I was recently at a training conference for my niche ministry as a pastor. I met a Canadian pastor from rural Ontario and we sat next to each other for the duration of the conference and in the process chatted about a great many things including his country’s politics and ours. It was his perception that his country was ever further down the road than we are in losing a Christian influence in the market place of ideas. He then wondered out loud why, if 45% of Americans claim to be “evangelicals” do we have so little influence in our country. My answer was it’s because 45% of the country is not truly evangelical. He nodded as it to say, I guess that’s obvious.
Apparently, there is great confusion regarding terminology but it’s not limited to the term “evangelical.”
I’m going to state the obvious but bear with me. We live in a culture that is largely self-defining when it comes to a great many things but especially identity. Identity politics are the rage, gay, straight, white, black, brown, liberal, conservative, Tea Party, Democrat, Republican and so forth. And when it comes to religion one only has to list the number of denominations that identify themselves as Christian.
What people mean by “Christian” varies a great deal.
For example, there was a time in my life when the term Christian simply meant I was baptized into a certain denomination, educated in that denomination (grade school) and attended its services although that declined when I could make the decision for myself.
I also had a vague sense of right and wrong because of the denomination’s teaching. I believe that some of that served me rather well although it was a law orientation based on the Ten Commandments. But, having said all that, I was what you might call a cultural Christian and a nominal one at that! In fact, at one time I would have defined myself first as an agnostic and second a Christian. Try to figure that out!
These days the term “Christian” can mean anyone who does not claim atheism as their creed or Islam (or another world religion).
The term “evangelical” is also sufficiently vague to mean different things to different people. At one level it simply means one that claims a “born again” experience. As a result the term cuts across a dizzying array of denominations, non-denominationals and even what orthodox Christians would call cults. To sort through them all and list distinctives would probably require a large number of books!
Evangel simply means “good news” while the term “evangelist” means one who delivers the message of the good news.” The good news is the gospel. The apostle (a messenger of the good news) put the good news succinctly:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, [Peter] then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV)
Therefore, to be “evangelical” in the historical sense would mean one who believes the good news and is a disciple of Christ who is the good news as well as the gospel’s chief messenger.
One of the many difficulties associated with self-defining Christians is disagreement over the content of the good news. It’s one thing to affirm intellectually 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 but quite another to unpack the content and ramifications of what Paul is talking about. The biggest divide is between those who believe that salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and those that would mix works into the process of salvation.
Another great divide would be what it is called the “social gospel” and it’s in that area that politics gets involved. The politics are derived from how one reads the Bible and how one interprets it if indeed one chooses to read and study it!
President Obama for example, for good reason, has been accused of buying into what’s called ” black liberation theology” through the now infamous Jeremiah Wright who Obama threw under the bus when things got hot. The President sat under Wright’s Liberation Theology for over 20 years. To say Wright’s teaching has not influenced or even directed a good part of the President’s politics is to ignore the obvious. Liberation Theology has a great deal in common with Marxism and not a great deal in common with sound biblical interpretation.
The Bible does inform a self-defined Christian’s politics but as we’ve seen how one reads and interprets the Bible varies a great deal for a great many reasons.
A great tool for a conservative, Protestant evangelical would be Wayne Grudem’s Politics-According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.
I’d recommend this book to my liberal Protestant and Catholic friends as well if they are interested in how a conservative Protestant evangelical perceives how the Scripture speaks to politics.
Grudem has also written a systematic theology that is well thought of by conservative Protestant evangelicals titled Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine.
One of the strengths of this work is that Grudem gives as the end of each chapter links to other works that disagree or are different his own systematics.
A third helpful resource would be Greg Allison’s Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine.
This is an important work because it explains how doctrine developed historically and what that could mean to different Christian groups.
And finally there is this, The Changing Face of Christian Politics from Atlantic Magazine. The author is Michael Ware. Michael led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. I doubt there is much I would agree with him on but his observations are interesting.
I want to conclude this brief survey be referring to William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a British politician and a conservative, evangelical Protestant. He was involved in what could have been called in his day the “social gospel.” For years and years Wilberforce spoke out against the evils of slavery. It was not a message that was received graciously in a nation nominally Christian. Yet, Wilberforce persevered and slowly his message gained momentum and Great Britain abolished slavery well before the US had to fight the Civil War to get rid of it. The political tide is well against a conservative, evangelical Protestant’s views on a wide range of social issues (not to mention economics) and like Wilberforce our message is rarely popular. Yet, we should speak out understanding that our sovereign God is fully capable of changing the king’s heart.
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1 ESV)