Friday, December 19, 2008

What should evangelicals believe and how should we relate to one another?

Catalysed by a series of columns on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' site, an interesting series of discussion threads have burst into life concerning what evangelicals believe, despite the busyness of the pre-Christmas season: here, here, and there (that I am aware of).

Its always interesting as an evangelical Anglican to follow these kinds of threads. Constructively the debates can remind us of what the key characteristics of evangelical belief are. But the debates can also alert us to some characteristics of evangelicals which are unhelpful.

Why, for example, are some of us so keen to (a) define who we are, and (b) define those who are not true evangelicals? Some sense of definition is important for any group of people but when the process of definition leads to, or fosters a spirit of division, is that a useful process? When our definition of evangelical belief leads to a side-lining of the Alpha Course, or declaring the Archbishop of Canterbury to be a false teacher, have we contributed constructively to the church and its role in the mission of God? Do we understand the nature of power within group dynamics: in particular the way a rigorous, closed definition of the group's beliefs leads to intimidation of members of the group who no longer feel able to raise legitimate questions and issues for fear of being cast out?

The picture I get from some of these discussion threads is this: I go to an evangelical party. First I meet Bob and Bill who immediately tell us that they cannot understand why James and Gerry are at the party, because James is soft on homosexuality and Gerry says the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is no longer central to evangelical theology. When I drift across the room and talk with James and Gerry they tell me that its a pity Bob and Bill are at the party because it surely represents a sign that they want to take over the key roles in the organising committee for future events, which would be a great pity because they are very conservative evangelicals and only about 30% of those present would be invited to the next party, and none of those would be the women present tonight. I note that James and Gerry drop their voices when speaking to me about this. Why, I wonder? After a few other conversations like this I compare notes with a friend as we leave ... and agree that its a pretty strange group of people who want to party together while distrusting and disputing with each other.

But there is an alternative picture of what an evangelical party could be like! On entering the party my friend and I are warmly welcomed and one person takes us around the whole group and makes a point of introducing us to each person present. The introductions go like this: 'This is James. He's one of the more interesting evangelicals here because he thinks a faithful, stable same-sex partnership is commensurate with Scripture. In fact he's probably the only evangelical here who believes that. ... Meet Gerry. Perhaps more than anyone here he makes us think about what Scripture is really saying about priority in evangelical belief. He's particularly well known for arguing that the centre of evangelical belief is not penal substitutionary atonement. ... Now, finally, say "hello" to Bill and Bob. They are notable for arguing a very conservative approach to evangelical belief. If you want to learn some theology in a hurry, eavesdrop on one of their debates with Gerry and James. They are the best of friends despite their sharp disagreement on some points of theology.' With these introductions I realise that here is a party which expresses one of the great characteristics of the New Testament: unity-in-diversity. In fact my conversations through the evening move me profoundly as I recognise the deep love each evangelical has for the other, a strong loyalty to the group which is also worked out in dynamic support from one individual member to another, and a determined willingness to work out differences of viewpoint for the greater good not just of the party, but also of the whole world.

At this point I am talking about the possibility for better relationships among evangelicals as a broad community of people have some points of common theological conviction while also having points of theological difference. I recognise that certain 'working' relationships are harder to conform to my second picture. It would be difficult, for example, to have Bob, Bill, Gerry and James on the same parish staff team.

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