The television program Seinfeld once featured a dentist who converted to Judaism and then began telling jokes about Jews. Jerry Seinfeld was uncomfortable but was assured by the dentist that he couldn’t be anti-Semitic since he was, in fact, a Jew. Seinfeld suspected though that he had converted just so he could tell “the jokes.” There is no comparison between anti-Semitism and anti-evangelicalism, but I sometimes get the same feeling as Jerry Seinfeld when I read comments by evangelicals bemoaning evangelicalism on the Internet.
I am what most would call a conservative evangelical; some would call me a fundamentalist. I am a Southern Baptist who believes in all the fundamentals, that biblical inerrancy is important, that personal regeneration is essential to the Christian life, and that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. I believe that Intelligent Design doesn’t satisfy questions about origins nearly as well as old, premodern six-day creation. I believe not just in the complementary of the sexes but in self-sacrificial patriarchy in the church and home. I do know Greek, but I still believe that “teetotalism” is the best option for my churches in the contemporary cultural context. I’m a convinced Protestant who believes in sola Scriptura and sola fide without reservation. I think there’s no such thing as an infant baptism, and that Jesus was immersed in the Jordan River. With all of this, I still think “mere Christianity” is an important thing, and that we can learn from one another even as we honestly lay out our very important differences.
I’m as frustrated as the next man about much of what passes for “evangelicalism” in the pages of Christianity Today and at colleges such as Wheaton and seminaries such as Fuller. I roll my eyes in frustration at the faddishness of some mega-churches and the retread liberalism of the “emerging churches.”
And yet, I’m not all that worried about “evangelicalism.” Indeed, I’ve found that most of the harshest “inside the tent” critics of evangelicalism share the basic assumptions of the early pioneers of the movement: that a constellation of para-church ministries and institutions, unaccountable to specific local churches, can have an identity at all. Indeed, I’ve found that some of the harshest critics of evangelicalism are also the least ecclessially situated, and thus the most prone to the individualism that, it is asserted, threatens evangelicalism–whatever that is.
Yes, there are many “evangelical” denominations. But that is simply because “evangelical” is an adjective; not really a noun. There are many Catholic “denominations” too, if one wishes to speak of Jesuits and Dominicans and Charles Curran-types and Mother Angelica-types in these terms. Yes, there are many evangelicals shot through with individualism. And there are Catholics and Orthodox who know barely anyone in their local parishes. Every tradition has its besetting sins, and usually all of us suffer from the same sins in different ways. This is because Zion is not yet here.
I suppose I am a happy evangelical, precisely because I don’t see myself as such, ever, except to explain myself in the broadest of terms to someone else. Tomorrow morning I will not go to an “evangelical” church, but to Ninth and O Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church with which I am in holy covenant and a church that cooperates with like-minded Southern Baptist churches all over the world toward the Great Commission. The happiest and most vibrant “evangelicals” I know are in the same situation, though perhaps in confessional Presbyterian or Missouri Synod Lutheran or Pentecostal or Bible churches.
And that’s how changes are to made in “evangelicalism.” It is not through new structures or initiatives but through confessional churches baptizing new converts and discipling the old ones. These churches are everywhere. They’re growing and they’re making a difference. They are on the move, but they recognize that there is no such thing as an “evangelical movement,” and it’s a good thing too. They proclaim the evangel but they don’t really think of themselves as “evangelicals,” not that there’s anything wrong with that.