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.


Daniel Hill said...

Great post, Custard!

Anonymous said...

I think that attacking other Christians is a problem for all Christians - it's not limited to one side of evangelicalism, or even one religion. People are a problem.

John said...

John Richardson has written some good pieces on Problems with Conservative Evangelicalism and Why Open Evangelicals are Closed and Conservative Evangelicals are Radical

Unknown said...

I am becoming more and more convinced that 'adjectivised' evangelicalism is an unhelpful phenomenon. I have certainly found huge swathes of overlap and agreement between the various 'streams'at Wycliffe.

Where I think I part company with your analysis is the idea that the Conservatives love their brothers and sisters whereas the opens love the world and not their brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, much of the bitterness amongst open evangelicals does stem from the treatment they received from Conservatives. Read any of the news articles surrounding NEAC for example and there were some pretty malicious things said which is a real shame. There has been much debate amongst opens about the appropriate way to respond to that sort of political agression. Many feel they have tried to respond graciously in the past and that has only led to their own exclusion and marginalisation from the organs of Anglican evangelicalism. Sadly the opens have now only compounded the problem by letting the sun go down on their anger, enabling the root of bitterness to grow and fester, a bitterness that has led them to adopt a much more aggressive stance towards the Conservatives. I do believe the bible has something to say about that.

The small nugget of truth in Joanna McGrath's article is that in a defined group like evangelicalism, it is often those closest to you that you are most suspicious of. It seems to me that a good dose of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation is needed on both sides. Neither side is the innocent party in this ongoing spat.

John said...

That's quite possibly true Rod. I haven't seen much in the way of attacks by conservatives on opens, but that doesn't mean they haven't happened. Sorry if I've ever been a part of that, and feel free to rebuke me if I'm ever a part of it in the future.

I think adjectivised Christianity is wrong full stop, and that the fracture that seems to be developing between conservatives and open evangelicals is deeply uphelpful and is best dealt with by repentance from both sides. But if there is a fracture, I still know which side I'm on.

Simon Heron said...

Excellent post Custard. I wrote something similar about the adjectivising of Christianity some time ago, which now appears to have been mildly prophetic.

I'd agree with Rod that open evangelicals have felt under attack in the past. More recently, the short speech that Richard Turnbull gave at the 2006 Reform conference only served to make many of us feel that we are still just not evangelical enough.

I'd love to think that we can repent and move beyond these issues, and get on with the job we've been called to do.

michael jensen said...

Oh I don't know... adjectives are just a short-hand, aren't they? Perhaps they indicate that there are real differnces and that it is just honest to acknowledge them and to talk about them sometimes.

Timothy Davis said...

"Historic evangelical" mightn't be a bad term. Like many terms, e.g. "Christian", the term "Evangelical" has come to encompass ideas that are antithetical to the original groups defined by that term.

Christians used to be defined by the confession that they adhered to, but often people like to "interpret" the clear intent of the text into something else. However, labels often end up classifying those within a confessional grouping.

Personally, although I'm a "tight wee" Reformed Presbyterian, I like the term "open evangelical" as opposed to "conservative evangelical". We should all be open to the teaching of God's Word and prepared to listen to all who argue their position from it, as opposed to some conservatives who are closed in their thinking and just want to conserve some status quo belonging to their associates.

We all need to be prepared to change in obedience to our Lord, no matter what the cost. True peace is found in faith and obedience, not in conserving traditions for tradition's sake. (There is a place for profitable traditions as a means of ordering areas not covered by God's Word. Change for change's sake or fashion's sake is just as unbiblical.)

The more we are conformed to the Apostolic and Biblical model, the more the Church will move forwards. The vain traditions of men only sap obedience to the commandments of God (Mark 7). Let us take heed lest we add to, or take from God's commandments (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18,19). (Do you feel a bit of Regulative Principle coming on you?)

Have you read Iain Murray's "Evangelicalism Divided", by the way?

John said...

I think you're right about the stupidness of some of the labels.

For example - "conservative" is generally used in opposition to "liberal", which isn't really a group any more. But it often gets seen in relation to "charismatic", which is a very different set of questions.

In fact, the way that insiders define the labels, it is quite possible to be simultaneously open, conservative and charismatic.

I've just been studying, and largely agreeing with, Richard Hooker. It's highly unlikely I'd go down a Regulative Prinicple line...

I might well put some of Hooker's thoughts on the issue up here.

Timothy Davis said...

Are you saying that "liberals" aren't an ecclesiastical grouping any more, or did I misunderstand you?

Really evangelicals are the true liberals, in that the truth of the Gospel is the only thing that can truly bring freedom to men.

Bizarrely enough, I found that at university the term "liberal" was more usually applied to non-conservative evangelicals, rather than historical liberalism. I frequently urged those who used it this way to avoid doing this as it can lead to confusion and non-conservative evangelicals may think that conservatives were accusing them of being historically liberal.

I'd be interested to see what you have to say re. Hooker and the Regulative Principle. I would just note that the Regulative Principle is often presented as merely the Regulative Principle of Worship. This can be misleading.

The Regulative Principle means that all areas that God has spoken on in relation to the operation of the Church are to be followed, and not added to, nor taken from.

Hence, the Reformed Churches (e.g. Presbyterians and Puritans), as opposed to Anglicanism and Lutheranism, hold to the divine right of presbytery and that non-biblical offices, such as a diocesan bishop and other inventions of men, are excluded. See here for a typical statement of this position.

John said...

Hooker and the Regulative Principle:
my post here touched on it. I might well post more on it over the next week or so.