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Evangelicalism: “growth without depth”

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Do Mennonites really belong?

Asked to evaluate the immense growth of the evangelical church worldwide, John Stott had a three-word answer: “growth without depth.” The elder Christian statesman, who has been at the head of evangelical renewal in the United Kingdom, does not dispute the church’s extraordinary growth, but sees it as largely numerical and statistical. “There has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers,” he says.

For the past 14 years I’ve been a regular attendee at the annual meetings of the august Evangelical Theological Society. I try to keep abreast of the literature on evangelicalism. In my musings on North American evangelicalism, I’ve wondered: do Mennonites really belong in this large, rather elastic theological tent?

Through history

From a New Testament perspective, an “evangelical” is a follower of Christ, someone who believes in and shares the evangelion, the term first-century Christians used as their word for “good news” or gospel. The evangelical tent was very small at first but held everyone who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. As Christianity developed in the early years of the church, an orthodox body of doctrine was formalized in Scripture, to combat those who held and taught erroneous ideas. In ensuing years, “orthodox” was the word used more than “evangelical.”

In the 16th century, the Reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, believing they had recaptured the true gospel of the first century. Thus the Lutheran and Reformed churches took on the name “evangelical” to distinguish themselves from Roman Catholicism. The evangelical faith became quite doctrinaire. Personal witnessing and mission were not stressed.

In the 18th century, “evangelical” took on additional shades of meaning when the “great awakenings” that swept over England and the American colonies were called evangelical revivals. An evangelical not only believed certain truths but, as in the first century, now shared that faith with others who were lost without it.

Evangelical Protestantism was the dominant force in North America until shortly after the American Civil War. With new theological and scientific thought seen as threatening orthodox Christianity, believers from various denominational and theological traditions coalesced as a common front to defend the evangelical faith. These conservatives condensed Christianity into a set of propositions called “fundamentals,” understood by the early 20th century to be the verbal inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, and the physical resurrection and bodily return of Christ. This reactionary movement was given the name fundamentalism. Its emphasis was on preserving the evangelical tradition at all costs, even if it meant schism and separation.

A new evangelicalism emerged out of fundamentalism at the middle of the 20th century. It retained many of the doctrines of fundamentalism, but turned from a schismatic and defensive mode, and in the words of Harold Ockenga, sought to “retrieve Christianity from a mere eddy of the mainstream into the full current of modern life.”

Today evangelicalism is a transdenominational movement usually defined as comprised of those who hold to the cardinal tenets of the Christian faith and have accepted Christ as their Saviour and seek to share him with others.

A dramatic shift

In the past 30 years there has been a dramatic shift to diversity in evangelicalism. 1976 was heralded by Newsweek magazine in its cover story as “The Year of the Evangelical.” In 2005, the U.S. edition of TIME (Feb. 7, 2005) featured a cover story “The 25 most influential evangelicals in America.”

Whereas 1976 evangelicals could be characterized by “born-againers” like Jimmy Carter, who was elected president that year, the 2005 picture portrayed a much more varied mosaic.

Evangelical movers and shakers now, according to TIME, are African Americans, Hispanics, women preachers, end time seers, lobbyists, missiologists, postmodernists, writers, radio preachers, megachurch pastors, scholars, and two Roman Catholics. I would add that in the early 21st century, self-proclaimed evangelicals also include charismatics, health-and-wealth adherents, emergent church followers, and a growing number of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Theologically, the main branches are Reformed evangelicals, Arminian evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals, Anabaptist evangelicals, and the recent movement of emergent evangelicals.

The emergent branch, especially as articulated by Brian McLaren, gets a lot of press, but there is a remarkable resurgence of Calvinism that may well be “a larger and more pervasive phenomenon,” according to Collin Hansen (“Young, Restless, Reformed,” Christianity Today, Sept. 2006). The key leader and influencer in this resurgence is John Piper, whose book Desiring God has sold 275,000 copies since 1986.

Piper’s “Passion” conferences for college-age students drew 40,000 students outside Memphis in 2000 and 18,000 to Nashville in 2006. The exuberant young advocates of Reformed theology, reports Hansen, “reject generic evangelicalism and tout the benefits of in-depth biblical doctrine.”

The shifting definition of evangelical and the multitude of self-professed evangelicals in North America make for strange and sometimes embarrassing bedfellows within the current movement. This disturbs many Mennonites, who now see the name evangelical more as libel than label. Indeed, many scholars have grave doubts about the usefulness of the category “evangelical.” In his book Deconstructing Evangelicalism, D.G. Hart says the term is misleading and that the movement has hopelessly splintered because it lacks the discipline and rigour of the church.

Prosperity lite

One disturbing, popular movement within the charismatic wing of evangelicalism was featured in the Sept. 18, 2006 issue of TIME, in a lengthy story entitled “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” A variation of the health-and-wealth movement, the new version, “prosperity lite,” teaches that a God who loves you doesn’t want you to be broke, citingJohn 10:10 as proof. A TIME poll showed that 61 percent of Christians surveyed said they believed God wants people to be prosperous. Joel Osteen’s four million bestseller Your Best Life Now has spread the prosperity gospel beyond its Pentecostal base into wider evangelical circles and even to mainline congregations.

TIME interviewed many Christian leaders who critiqued this movement, with Rick Warren speaking most bluntly. “God wants everyone to be wealthy? Baloney, a false idol. Millions of faithful followers of Christ live in poverty.”

Ron Sider was quoted as saying, “They have neglected the texts about the danger of riches . . . [it] is one of the most powerful forms of neglect of the poor.”

In his assessment, Richard Lovelace warned that “the charismatic garden has a luxuriant overgrowth of theological weeds, including the health-and-wealth gospel, the most virulent form of American heresy that Christianity guarantees worldly success.”

Getting accurate numbers is difficult but the best estimates are that 30 to 35 percent of Americans consider themselves evangelical. Less than 10 percent of Canadians identify with evangelicalism.

There is growth within evangelicalism, especially in the U.S. But growth without depth can be like a large body of freezing ice: it looks very inviting for a skate but in many places the ice is too thin to hold the weight of skaters.

North American evangelicalism is a movement of great expanse, but is theologically thin at various places. One must skate very carefully, or plunge into heresy.

What’s the problem?

Many today are asking: how biblically sound are the foundations of our theological structures? Ben Witherington III deals with this in his book, The Problem With Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. Witherington points out that all of these systems fail to do proper exegesis, particularly when delineating their distinctives. Evangelicals have an enormous propensity to ignore or to massage texts that differ with their doctrinal paradigm.

It is my view that weak exegesis always leads to shallow preaching. It jumps to application and catchy illustration before the preacher has done the difficult spade work of discovering what the text says in its context to its original recipients and in the context of the broader scope of Scripture. Application to the original hearers, and to contemporary ones, may then be made.

Another problem with much current evangelical theology is that it largely misses the narrative aspect of Scripture, looking instead for a string of ideas to link logically to form doctrinal systems. “But in Scripture,” writes Witherington, “we’re not talking about a history of ideas but about spiritual realities in people’s lives, about people who have stories and encounters with God.”

The storied world of the Bible, delivered to an oral and visual culture is best understood in terms of narrative. The book of Revelation, for example, contains images and symbols around the central story: the ultimate triumph of our Lord. The book was written to encourage and comfort distressed believers of the first century, not to give a detailed timetable for end times or the Left Behind series so popular among evangelical readers.

The erosion of ethics

Whereas evangelicals at mid-20th century placed an overemphasis on preserving tradition and maintaining separation from the prevailing culture, today’s evangelicals are in danger of overemphasizing connection with culture, to the point of being assimilated by it.

Cultural sensitivity is needed, to be sure. But theological integrity and faithfulness to the biblical call for transformed lives is far more important.

The ethical image of evangelicals recently received another black eye with the admission of sexual immorality by Colorado Springs’ charismatic megachurch pastor Ted Haggard. Haggard was not only pastor of a 14,000 member church, he was president of the 33 million member U.S. National Association of Evangelicals. TIME listed Haggard as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005.

The extent to which evangelical Christians have lost their ethical moorings is shown in Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Early in the book, Sider cites survey after survey to support his assertion that “scandalous behaviour is rapidly destroying American Christianity.”

Most Christians claim Jesus as Lord with their mouths, Sider writes, “but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.” In the final chapter, entitled “Rays of Hope,” Sider acknowledges there are many “saints” who do live differently than the world, yet he calls for “weeping and repentance” for the still-widespread disobedience.

In his book, The Agony of Deceit, Michael Horton calls for an ethical and theological cleanup in contemporary evangelicalism, not unlike that initiated by Martin Luther in the 16th century.

John Stott says, “I’m noting in different expressions of the evangelical faith an absence of that quest for holiness that marked our forebears. . . . I wish that the whole evangelical movement could consciously set before us the desire to grow in Christlikeness such as is described in Galatians 5:22–23.”

An exhortation: be both

So do we really belong in the big theological tent of evangelicalism?

At the 2000 convention of the Canadian MB Conference, the Board of Faith and Life gave a pastoral exhortation to “be both Anabaptist and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.” The statement acknowledged the pietistic, mission-focused, evangelical influences within Mennonite circles in Russia that led to a renewal and the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church. It stated further, “Both Anabaptism and evangelicalism have had strong roles in shaping who we are. Together they provide a rich mine to nurture our life and witness in Christ.”

I would go further and assert that Anabaptists and evangelicals need each other. Current critiques of evangelicalism notwithstanding, Anabaptists must be evangelical in the best sense of the term – that is, they must be passionate about sharing the good news of the gospel, and deeply committed to the cardinal tenets of the Christian faith and to living out the message we preach.

Mennonites can learn from evangelical churches in North America, Africa, Latin America, and Asia where remarkable growth is taking place. People are passionate about sharing Christ. If the fruits of this growth are true to the biblical gospel, we should rejoice and learn to apply what we can to our context. One thing we will certainly learn is that prayer is the key to all renewal movements.

Offer discernment

Anabaptists must be willing to bring theological discernment and correction to their evangelical brothers and sisters. We can be a prophetic voice within evangelicalism, as Ron Sider has been. For many years Sider been part of the Social Action Commission of the National Association of Evangelicals. His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was recognized by Christianity Today as one of the 100 books that most influenced 20th century evangelicalism.

If today’s evangelicals were consistent in their commitment to biblical authority, they would stress far more than they do what Anabaptism stresses. These emphases include the importance of behaviour, not only belief; sanctification and the costly life of discipleship, not only justification; the church as the visible sign of the kingdom and a community living out the values of the Sermon on the Mount, not a place to be entertained and given formulas for prosperity. Evangelicals who took the ethics of the kingdom seriously, furthermore, would follow the way of nonviolence in all human relationships.

It’s essential that we underscore that these views on discipleship, the church, and nonviolence are not merely Anabaptist or Mennonite, but biblical. Therefore, anyone who wants to have a fully biblical theology, which maintains a balance between orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxis (correct practice), should be open to such teachings.

Anabaptists have always held that one’s experience of Christ must be expressed holistically. Evangelicals tend to express the experience of Christ in personal, individualistic, “sweet Jesus and me” ways. They insufficiently emphasize the horizontal aspects of accountability in a community of faith. Anabaptists, with their theology of conversion which leads to baptism, discipleship, and church membership, can offer a corrective.

Much creative cross-fertilization can take place between Anabaptists and evangelicals. Such interaction can only occur as both groups associate and cooperate. The goal of such coming together is to help each other to greater faithfulness to Christ and to the mandate “that the world may believe” (John 17:21).

Walter Unger is president emeritus of Columbia Bible College and lives in Abbotsford, B.C. He is a member of Bakerview MB Church.

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