Who is evangelicalism?

Among the many attempts to describe the evangelical Christian life, my favorite was coined by theologian Scot McKnight as being a “fellowship of differents”.[i] Evangelicalism is not a church; there is no such thing as “The Evangelicalism”. It is less a singular religious movement than an hodge-podge of dissimilar church traditions; a nucleus of religious beliefs supporting a mass of theological contradictions. It’s like saying a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. One blogger hit close to the mark when she described evangelicalism as an imagined religious community. “There are, in fact, many evangelicalisms,” Kristin Du Mez noted, “and each is imagined with a different center and different boundaries.”[ii] In many respects, evangelicalism is a shape-shifting blob with both explicit and implicit imperatives, continually moving in cultural flux, and having no one to speak with absolute authority for all. If anyone did, it was that apotheosis of evangelicalism, Billy Graham. “Billy Graham,” wrote one observer in 1957, “is something more than the name of a man. It is the label of a phenomenon.”[iii]

Graham’s revivalism produced alliances between diverse congregations, denominations and schools that had never been brought together, even though underlying differences were largely sponged over without being absorbed. While it has been compared to a big tent, today’s evangelicalism is more like a big business park with lots of busy office cubicles occupied by faith franchises, loads of middle men selling religious goods and services, and more than a few suites leased to freewheeling entrepreneurs aiming to enrich themselves. There is no facility manager on-site to organize the whole thing. And it sometimes feels like there is an absentee landlord.

American evangelicalism has been generous enough to those who hold its common set of core beliefs to allow for a wide range of views on disputable matters, and I draw from a number of evangelical traditions. None of us have all the correct answers. Because evangelicalism has no “officials,” each of us may speak legitimately as its voice, while at the same time it may not entirely be what others deem it to mean. Regardless of the inherent inexactitude of our common adjective and identity – or perhaps more accurately because of it – evangelical Christians all share a certain responsibility to contest each other’s actions or beliefs that diverge from the gospel. For example, when the late R.C. Sproul, Sr. was asked whether Arminians – his evangelical brethren – could be considered Christians, he grudgingly answered, “Yes, barely”.[iv] Evangelicals are scrapping, sparring, and loving siblings. Sometimes unity, other times cafeteria food fights. But like the Bereans, we are taught to receive the sacred text with all readiness of mind, and search the scriptures daily, whether those things are so.[v]

[i] Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Evangelicalism is an Imagined Religious Community”, The Anxious Bench, August 9, 2018. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/08/evangelicalism-is-an-imagined-religious-community/ (accessed August 24, 2018).

[iii] Gustave Weigel, S.J., “What to Think of Billy Graham”, America: A Catholic Review of the Week, (1957), Volume 97:161

[iv] R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002, p. 25.

[v] Acts 17:11

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