Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why I am a Conservative Evangelical

I hate labels. I hate the way they say that I am someone and I am not like another group of people, when actually we agree on so much. I love it when I find that people supposedly in a different group to me actually agree with me on pretty much everything. I was a conservative evangelical, and I deliberately came to what looked like the broadest theological college which still seemed to take the Bible seriously, and to be honest, I wanted to lose my labels. But I've ended up finding them.

It's worth saying what I don't mean before I say what I do mean. I don't mean that I disrespect the traditions of the church - one of my favourite subjects at the moment is patristic theology, and I seem to be getting more liturgical as time goes on. In fact, I know some people who'd call themsevles Anglo-Catholics who I'd agree with on pretty much anything, and I've got a lot of respect for various Orthodox and Roman Catholic people as brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor do I mean that I reject charismatic stuff (though there are issues there, I've discussed some of them here and I'll probably discuss more in the future). One of the problems with the label of "conservative evangelical", is that it can be seen to be "conservative" as opposed to "open" or "conservative" as opposed to "charismatic". I mean the former.

So why do I call myself an evangelical? Because I've come across people who claim to be Christians and are willing to say "I am pretty sure that the Bible teaches this, but the Bible is wrong." Now I'm not in a position to say anything about their individual salvation - it's possible to trust Jesus and have all kinds of wrong and screwy ideas and I'm sure some of my ideas are very screwy and wrong (I wish I knew which ones!). But at the end of the day, I cannot see that I could say that sort of thing and it not be stemming out of a human pride that is the exact opposite of what the gospel is all about. For me, being a Christian means following God wherever he wants me to go. And yes, I'm meant to use my reason and stuff, but at the end of the day, if the Bible teaches something, that's what I'm meant to believe. I know there are lots of people who don't say they are evangelicals who believe that too, but I think it's important for me to stress it at the moment.

I call myself an evangelical because if I'm convinced the Bible says something, that's what I'll aim to believe.

And why conservative? There's an increasing polarisation within evangelicalism along conservative/open lines. And it's interesting, because there is a huge amount of overlap between the groups. Almost all the conventional definitions of "open evangelical" fit most of the conservative evangelicals I know, and almost all the conventional definitions of "conservative evangelical" fit most of the open evangelicals I know. One of the reasons I didn't get on with conservative evangelicalism in the past is that they are often far too quick to come across as not loving people outside the church, even though they do. But recent experience and news articles and so on suggest to me the following definitions of "open" and "conservative" evangelicals.

Conservative evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those inside evangelicalism than those outside.

Open evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those outside evangelicalism than those inside.

It is sad that there seems to have been so much sniping at conservatives from opens, and sad that in the past there has been so much sniping by conservatives at non-evangelicals. And ideally, we should love those inside and those outside the church, and I'm sure that Christian evangelicals of whatever stripe will aim to do that. But it looks to me as if the command to love other Christians (many but not all of whom are evangelicals) is even more important that loving outsiders. So I'm faced with a horrible choice. Would I rather be known as someone who condemns everyone who doesn't go to church every week (to take an example from the press recently), or someone who hates other Christians and attacks them in public? With such a dilemma, being known as a conservative evangelical seems the lesser of two evils.

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