When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?
Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.
“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US. Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.
If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.
It’s actually worse than a pox. It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word
As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.
The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.
In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.
Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.
If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.
Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?
The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.
ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.
It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.
There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.
In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice.
To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.
I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:”
What is the euangelion?
“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.
The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.
While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.
Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.
Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.
The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.
McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,
“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.
“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle. It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.
“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.
The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means, and second, it is defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.
What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?
Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?”
From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.
According to Sheridan,
Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.
The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.
The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.
The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.
In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.
Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.
There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.
Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.
This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.
Several political groups have declared their hand:
The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.
Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”
Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.
And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.
Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?
We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.
First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?
Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour? Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.
A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.
Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.
As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:
“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;
A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;
A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;
A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”
If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.
Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?
How should Churches view ‘success’?
Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.
Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.
Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.
Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.
Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.
Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.
Tonight’s ABC’s QandA program was purposed to examine the role of Christianity in Australian society today.
Interestingly, two hours prior to the show, I tweeted a question to which many of my Christian friends responded, ‘no, they would not be watching the program’. It seems as though lots of people are dubious about QandA’s capacity to present a fair and reasonable picture of Christianity, which is perhaps has some warrant based on previous programs. I guess I include myself among the sceptics, but overall such doubts were given the boot. The show was presented well, and the rudeness scale from some previous episodes dropped off significantly.
The program though didn’t quite start of the right footing, with Julia Baird exclaiming, “Everyone on the panel is a Christian.” Hmmm, really? There were some pretty dubious theologies up there tonight. But then I remembered how Julia recently referred to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a cult who reject Christianity, as ‘conservative Christian’. That aside, Julia Baird did a fine job at facilitating the proceedings.
On the panel was John Haldane (a Scottish Catholic who is a Papal advisor to the Vatican), Julie McCrossin (radio & tv personality, and gay rights activist), Ray Minniecon (Pastor & Chairperson of the Sydney Anglican Indigenous People’s Committee), Tiffany Sparks (Anglican minister in Brisbane), and Lyle Shelton (Director of ACL).
Given the program’s topic, one would have thought the ABC would invite Australia’s most notable Christian voices: where was Peter Adam, Peter Jensen, Brian Rosner, John Dickson, Michael Jensen, Justine Toh, and many others? I understand why Lyle Shelton was chosen, and Ray Minniecon, but the other panelists? McCrossin and Sparks represent what is at best a fringe and frayed interpretation of Christianity. John Haldane is from out of town and struggled to comment on Australian cultural particulars, although he did add a sense of intellectual gravitas that was otherwise missing at times.
Having said that, QandA is not (nor is it meant to be) an orthodox Christian program, and the producers no doubt have pressures on them to diversify the panel and encourage as many sparks as possible.
The most interesting part of the show was seeing what questions people were asking:
Apart from the final question, no one asked about the veracity of Christian beliefs (is it true or not), rather, people wanted to know whether Christianity is good (good being defined in a variety of ways). That is worth reflecting on from an apologetic and evangelistic perspective. But also, for many of the questions, including the climate change and indigenous recognition, Christians have been actively speaking on these issues, and yet it seems as though the public hasn’t listened (ABC viewers at least!). This raises an important question for Christians as we seek to speak into society: why are we not being heard? How can we work better at clearly presenting our views?
It is best to watch the program for answers to the specific questions, for here I only wish to offer one comment, which to me sums up the program:
Where was the Baptist tonight? Yes, that’s tongue in cheek…sort of. Baptists are in fact one of the few Christian denominations growing across Australia, and yet there was no room for one? Leaving the facetious aside,
Why was an entire episode of a ‘Christian’ Qanda without any mention of the crux of the Christian faith, the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I remember an episode with Peter Jensen and one with John Dickson, where both sought to explain the Gospel and give a reason for the hope they have. Tonight, the entire program was addressing matters from a Christian perspective and yet where was a faithful and clear articulation of the Gospel, even in a single sentence? The closest we came was when Lyle Shelton made passing reference to Christ laying down his life, and when Ray Minniecon called Australians to ‘repentance’.
Of course, television programs (and the media in general), have little interest in the actual message of Christianity; it is easier and more contentious to focus on moral questions. These questions are important, and as a Christian I believe the Bible gives us answers, but Christianity is not moralism. This is one of the potential dangers for groups like the Australian Christian Lobby. While I agree with many of their statements, they can be guilty of presenting a Christianity that is defined by a set of moral values, but that is a faulty view of Christianity. This is not questioning their orthodoxy, but the only message we have is is the good news message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the salvation of everyone who believes in Him.
‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)
‘I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8)
As Julia Baird summed up the final question, she gave the panel every opportunity. She asked, ‘is it down to God’s grace or human endeavour?’ There I sat, pleading, would some one please explain the good news of Jesus Christ? Would someone at least say, ‘yes, it’s God’s grace’. What an opportunity to articulate the truth and beauty and power of God’s grace, but no. I was saddened to hear no minister of the Gospel say yes to God’s grace.
I was saddened. I was not surprised to hear Julie McCrossin and Tiffany Sparks contradicting Biblical truths; that’s what ‘progressives’ do; they throw away those things in the Bible that contravene their liberal views. But still, as Australians listened tonight to Christian leaders expound their beliefs, they will go to sleep none the wiser, yes, hearing some Christian ideas and thoughts, but almost nothing about the message which is Christianity.
What I heard tonight was, Christians have opinions about lots of issues, just like everyone else. I heard, Christians disagree a lot. I heard, people have the capacity to change.
This ‘Christian’ QandA ended up sounding more like a Jane Austen novel set in Victorian England, acknowledging some things Christian, but with very little appeal to the Christ of Christianity and to the grace of God which Christians do trust, rejoice in, and want other Australians to know.
Here is the sermon I preached today at Mentone Baptist Church in light of the dreadful attacks on Paris. The sermon is an exposition of the book of Habakkuk.
“O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.” (Hab 3:2-3)