Thank God I'm Not an Evangelical

Let me start with a confession. I have no clue what an Evangelical is. If you asked me to define the term I'd struggle. I think they are conservative, but not fundamentalist. But a lot of them are fundamentalists. I think they are pro-Republican. Many are Calvinist, but I don't think all of them are. They believe in the Bible, but I'm not sure if they are all Young Earth Creationists. Beyond that, I don't know what to add.

I've been thinking about Evangelicals lately (as in "Who are these people?") because of all the buzz about Rob Bell's book Love Wins. A lot of that conversation has centered on a tweet John Piper sent out saying "Farewell Rob Bell" after some people leaked that Bell was going to espouse universalism in the book. (Which, by the way, he didn't. To my eye, and many others, it seems like Bell just worked out the theology of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.)

When I heard about the Piper tweet my first thought was, "Who the hell is John Piper? And why does everyone care what he thinks?" And to be honest, I'm still not sure. I now know a bit more about who Piper is, but I'm still not sure why anyone cares.

My best guess is that Piper is influential in "Evangelicalism." Which isn't really a church or a denomination but, it appears to me, is really an interconnected web of publishing houses, conferences, universities, advocacy groups, and organizations that are associated with a variety of, generally conservative, churches. In short, "Evangelicalism" is a set of cultural power centers with a variety of gatekeeping power brokers. Piper, it seems, is a kind of power broker. If he, or someone like him, is okay with you you can get your books published, you can speak at conferences, you can hold positions in various organizations, and can be generally recognized as a "player" in conservative Christian circles.

That, as best I can tell, is "Evangelicalism." So I guess the worry about the Bell/Piper incident was that Piper would use his influence with the various other power brokers and shut Bell out. Which, I guess, means Bell won't get invited to stuff? And if that happens there is talk that "Evangelicalism" will split.

I guess I'm having trouble getting my head around this because I come from a church movement that is congregational rather than denominational in structure. Each congregation in the Churches of Christ is free and autonomous. We talk a lot to each other, and there are conservative and progressive streams in our movement, but at the end of the day the only people I have to worry about are my brothers and sisters at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. My church, my tradition, and my denomination begins and ends with that family. Our problems and battles are very local. We just have, and fight with, each other.

So when I hear that Rob Bell is the pastor of the Mars Hill church I just think to myself, why should he or Mars Hill give a flip about what John Piper has to say? Or anyone else for that matter? See, that's how I've been trained to see things. I've been raised to think of church as a local phenomenon.

In short, there are many days when I'm very grateful for my religious heritage. I love the Churches of Christ. More precisely, I love my Highland family.

So as you might imagine, as I've looked on during the whole Rob Bell dust up, I've said to myself over and over:

Thank God I'm not an Evangelical.

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30 thoughts on “Thank God I'm Not an Evangelical”

  1. I sympathize greatly... but this is just being cruel... I'm mean, I love the church as a local entity but is there not some meaning to "one holy catholic and apostolic church"

  2. I understand. And agree. But that church is bigger than any labels and it reaches across time and space.

    Yes, I love that church dearly.

  3. I've been wondering what evangelical meant as well over the last few years. It's something that I used to think I knew and used frequently, but now I'm not so sure. One wrench to throw in the system is that it seems like a lot of emergent church types self identify as evangelical. Many of them are not what you would consider conservative.

    Dr. Kirk of Fuller (the San Francisco one) has a series of posts on his blog working evangelicalism out and he seems to consider it pretty wide.

  4. I don't know how to start. I self identify with the evangelical movement, and your words hurt quite a bit. Let's just get that out in the open.

    Evangelicalism has it's deep roots starting all the way back to Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Puritan movement (a movement whose aim was to be a "beacon on the hill", a shining example to reform the Church of England). After the collapse of American Puritanism in the late 17th century, we come to Jonathan Edwards (acclaimed by some as the finest theologian America has produced) and the Great Awakening of the early 18th century and the rise of American Evangelicalism.

    Evangelicalism stemmed as a reactionary movement as best embodied in the debate held between Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Edwards. I will summarize their points. Chauncy held that Reason was the ultimate authority when it comes to truth, Jesus was merely a good man and moral teacher, Human nature was essentially good, and preaching should focus on morality. Edwards held that Scripture was the ultimate authority when it comes to truth, Jesus is both God and Man, Human nature is basically sinful, and Preaching should focus on conversion. Today, we more commonly generalize this as a debate between liberal and conservative theology.

    So you see, evangelicalism has it's birth as a reactionary movement, and as such, spans across many denominations. You have both liberal and evangelical Presbyterians, Baptists, congregationalists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, etc. Evangelicalism's aim is the renewal of worldwide Christianity. To sum up it's core values:

    A shared authority: The Bible
    A shared experience: Conversion
    A shared mission: Worldwide Evangelization
    A shared vision: Reforming Church and Society
    A shared strategy: Religious revivals

    Now, you are right in saying that evangelicalism has historically not had a unified position but rather has been united solely by it's opposition, namely the view held by Chauncy. Because of this it is hard to point to something "evangelical". I'll be the first to point out it's weaknesses.

    Now we can make generalizations about what an evangelical is, but they will only be just that, generalizations. "Thank God I'm not an evangelical" is a rather base statement for something that you admitted yourself that you do not understand. I'm not angry or anything because I really do respect what you have to say and agree with you on most points. But for all the respect I have for you, I now have an equal part of hurt.

  5. I apologize for any hurt. The post was just a way to talk about the distinctions between congregational structures and denominational structures and to push back on a lot of the "who is in and who is out" talk coming out of the Bell/Piper dust up.

    And in all seriousness, given the stuff I write on this blog, you have to admit that I could, at times, actually be thankful for not being an evangelical.

  6. Thanks for your apology. I do value your opinions, and as I said before I agree on most all of them coming from a Christian/Psychology background myself. I never really saw your posts on this blog as "anti-evangelical" or even clashing with it as I hold many of them too (well maybe your latest posts on universalism as you seem to define it differently, but I admit I do not know enough about that issue to engage it seriously).

    I think the main contention isn't that he's a "universalist". It's not not like that viewpoint hasn't been around. I think many in the evangelical world are upset that he continues to parade himself around as an evangelical when to many it seems like the Bible is not the ultimate authority to him. He argues his stance based on a selective reading of Scripture and poor exegesis as well as questionable methods regarding historicity. Bell's book is now #4 on the Amazon best seller list, so irregardless of outcome, he's making bank off of poor scholarship.

  7. Im not sure I would say that Bell's position was equivalent to C.S. Lewis'. In his book Bell gives no indication that there will be some people choose to reject God forever. C.S. Lewis took that as granted Bell's position seems more optimistically universalist. At least that is what I though from reading the book.

  8. I'm glad I'm not the only one confused about the definition of the word. The more traditions I experience the more confused I get about it. Your title is a bit bombastic, but I echo the sentiment. Regardless of the roots that the idea came from, the connotation of it now is simply too broad to give definite meaning - almost (though not quite as bad) like the word "Christian". I wouldn't necessarily say "Thank God I'm not an Evangelical" simply because I have no idea what that word really means.

  9. John, I'm definitely not "coming after" you, but I disagree with the idea that the main contention about Bell is around his "Evangelical" label. I do agree that the label is part of it, but, to me, the label is secondary to the issue of Universalism at least in the reactions that I've read from "conservatives".

    Here's one chronology of the responses to Bell, but it's by no means complete. All of the articles are attacking the straw-man they set-up about Universalism.

    David Platt also released a video championing the conservative understanding against the Universalist idea of there being no hell at all. (It's amazing to me how many "conservatives" don't really talk about what Universalism really is - they just disagree with it.)

    Nevertheless, I really appreciated your general overview of the historicity of the term "Evangelical".

  10. Here in Australia the term 'evangelical' is similarly vague. Your definition is pretty accurate in that they tend towards theological, political and social conservatism but not always. I think it's actually one of those labels that serves more as a group identifier than having much factual content. For people who identify as evangelical it often means 'proper Christians, you know, who believe the Bible and don't go in for any of that liberal hoo-ha', and for people who don't it often means 'crazy fundamentalists'. I'm sure the term does have a long history that makes sense, as John points out, but I don't think many people are aware of it these days.

    Sydney Anglicanism, which is at least the tradition I grew up in even if I have more than a few problems with it these days, identifies as 'evangelical', and we probably agree with people like John Piper on a majority of theological issues. He's massively popular over here, at least.

  11. I think you've well described some of the awful things that some major streams of american evangelicalism have become all too caught up in, and thus are pinpoint accurate in your assessment of those unfortunate trends.

    However, from the sounds of it, I'd suggest that your church is well within the stream of Protestantism best known under the descriptive umbrella of 'evangelical'.

    The word has a long history and some important meaning, and perhaps one of the strengths of this stream is that it can incorporate so much diversity, rendered in terms of its impulses and activities rather than some kind of fixed structures or even doctrines.

    The messy side of this is that there end up being a lot of conflicts and intersections to sort through. But this is not bad, on its own, and can actually be a place where the reconciliation of people to God in Christ gets to play itself out in front of us. I only wish there were more of that visible in this Rob Bell/John Piper fiasco.

    Ironically, don't you think that by weighing in on this you have implicated yourself in it no matter how (rightfully) grateful you are to not be caught up in its more depressingly politicized trends?

  12. To me an evangelical is someone willing to translate the message of Christ into a form that fits the popular culture. Think George Whitefield. In many ways I think the problem with evangelicalism today is that the message and messenger have been codified due to the culture wars, hence the pejorative view of what it means to be evangelical.

  13. Good stuff. As a recovering fundamentalist, I agree with you in many ways. Keep blogging.

  14. As people have responded, I'm prompted to apologize and clarify a bit about the tone of the post. Mainly I was just trying to be funny in making an observation that I'm glad I'm not a part of the Piper/Bell debate and all the debate that set off. In a similar way, there have been times when I look on and say "Thank God I'm not a Catholic" or "Thank God I'm not a Baptist" or whatever. And, yes, there are many days I think "I wish I weren't Church of Christ."

    So, to clarify, the "Thank God I'm not an Evangelical" is really about my reaction to the ugliness of the Bell/Piper controversy. And I'd expect that many evangelicals looking at that debate would agree with me, that this was one of those moments they wish they were "out," so to speak.

    One final point, when I start talking about evangelicalism in the post as a distributed network of conservative power centers I start to use the scare quotes. A small attempt to distinguish true evangelicalism from its various political and cultural manifestations.

  15. I partly agree. I felt most of the book was more optimistic than Lewis, until the last chapter where Bell seems very clear that "Love wins" because you're given freedom to choose, not because you will ultimately choose God.

  16. This is why I used scare quotes when I start talking about evangelicalism as a cultural and political force. That's subtle on my part, but I was trying to signal the distinction you make.

  17. That phrase "parade himself around as an evangelical" is a part of what I'm trying to figure out in this post.

    I'm trying to think about this less as a theologian would than as an economist would. That is, lets say Bell is trying to keep the label evangelical when, in fact, he isn't. What, I'm wondering, would be the point in that? What would be the incentive? For example, if Bell came out claiming he was no longer an evangelical, but remained the pastor of Mars Hill, what happens? My take is he stops getting books published by certain publishing houses, stops getting access to certain speaking venues, stops, in short, getting access to and influence in the network of conservative Christian power structures. So the burn about Bell, as best I can tell, is that by keeping the label he's getting access to all these things when he doesn't deserve it. This is why in my post I'm highlighting this notion of cultural power brokers. The issue here is about who has access to the network of influence. And who might be cheating to keep that access. So power seems to be a big part of this.

  18. Yes, I'll admit to implicating myself. I'm fully capable of myopia, inconsistency, and hypocrisy.

  19. As far as I can make out, an evangelical is anyone who adheres to traditional Protestant doctrine. Some of them are, as you say, fundamenalists, some aren't. They all claim to be 'following the Bible', and they all have the knack of finding traditional interpretations and doctrines in it. I lack their talent, which is why I'm not an evangelical. To me, dogmatics is a separate study; it has its own interest, but I'm not emotionally attached to any of it. Biblical Studies is what I'm primarily interested in, and I want to understand the text, not use it to support a dogmatic position.

    We've got evangelicals in my church, we've got liberals, and we just don't care. Isn't that what it's all about - people, not dogma?

  20. I have similar difficulties understanding what "evangelical" is supposed to be. Some observations on that term, and also "fundamentailist," here:

  21. I recently watched the HBO documentary "Friends of God" and the host allows supposed leaders of the evangelical movement to define it for us. Their definition was based on their stance on four topics:

    1) Homosexuality as abomination
    2) Abortion as murder and worthy of political campaigning to stop it
    3) Taking overall political responsibility and voting Republican
    4) Evolution as biblically inaccurate and a threat to faith

    Since I am opposed to three of those positions, and only partly aligned with a fourth, it appears that even after 30 years in the CoC I'm not an evangelical after all.

  22. Dr. Beck,

    I guess I didn't take this post quite as seriously as it seems others did. I guess it's not surprising that the "defenders" would pounce at the scent of dissension. But I digress.

    My heritage is in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and more widely the Restoration/Stone-Campbell Movement. I "left" it for [E]vangelicalism, and I now find myself leaving that, as well. (Criticism of that is another discussion altogether.) What I found out is that, generally speaking, the two groups are very similar.

    Both have their "power brokers", both have their congregationalists and their denominationalists. Both have their thought police, their truth-detectors, and their conquerors of false-teachers. So, I have to be very careful to not be a Pot assailing a Kettle.

    I remember great dust-ups over hymnals, kitchens in the building, and offering the offering as part of the Lord's Supper. I also remember congregational splits over ____-millenialistic interpretations of Revelation. Who is "in" and who is "out" were weekly sermon topics.

    So, when I see evangelical blowhards pile onto Bell, it takes me to all-too-familiar territory, as I remember blowhards from my history (many of whom have colleges named after them or published monthly papers) piling onto anyone who dared dip a toe off the reservation. In my church-hopping I have learned, finally, this one thing: there is nothing new under the sun.

    Evangelicalism is about identity. As is being a Campbellite. That is why so many jump to defend their chosen team. Perhaps both movements didn't begin that way, but that is what they're about now.

    Which, in turn, is why I'm quite glad I'm not identified by either.

  23. True most of the stir in the evangelical blogosphere has been about universalism, I'm trying to cut to the heart of an underlying issue.

    I liken this strong reaction to the days of the early reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc) and their strong reactions to heresy, to the point of burning heretics at the stake. To them, the truth was so valuable and by corollary Scripture was so valuable, that to not react in such a way would be incomprehensible. If truly men's souls were on the line, as many in the evangelical camp feel they are constantly, than this issue is of the utmost importance of orthodoxy for salvation. Remember one of the defining characteristics of the Evangelical movement is, well, evangelism and the strong desire to preach the gospel. Romans 1:17 is pretty much the motto.

    Now Rob Bell, who claims to be Evangelical, is also preaching his own version of the Gospel different than what other evangelicals preach. I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time, but Richard is right: Rob Bell, like it or not, is a powerhouse for cultural influence in the evangelical world. So are Piper, Taylor, and DeYoung (some of the more prominent voices coming out against him). Rob Bell is trying to hold onto his sphere of influence that he's built for himself in the Evangelical world. What other evangelicals are trying to do is discredit him as an evangelical, and thus take away his influence. I think that is the larger and underlying goal of the reaction (given that burning him at the stake is not an option).

  24. I grew up in an Evangelical Free Church and distinctly remember asking my mom one day what that meant. She told me that we were "non-denominational" relating to the Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran churches out there, but ironically enough we were our own "denomination" since there were EV Free churches all over the world with conferences and the like.

    Personally, and mainly in part because of this, I've always been against the denominational aspect of things because of the division it caused. I'm not naive enough to think that denominations don't have their place, since on some of the more minor issues of faith it is comforting to have the community in which to grow. However, when it gets to the point of ostracizing others over those minor issues, I get angry. It's all about Jesus, right?

    To add to the confusion, Evangelicalism in general has gotten a really bad rap over the past few years, due to politics and protests, and to some extent I think it has become it's own entity. You throw in issues like the recent Rob Bell book and we really don't start looking like disciples of Jesus anymore.

    A few years back, I stumbled across a paper called "The Evangelical Manifesto" that had been released. In a lot of ways I think it is a calling to bring people back to the core tenants that evangelicalism was founded on and helps give a direction on where it should go. It was established by some people I respect, like Dallas Willard, Os Guiness, and has been signed by lots of others as well.

    You can read it here:

    Maybe this will help get folks back to a different definition of evangelicalism.

    ...upon reading this, this REALLY sounds like some kind of spammy infomercial! What have I become! I assure it is not! I'm the dude in the podracer helmet and this is one of those key issues that I think is very important.

  25. My first thought, when I saw the rob bell YouTube clip, was about The Great Divorce. You are right on target here. I'm in a hierarchical church now but my roots are similar to yours and I so entirely agree with your disconnect with giving a flip about what piper thinks.

  26. As one who comes to my Christian faith through growing up in a Congregational/United Church of Christ parsonage and being wholeheartedly convinced by and in the liberal tradition, I see “evangelical” as meaning primarily that one must have a particular set of answers and has difficulty with ambiguity and questions.

    There is the lively view our there in the world that those of us who hold liberal views "don't believe anything." Our faith is often described as "vapid" or "empty." Huh. I find my theological life vibrant, often tumultuous, content-rich. It just isn't particularly dogmatic.

    The more one moves toward the evangelical perspectives, the more one finds entire vocabularies of terms and policies claiming to know the mind of God and the most minute details of divine intent, all creating what purport to be rock-solid certainties. (So many of them, pointing in different directions!) The more certainty one demands, the more humanly created dogma there will be to establish and support the boundaries of “who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out.” To my understanding, that conviction of certainty is what being evangelical means, and eventually it shades off into various fundamentalisms. To my simple layperson mind, claiming to know the mind of God is at best hubris, possibly even sin; so I can't go there; but--no surprise--I love Love Wins.

    I’m reading your Unclean and finding it fascinating, especially on these issues of inclusion/exclusion. Curious and revealing, that in the Bell/Piper controversy there is that same question of mercy/sacrifice expressed both theologically and in terms of social power.


    I guess I'm having trouble getting my head around this because I come from a church movement that is congregational rather than denominational in structure. Each congregation in the Churches of Christ is free and autonomous. We talk a lot to each other, and there are conservative and progressive streams in our movement, but at the end of the day the only people I have to worry about are my brothers and sisters at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. My church, my tradition, and my denomination begins and ends with that family. Our problems and battles are very local. We just have, and fight with, each other.

  28. I think Rob Bell shares the same sentiment.

    I was raised a C of C kid, but due to the options presented to me in college, i gravitated away from a small and narrow-minded C of C constituency and cast my lot among various Evangelical campus groups (FCA, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, a charismatic group under the Wesleyan banner, etc). And even among my "Demons for Christ" campus group (our mascot was the Demons), I lead a discussion through a book with other Christian campus organizations when it was all the craze: The Purpose Driven Life. Clearly a hallmark of Evangelicalism.

    A while back, my religious views on Facebook were "post-Evangelical". Some C of C friends chided me for thinking that CofC's were evangelical, but they didn't know my journey through Evangelicalism. I've since deleted any religious affiliation from my profile, but still feel post-E is a good description. And I think it's also a good description of Rob Bell. As Tony Jones pointed out, Rob Bell has and will continue to remain above the fray about all this. Why? Because he doesn't have to belong to the Evangelical in-group. He's already out, because he's a post-Evangelical. And as a pastor his concerns seem a lot like yours, Dr. Beck--broadly informed, but ultimately local.

  29. Sorry ... a bit late, and I agree about the ugliness of the controversy and the scareyness of power centres, but in case anyone is looking for a definition of Evangelicalism as a starting point for discussions then I think A. McGrath's book "a passion for truth - the intellectual coherence of evangelicalism" is worth a read. I suppose its maybe a viewpoint more from a British rather than the North American perspective of what Evangelicalism is.

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