Can evangelicals be redeemed?

tony-campoloWhat do you do when you find someone in your family behaving badly and bringing the family name into disrepute? There are two main strategies: either you can try and reason with them to bring them round and restore your shared reputation; or you can leave the family, change your name, and hope that the bad publicity stays at a distance.

Tony Campolo has decided to follow the second strategy. He has announced that he ‘did not want to be known as an evangelical Christian any more.’ In doing this, he appears to have two kind of the concerns. The first is reputational: the term has too many negative connotations, especially amongst non-Christians. But Campolo also feels that evangelicals in the United States are simply not being true to the teaching of Jesus:

Evangelicals in the United States are anti-environment… If you say you’re an Evangelical you’re anti-gay, you’re anti-women, you’re pro-war…In the southern states, eighty percent of the people go to church at least once a month [and yet it’s] the strongest supporter for capital punishment.

How do you reconcile Evangelicals favouring capital punishment when Jesus said: ‘blessed are the merciful’?

But is Campolo’s decision going to achieve what he wants? Campolo wants to focus on the teaching of Jesus, not least through his participation in the ‘Red Letter Christian’ movement which focuses on Jesus’ words in the gospels. But in dispensing with the label ‘evangelical’, he appears to be contradicting his own convictions. Evangelicals (broadly speaking) see the Scriptures, and particularly the teachings of the New Testament, as the decisive authority for life and faith. This is in contrast to liberals, who (broadly speaking) look to reason and experience to determine belief, and Catholics who (broadly speaking) look to the teaching ministry of the church to determine what they should believe.

So if might be that if Campolo is simply shedding the label, he isn’t achieving very much. If his concern is that US evangelicals (and others) are not following the teaching of Jesus, then his concern is not that they are being too evangelical—but that they are not being evangelical enough. And by putting distance between himself and their views, he is actually throwing away any hope of engagement and debate. Surely a more fruitful strategy would be to agree that the New Testament needs to shape us—and take the discussion from there?

I doubt that ditching the label is really going to help the PR either. I wonder how much difference it makes to non-Christians for us to say to them ‘Oh, I’m not a horrible Christian like those miserable evangelicals! No, I am a nice kind of Christian—you can trust me!’. I am not sure that those outside the Christian faith find it quite so easy to draw these neat lines—and I am pretty sure that God doesn’t! We might like to carve ourselves up into different groups, traditions and denominations; I have a suspicion that such divisions are ones that God doesn’t take too much notice of.

I wonder how far Campolo’s strategy for reading the New Testament will get him anyway? So called ‘Red Letter Christians’ focus on Jesus’ teaching, and Campolo thinks that focusing on Jesus’ teaching will enable us to focus on mercy and love. He is quite right that Jesus’ emphasizes non-violence in personal relationships, and that it is very hard to justify the kind of nationalist militarism (often based on American Exceptionalism and the myth of redemptive violence) that is found in many parts of the ‘Bible belt’. But the Jesus who said ‘Turn the other cheek’ (Matt 5.39) also said that those who don’t believe will be ‘thrown into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 13.42). The one who was ‘gentle and humble in spirit’ (Matt 11.29) also thought that those who mislead ‘little ones’ (those who are vulnerable in the faith) should have ‘a large millstone were hung around their neck’ and should be ‘drowned in the depths of the sea’ (Matt 18.6). If we want our Jesus meek and mild (or even merciful and loving in our understanding of those terms) then we are going to have to cut out a lot more than the black letters.

And here’s the heart of the difficulty: if we start cutting down our Bibles to remove the awkward bits, or the bits that we think others are interpreting wrongly, there is no knowing where it will take us. Steve Chalke is quite clear: the writers of parts of the Old Testament were mistaken in their description of God, since it doesn’t match with his notion of the loving Jesus he follows. But in fact, Luke also makes the same mistakes, in writing about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. So perhaps Luke is also wrong in writing down some of Jesus’ own teaching that we find difficult? It turns out rather quickly that we have stopped following Jesus, and starting asking Jesus to follow us. When we separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, then we are worshipping a god of our own creation. The Bible calls that idolatry, and has some fairly strong things to say about it!

Focussing on the Red Letters actually undermines historic Christian belief. Many of the non-canonical writings, such as the Gnostic ‘Gospel of Thomas’, are collections of Jesus’ teaching, and some of them aren’t too far away from Jesus’ teaching in the canonical gospels. But that is only one part of the good news, and misses out on the most important. Jesus didn’t simply come to be a wise teacher and enlighten us with spiritual knowledge; he came to do something for us that we could not do—to be a ‘ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45) by ‘dying for our sins, according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3). That means that the red letters actually don’t make sense without the black letters around them—and that neither makes complete sense without that long introduction that Christians call the Old Testament, which is what Paul is referring to when he talks of ‘the Scriptures.’ The consistent mark of authentic early Christian teaching was that it understood all that God had done through Jesus as a fulfilment of what God had done before amongst his people Israel.

To be evangelical means to see the Bible, rightly interpreted, as the supreme authority in matters of life and faith. If my fellow evangelicals are giving the family a bad name by their misreading, then I need to stay in the family and have the conversation. And, guess what? There are some red letters about that:

If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matt 18.15)

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17 thoughts on “Can evangelicals be redeemed?”

  1. He isn’t the first to rebrand, and probably won’t be the last, but I do think his American context is what makes the difference. In the UK (or maybe even in Europe, thinking about Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Scandinavia, for example) the term evangelical represents a broader spectrum, especially when modified by terms (familiar here, less so in the US I venture to suggest) such as ‘charismatic, open, conservative, liberal or accepting. If he lived in Britain, TCwould probably be able to say he was an accepting evangelical. I’m happy to be corrected/educated by any US commenters

    • I actually find the UK classifications of “evangelicals” confusing and misleading but inherent in the fact that labels are not protected like trade marks. Anyone can claim any label they like, with or without a modifier, and run with it.

      There are, in my view, only three legitimate ways of using “evangelical”:

      1. The classic use as in “the evangelical counsels”, namely chastity, poverty, and obedienc;

      2. The historic use as in the names of some Lutheran denominations;

      3. The contemporary one for people or groups who are in agreement with the Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith. Some of the modifiers (i.e. charismatic) are compatible with that, others (like open and accepting) are revisionist attempts to continue claiming the label while having deviated from the statement of faith.

      Campolo is a good example of that; he no longer subscribes to an evangelical statement of faith in its entirety but engages in cafeteria Christianity, picking and choosing which parts he agrees with. So for him, not calling himself evangelical is simply truth in advertising.

      On the other hand, while labels such as evangelical have a certain usefulness, Scripture warns us against using them to divide the Body of Christ. I suspect that when people get upset about something like Campolo’s announcement, they are on the brink of doing just that, and should examine their attachment to the label.

      • BTW, the frequent secular press use of “evangelical” when they mean “evangelistic” is a particularly illegitimate use of the term 😉

      • Which one of the eleven statements in the Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith do you think Campolo disagrees with? And which do you think open evangelicals disagree with?

        Why do you think that accepting evangelicals disagree with these statements?

      • Evangelical in the now standard sense, as a subset of general (and especially Anglophone) Protestantism, originated in the 1790s as a term for the fruit of the revivalist movements which began in the Great Awakening of the 1730s in the UK and its American Colonies in the ministry of John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. It became a major social force throughout the 19th century, and was one of the main sources of the (largely) wholesome Victorian values which, as it happens, Justin Welby this week appears to be intent on dismissing as a myth (they weren’t a myth of course, they were a very real social and cultural phenomenon). The arrival of modern, new or liberal theology from the 1860s (in the English speaking world) resulted in a doctrinal split with large parts of wider Protestantism, and a new evangelical distinctiveness in underlining the authority of scripture in matters of faith and morals. It also saw the beginning of the attempts by some to accept the new ideas while retaining the evangelical label – liberal evangelicalism was a major movement in the first half of the 20th century, and the creation of the IVF (later UCCF) in the 1920s as a breakaway from the SCM was a notable symptom of that. So there is nothing new about evangelical revisionism, and also nothing new about orthodox evangelicals wishing to distance themselves from revisionists.

        Strictly speaking the distinctive mark of evangelicalism in origin was revivalism i.e. seeking the conversion of large numbers through conviction of the Gospel message of the cross, and consequent reform of life. The idea that orthodoxy is distinctively evangelical was a result of the late 19th century emergence of liberal theology as a major mainstream force – before that of course the whole mainstream was orthodox.

        I think the label is useful for picking out a particular kind of Christian with which people wish to identify, namely an orthodox believer with a special commitment to evangelism and mission and to the role of the Bible in devotion and guidance (in fact, I think all Christians should be evangelical, but I don’t think being evangelical is necessary for salvation or to claim the name Christian). I’m glad that evangelicalism as a movement has tended to insist on orthodoxy and has resisted its own internal revisionist strains. I agree that there is an honesty in Campolo’s announcement, and would prefer that open or accepting evangelicals would recognise that orthodoxy is integral to being evangelical and drop the term. But I suspect that will be asking too much, and will have to wait for the longer term process whereby their movements, like Campolo and earlier liberal evangelicals, eventually themselves recognise that they have wandered a very long way from the evangelical tent.

  2. ‘Morning.

    I would certainly agree with Campolo’s ‘pointing-of-the-finger’ at and highlighting of the hypocrisy often evident in American evangelicalism: he is right, much of what passes for ‘evangelical’ is clearly not. Part of the problem here is that the label ‘evangelical’ can be used (and often is) to refer not only to opposite ends of a spectrum but everything else in between.

    Evangelical: Hard-line conservative nationalism, pro-life, anti-gay, exclusive bible literalist with a strong interest in politics.
    Evangelical: Soft, flexible “isn’t Jesus ‘nice’“, believe whatever you like (about whatever you like) so long as you’re part of our community project and like good coffee.

    I would also say that I felt Campolo was clear: the criticism is not that they are not evangelical enough, NOR that they were too evangelical, but that the label ‘evangelical’ has gone beyond being meaningless and become a genuine hindrance.

    His point was simply that he doesn’t want to be associated with the ‘label’ anymore, he is not necessarily changing his convictions or practice; an evangelical at heart, if not in mouth. T

    hat said, I think your main point: that this doesn’t change anything and could possibly undermine further attempts at ‘redeeming’ the label he rejects, is spot on.

    I don’t know what to do about it, but I don’t think debating nomenclature is going to help much. If Tony thinks he can do the job of an evangelical better by not associating himself with that word, more power to him.

    • Clarification. Wolf Paul said;
      “Campolo……no longer subscribes to an evangelical statement of faith in its entirety but engages in cafeteria Christianity, picking and choosing which parts he agrees with. So for him, not calling himself evangelical is simply truth in advertising.”

      Tony’s primary contention is that the word evangelical is unhelpful, even pejorative (in the states at least) and therefore he is better off discarding it. I agree with him on that specific point.

      However I am not defending or arguing weather Tony is an evangelical or not. He clearly believes he is, and that was all that mattered for my point.

    • Dear Mat

      Why have you added “…bible literalist ” to your idea of an evangelical.

      I have never actually met a bible literalist. It seems to me that what is actually meant by “…bible literalist” is simply “someone with whom you disagree. It does seem a bit patronising to falsely call another person a bible literalist.

      • Clive, the examples I gave are common parodies, not prescriptive lists, or attempts at definitions.

        I would assert simply that if you asked a spectrum of non-churched, secular people what an “evangelical christian” was, their answers would probably range wildly between those two parodies. I would go further though and say there is no common understanding outside the church (and often within it, frustratingly!) of what an evangelical actually is, and that this limited understanding is often wholly negative and caricatured.

        To answer your specific question; by “bible literalist” I was referring to that type of Christianity which not only believes everything in bible MUST be read literally, but that it can ONLY be read that way: and to fail to do so is to deviate from scriptural authority. Many such churches restrict themselves to only the KJV, or ASV translations for instance, believing it to be superior.

        It is not about what is right or wrong, or about what I agree with/disagree with. It is about what is associated with evangelicalism, and everything can be, even things that can be considered contradictory and in conflict.

        Thus the term is at best unhelpful and at worst meaningless.

  3. “It turns out rather quickly that we have stopped following Jesus, and starting asking Jesus to follow us. When we separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, then we are worshipping a god of our own creation. The Bible calls that idolatry, and has some fairly strong things to say about it!”

    One of the best summaries that I have come across of the fundamental error made by many ‘post-evangelical’ commentators. I shall definitely write that one down for future use (I promise I will credit you!)

    Thanks for a very helpful article, as always.

  4. Evangelical identity is complicated by the fact that the term functions more as a substantive for some and more as a qualifier for others. As a qualifier, one can be an evangelical Anglican, evangelical Presbyterian, evangelical Baptist, etc. However, as a substantive it tends to refer to a movement that finds its centre of gravity in a sort of para-ecclesiology. Hence, branded movements such as ‘Red Letter Christians’ substitute for ecclesial traditions. When ‘evangelical’ is the substantive, unmoored from any creed or institutional form, it becomes incredibly slippery and tends to refer to a particular sort of vague culture and milieu of Christian belief, affiliation, and practice. People then need to introduce other qualifiers by which to distinguish themselves—’progressive’, ‘conservative’, etc. I think that this is one of the problems that ‘evangelicalism’ especially faces in the US, where this unmooring is far more advanced.

  5. Historically, I would suggest that evangelicals are characterized by their emphasis on:

    1. The inspiration of Scripture as the revelation of God’s redemptive project
    2. The centrality of the cross of Christ as the means through which God realized his redemptive project
    3. The importance of conversion as the means through which individual’s appropriate God’s offer of redemption
    4. The fundamental place of evangelistic mission in the life and mandate of the Church to announce God’s redemptive project

    That is, of course, the take of a British moderate Christian…!

  6. Hi Ian, thanks for another good piece. I think I have probably raised the question I’m about to before, and people have probably tried answering it… anyway, it still nags me so here goes again!

    I get that to dismiss the views of some OT authors about God as mistaken is to risk (a) oversimplifying the contrast between Old and New Testaments, and (b) a cafeteria style approach to theology, where I just pick the bits that I find congenial. (Though just because it *risks* these things, doesn’t mean they necessarily follow).

    However, if we don’t dismiss the views of the author of 1 Sam 15, amongst several instances, are we not saying that there are certain circumstances where God condones mass slaughter – including of infants? We might comfort ourselves that these circumstances no longer apply, but we admit that once they did – and that God once ordered these actions.

    If ‘evangelical’ means accepting this, then I could never be an evangelical. I realise that refusing it leaves me with other problems, but I would rather have them than this.

    Or have I got it wrong – is there some other way evangelicals can handle this text and similar nightmares?

  7. I agree with the first commenter here, it’s difficult to critique Campolo from a UK perspective.

    UK: ‘evangelical’ means broadly church groups that believe in preaching for conversions, with a range of attitudes to – but a high regard for – scriptural authority, which plays out similarly but differently in different traditions, as Alastair Roberts points out above.
    The term has very little traction outside the Christian arena, which is now becoming more marginal in UK culture.

    US: “Evangelical” is a term used for a Christian subculture so prevalent that it becomes significant in their electoral cycle. As such, in the wider U.S. media, it is a generic signifier for a voting block, rather than a label that clearly defined the beliefs of any believers being referred to.
    Hence Trump appeals to a large proportion of “the Evangelical Vote”, when some of his values may seem totally at odds with those of genuine Christ followers, at least from a UK perspective.

    As such, in the US, the term has left its moorings that connect it to church history, and it can be argued that it has ceased to be worth using, as it doesn’t communicate its original meaning, which is actually fairly recent in church history.

    So from the perspective of a politically active Christian commentator and Christ follower like Campolo, it’s worth his choosing to leave it behind.

    Meanwhile in the more secular UK, it’s worth fighting for, hence the disquiet over Chalke’s removal from the EA against his choice.

    All of which makes a UK commentary on Campolo’s decision in danger of commenting on a word that is spelt the same, but means 2 different things in the different languages of our similar but distinct cultures.

  8. Jez makes some good points and raises some pertinent questions, particularly on who in the UK has the power to cast out Evangelicals.

    Perhaps this discussion should really begin with an analysis of how party spirit and division can be replaced by a oneness in Christ and how that can be articulated despite our differences.
    It seems on matters of a religious nature, particularly a religion which has a key book that tells us it hardly scrapes the surface of truth and that God through his Holy Spirit will lead to all truth, the doctrines are bound to be diverse. Even if we accept doctrines as common I am always deeply moved by how differently people then interpret them

    From the beginning it seems to have been a struggle to let the Spirit speak.

    I have some sympathy for this post Evangelical American but the labels he struggles with is essentially a divisive one and it is good he has lain it down.
    Concentrating on the words of Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be ignoring the narrative, commentary or explanation of Christianity we find in the New Testament, it’s just a device to hear those words afresh.
    I have always believed the mistake was to close the Canon as if the work of the Spirit was done.
    That was as remains plainly not the case.

  9. I’m a Canadian, so geographically closer to Tony Campelo than you folks in the UK, but even I am aware that I don’t fully understand the connotations carried by the word ‘evangelical’ in the ears of our neighbours to the south.

    Like you, Ian, I prefer to hang on to the word as I think it’s a good one. I do think, though, that UK evangelicals should be very, very wary of criticizing folks like Tony unless they’ve spent a good many years in the States themselves. The word ‘fundamentalist’ may once have been a good one, but in an age of so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, very few people nowadays want to be associated with it.

    As for so-called ‘Red Letter Christianity’, I think it’s simply a trendy rebranding of good old-fashioned Anabaptism, which chooses to interpret the whole Bible through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus. Well, I have no quarrel with that. I think every Christian uses a lens of some kind, whether they realize it or not. For Luther it was justification by faith, for Anabaptists it’s the Word made flesh.


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