed has recently started to light up with editorial responses to the young man in South Carolina who, as valedictorian of his graduating class, set his prepared remarks aside and elected to recite the Lord’s Prayer in violation of the school district’s prohibition of religious observance.

Here’s the video.

Your response to this act of defiance will likely differ based on your religious convictions, your political persuasion, and where you live in the country. Clearly those in the audience at the commencement exercise appreciated the gesture. From the video, it’s hard to tell what the faculty are thinking. Plausibly, “oh crap” is one possibility.

The decision to do this raises many questions…

  • About the student: is he brave or stupid? Heroic or reckless?
  • About the audience: how would they have responded to a muslim student doing something similar? Is applause a sign of belligerence rather than the appropriate reaction to the worship of God?
  • About us: how is our response conditioned by our prejudice? Against Southerners? Against Christians? Against fundamentalists?
  • About the act itself: is it really an exercise more of devotion to our Constitution and our conception of freedom in a liberal democracy than it is one of devotion to God? How does this relate to the biblical admonition to honor the civil magistrate?

This young man, I’m sure, intended that his act be one of positive witness to our Lord. I hope that in the lives of many it will be received as just that and that perhaps some will incline themselves to God in a new way. However, many will see this as something akin to an act of defiance by a dwindling majority.

It may be both.

What do you think?

More on Chinese sewer baby

More details are emerging about the mother of the now famous Baby No. 59, the newborn who was rescued from the L-bend in an apartment toilet yesterday. For more details on the original story, go here.

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The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is reporting that the mother of the child was the woman who alerted authorities to the situation. She was present during the entire period of the rescue, but did not admit to being the mother until police confronted her, threatening her with a medical examination.

From the CBC:

 

“Zhezhong News said the woman is a high school graduate who works at a restaurant in the Zhejiang province city of Jinhua. She said she became pregnant after a one-night stand with a man who later denied any responsibility. The woman did not reveal the pregnancy to her parents. She also said she wanted to raise the child but had no idea how to do it, according to local reports….

…The baby’s mother told police she cleaned up the scene in the toilet after the delivery and that she had managed to hide her pregnancy by wearing loose clothes and tightly wrapping her abdomen, Zhezhong News said.”

This story is complex. It is shocking. Among other things, it reminds me that there is much pain in the world. I don’t whether this mother meant for her son to die in that drain pipe. She claims no; it was an accident. What I do know is that Jesus loves her, and he loves her little boy too.

My prayer is that out of the darkness of this moment, some good may come into the lives of all the participants in this story. In reality, each of us is like this mother. We’re facing a lot of complex situations and problems that are beyond our control. It may look different, cleaner, but really, if we sit with it for a moment we know that we can be just as panicked as this mother. Our hope is in Jesus, the one who enters our panic and calms the waves, helping us to know that since we are his, the battle is already won.

 

Don’t let this be you

I was walking in our backyard over the weekend and came across a curious sight. Several years ago a sapling must tree must have grown in such a way that its leading branch grew through our chain link fence–specifically between the chain links and the metal frame that holds it erect. The tree didn’t stop growing. Instead as it grew the metal cut into the trunk producing a tree with a metal strand embedded in it.

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This is a powerful image of what happens to many Christians as they face key transitions in life. In my work as a campus minister I often observe the difficulty some students face in making the jump from undergraduate life to graduate study and from graduate school to professional practice.

The fresh opportunities and, more often, the fresh challenges can cut into a Christian world and life view (borrowing that term from Abraham Kuyper) that is not sufficiently developed to handle them.

 

Failing to attend to this often leads to significant challenges for Christians:

  • Leaving the church because the connection between Sunday and Monday is too tenuous
  • Leaving law school because the practice of law only ever seems to reach a proximate justice rather than full justice
  • Experiencing life in the absence of any sense that God cares about or values your work
  • Feeling the unrelenting pressure to perform and carrying that view into your relationship with God and gradually losing sight of the hope of the Gospel
  • Growing to resent God because of the great suffering seen in the lives of clients, patients, parishioners, or students

How are you preparing for the next stage of your personal or professional journey?

Are you making sure that you’re world and life view is growing, changing, deepening, and developing so that it is sufficient to aid you in faithfully following Christ?

 

 

 

Five reasons you should give tonight’s debate a miss

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet tonight for the first of their first presidential debates. Coverage of the event has been building in the news media over the last couple of weeks. Who will the winner be? The loser? Can Obama deliver a knock out blow? Can Romney dent the President’s slight lead? Presidential debates are important part of the political spectacle that precedes an election. Yet, I think you should avoid watching the debate, as I plan to do.  

I have watched presidential debates for most of my adult life. In college and graduate school it was fun to get together with friends, especially friends with varying political philosophies. Later Anna (my wife) and I would get together with a cup of tea or a glass of wine to listen and discuss what we heard. And yet, this year I am giving the debates a pass and I want to encourage you to as well. Here’s why.

  1. Debates won’t change your mind. Evidence shows that in the vast majority of cases, presidential debates only serve to strengthen a prior belief about who to vote for. If you find yourself evenly split between the two candidates, I’d still encourage you to give the debate a miss for the reasons that follow.
  2. Debates don’t deliver content. There is little content in debates. Candidates rarely answer the questions posed in anything other than a superficial way which sets them up to quickly transition into a scripted talking point. Put another way, if a candidate performed this way in a court of law he would be cited for contempt.
  3. Post-debate analysis will focus on style. In our image-saturated culture the vast majority of analysis will focus on the candidates’ performance rather than their content. If you’re interested in who appeared to be in “in control,” “empathetic” (not likely this time around), and the like then, okay, check out the debate. In reality, debates are a form of sophistry whereby the candidates project an image and provide scripted comments designed to tickle the ears of voters.
  4. Commentators will engage in a proxy war. It’s inevitable that political commentators will be brought in. Those who are members of the political class are there for a single purpose: to spin the debate performance to create the right impression of the debate ex post facto. Their “analysis” is not analysis, it is political advertisement.
  5. You’d be better spent by taking an hour to read a few legitimate political writers. If you want to get a sense of the candidates, the issues, and state of the election I’d suggest turning to one or more trusted political writers. Each of these will have a competing slant to their writing. There is, after all, no such thing as objectivity so we shouldn’t be surprised by this. I recommend David Brooks (tends to be conservative) and E. J. Dionne (tends to be progressive).

Questions. Are you planning on watching the debate? Will you do so with others? What do you hope to gain from the experience?