Saturday, May 22, 2010

Evangelicals and the wider Christian tradition

Is "evangelical" the only faithful expression of Christianity? My friend Greg Goebel doesn't think so, and he's right. As I noted recently, evangelicals in America have a particularly smug and myopic view of the eschatology. This is also true of their views on a number of other issues. Greg pinpoints the core problem as evangelical ignorance of, or perhaps ambivalence toward, the wider Christian tradition and the rich history surrounding it.
Often when you read an evangelical book about “the church” you find that “the church” means conservative evangelicals only. See Why we love the Church by DeYoung and Kluck, for example. They appear to have no concept of the church outside of their own tradition, not even enough to simply reference other Christian traditions. And their book is no exception. “The Church” for most evangelicals means “us.”

And yet there are hundreds of millions of Christians who are faithful believers in the Trinitarian faith of the Creeds, and in Jesus Christ as the Divine/Human Savior of the world. They may not call their daily prayers “quiet time” or talk sentimentally about God often or even expect him to be speaking to them every day. They may focus more on objective, external assurances of grace and less on subjective, experiential ones. They might be Democrats and they might even drink a beer and enjoy it. In other words, they are Christians, faithful to Jesus, and yet they practice their faith in different ways.

This reality is only comfortable for an evangelical if we begin to see that ‘evangelical’ is one of the great traditions of the Christian Faith, and not “the” tradition of the Christian Faith. Its just a simple fact of Christian history that for centuries most Christians didn’t have “quiet time” or pray spontaneously on Sundays. That’s not to say that evangelical fervor and enthusiasm is a new invention. Its only to say that it was never the only way Christians expressed their faith, or a litmus test for whether or not one is a faithful Christians. It was simply one of the various expressions of the Holy Spirit.

Listening for God’s voice in one’s head is not wrong, its just not the only way to hear from God. Talking sentimentally about God (“I just love Jesus today!”) is not wrong, its just not the only valid expression of love of God. Singing praise songs is wonderful, but its not the only song God hears. Reading the Bible through in a year is a fantastic devotional discipline, but its not the only way to honor and learn from Scripture. Free form services, revivialist patterns of evangelism, and large Bibles can all be great expressions of Christian zeal, but they simply aren’t the only ways to honor and serve God.
The visceral reaction against the Manhattan Declaration is a case study in the evangelical ghetto mentality. Born in ignorance, it grows into bigotry and a most un-Christlike lack of charity.