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Evangelicalism Today: A Symposium

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Dr. Moore contributed to a forum discussion entitled “Evangelicalism Today” in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone Magazine. In this symposium, six evangelicals assess their movement. You can find the article here:
Evangelicalism Today

The participants answer the following questions about evangelicalism:

  • How do you define “Evangelical” in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?
  • Has Evangelicalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?
  • Has Evangelicalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?
  • Are there any fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?
  • What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?
  • What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?
  • What has Evangelicalism to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

You can read Dr. Moore’s responses to the questions below:

  • How do you define “Evangelical” in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?

Several years ago, I found a book for those who “grew up born again.” Like similar books for “cradle Catholics” and others, this book listed cultural artifacts of growing up in an Evangelical home. The list is long, and I could expand it even more: the “Our Daily Bread” container of Bible verse flash cards on the table, the sparkly picture over one’s bed of the angel ushering two children across a bridge, the fact that one knows how to respond to the sentence “God is good” with the words “all the time” and to fill in the blanks of the offertory prayer, “Dear Lord, bless the _____ and the _____” (it’s “gift” and “giver” for those of you whose roots are in Geneva, Rome, or Constantinople rather than Wheaton or Nashville).

In many ways, that kind of cultural identity has replaced in some quarters the definition of Evangelical Christianity, at its best: the merger of Reformation confessionalism and revivalist conversionism. Evangelicalism is Protestant, and thoroughly so: The sola statements of the Reformation represent how Evangelicals understand what it means to be centered upon Christ. Evangelicalism is also inexplicable apart from a sense of Great Commission urgency to seek and save that which is lost.

The definition has indeed changed over the past half-century. What would have been considered non-negotiable for Evangelical identity fifty years ago (the truthfulness of Scripture, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ) is now often considered “Fundamentalist.”

I think the term “Evangelical” is less and less of value. I rarely use it of myself, except in the broadest of terms to describe myself to someone in another tradition. On Sunday morning, I do 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 through which I cooperate with like-minded churches across the country to fulfill the Great Commission.

The people to whom I am held accountable share with me a common confession of faith–one that includes Great Tradition affirmations such as the deity of Christ and the virgin birth and Reformation distinctives such as justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. The sermon is central, and concludes with a call for unbelievers to identify publicly with Christ and his church. If that’s “Evangelical,” so be it.

  • Has Evangelicalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?

Yes. On the positive side, Evangelical bravado has been tapered back a bit. I realize that sounds remarkable to onlookers who wonder how one can see any humility watching Evangelical television or reading Evangelical political propaganda. We were even worse before.

The beginnings of the twentieth-century Evangelical movement seemed to believe that Billy Graham was only the beginning of a phenomenon that would sweep the world. Evangelical leaders such as theologian Carl F. H. Henry spoke of building great Evangelical universities and magazines and newspapers and mission boards, agencies that would provide an Evangelical alternative, in their view, to the universalizing claims of Catholicism and Marxism.

Reading the early manifestoes of the Evangelical movement, one almost hears the view of the culture that some neo-conservatives gave of Iraq prior to the war: “We will be greeted as liberators.” Much of the rhetoric on cultural transformation this side of the eschaton is now put in much more humble terms in the most influential sectors of Evangelicalism.

  • Has Evangelicalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?

The Evangelical movement has “matured” out of Fundamentalism in some of the worst ways. Yes, Fundamentalism was often narrow, often legalistic, and often tied to an inordinate fear of contamination by the outside culture. In our flight from Fundamentalism, however, many of us–individuals and churches–have become mired in just what the Fundamentalists warned us we would: worldliness. The carnality in many Evangelical churches is astounding, not just at the obvious level of sensuality, but also at the less obvious (to us, anyway) level of covetousness, love of money, and celebrity worship.

  • Are there any fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?

Yes, there are fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement, and I think the first way to heal them is to stop worrying about the movement. I’ve found that some of the harshest “inside the tent” critics of Evangelicals share the basic assumptions of the early pioneers of the movement: that a constellation of parachurch 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 often also the least ecclesially situated, and thus the most prone to the individualism that, it is asserted, threatens Evangelicalism–whatever that is.

There are serious problems in Evangelical Christianity today, including some things I would reject as outright heresy: pluralism and feminism and the rejection of God’s knowledge of the future, for example. The best way to deal with these issues is not, however, in more Evangelical manifestoes but in strong, healthy, disciplined, evangelistic churches–Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, non-denominational, and so forth.

  • What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?

Two things. First, that Jesus did not die for a “movement” but for a church. Second, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

  • What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?

There are some Evangelicals who genuinely become convinced that the truth claims of Rome or Antioch are persuasive. If that’s the case, one should indeed become Catholic or Orthodox rather than attempting to convince Shiloh Baptist Church to use icons or King James Bible Church of the benefits of venerating Mary. Most Evangelicals I’ve encountered who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox, however, are going to make quite poor Catholic or Orthodox churchmen. I type that with fear, knowing many exceptions to this–including some colleagues on our editorial board.

Most young Evangelicals I’ve known who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox quite frankly aren’t heading in that direction because they’ve been convinced by Cardinal Newman’s critique of sola Scriptura or because they’ve found papal authority in the patristic writings. Instead, many of them become Catholic or Orthodox because they are tired of dealing with sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Evangelicals.

Just as some Catholics moving in this direction assume that every Evangelical church is sparkling with the warm piety of those who have personal relationships with Jesus (only to find otherwise), some Evangelicals tempted to leave seem to think all Catholics are Walker Percy or Richard John Neuhaus or that all Orthodox are Maximos the Confessor.

Many are then really disappointed to find what any Catholic or Orthodox person could have told them–that they will be dealing with some sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Catholics or Orthodox. Anyone on a search for Mount Zion will be continually disappointed unless he finds it in the New Jerusalem.

  • What has Evangelicalism to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

Some believe with Evangelicals in important doctrinal truths such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Some also believe with Evangelicals in the need for personal regeneration and for Christians to plead with the nations to hear the voice of God in Christ, to respond personally and individually in repentance and faith.

Evangelicalism, at its best, carries the apostolic tradition of the centrality of God’s Word and the focus on union with Christ as the only means of salvation, combined with the apostolic passion to see the satanic world-system fall through the advance of the gospel.

I have never thought before now of what Evangelicalism has to offer the wider world. In one sense, we have nothing to offer but what every Christian must offer: Christ and him crucified.

In another sense, I am quite worried that contemporary Evangelicalism is offering less and less, and is instead listening to the offer of “the wider world”: “All these I will give to you if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).

You are part of a family and family is difficult because family – every family – is an echo of the gospel.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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