Firstly I must apologise to evangelicals for seeming constantly to have it in for them. Evangelicalism is undoubtedly no better or worse than other forms of Christianity, and within it there are many healthier, more open and generous-spirited elements alongside the more rigid and doctrinaire ones which tend to form the common picture of ‘Evangelical’. I criticise evangelicalism because it’s the form of faith I know best, and it’s the one I’m currently feeling my way out of. Other denominations and streams of Christianity have their share of problems and issues, but I’m not really qualified to talk about them.
In my experience one of the chief problems with evangelicalism is that it tends to see itself as the only true, Bible-believing form of Christianity, often viewing other types as suspect, heretical or even not Christian at all. No wonder evangelical protestantism and magisterial Roman Catholicism have so long been at loggerheads – deep down, they both see themselves as the One True Faith (I was brought up part-Catholic so I can perhaps criticise Catholicism a little as well… 🙂 ).
I too used to think that my evangelical theology and practice was superior to that of Christians from other churches. Increasingly though I now believe that evangelicalism offers as flawed and partial a version of Christ’s way as any other type or stream of Christianity. That doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ or ‘heretical’; just human, like the rest.
In particular there are a number of areas in which I think evangelicalism has got its focus a little wrong, over-emphasising certain aspects of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy at the expense of others which may actually be more important. In true Anglican sermon fashion, these all begin with the letter s.
As I still see myself as a recovering evangelical, I’ll try to use the pronoun ‘we’ throughout.
It seems to me that, whatever it may proclaim to the contrary, evangelicalism effectively puts sin at the centre of the gospel, with grace and love taking second place. There’s a huge emphasis on sin and repentance, and particularly on what seems to me a very narrow definition or understanding of sin which focuses almost exclusively on personal and particularly sexual morality.
Now I’m not at all denying that personal sin is real or important; I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we do or how we behave. But I don’t think the primary emphasis on sin above love and grace and relationship is healthy or helpful, or indeed truly Christian. I also think that the narrow definition of sin as personal misdemeanour or transgression misses the much broader biblical scope of sin as the brokenness of the world.
The preoccupation with personal, behavioural sin also goes with a predilection for law, for a written and therefore fixed and unchanging moral code. True, Christ does not abolish the law. But what he does is reveal that the written law was only ever a particular manifestation of a deeper universal and divine law, now fully seen in Christ as the law of love. To the extent that we love as Christ models love, we fulfil the law. Christ is the source and embodiment of love; to love truly, we must be filled ever more fully and deeply with him, aligned more with him. The closer we get to him and the more his likeness is formed in us, the more do we embody and reflect his love and the more we fulfil the deep divine law.
I’m not saying that we can or should sin ‘because we are not under law but grace’ (Romans 6:15) or that we should ‘do evil so that good may result’ (Rom 3:8). I’m simply saying that grace means that we can stop focusing so heavily on sin and instead make Christ and his love our primary focus.
If sin is an evangelical preoccupation, scripture is something of an obsession. Sola scriptura is the rallying cry of the Reformers that we evangelicals have truly taken to heart. We tend to think that we alone are really faithful to the Bible, but in my view we’ve been as guilty of misinterpreting it as any other Christian group. I also think evangelicals have sometimes exalted scripture to the status of fourth member of the Trinity, in practice often more valued than the Holy Spirit or even perhaps Christ (except his cross).
Again, I’m not saying that scripture isn’t of tremendous importance. It is. But it is not the be-all-and-end-all; it does not and cannot settle every dispute, clinch every argument nor tell us all we need to know about everything that matters. Crucially, it does not present a univocal or unequivocal account, either of history or theology, of doctrine or practice. And anyone who believes that it is textually inerrant is, in my view, just not reading it properly. The very fact that we have four different gospels, which are impossible to unite neatly into a single coherent account, suggests strongly that God does not share our evangelical obsession with literal accuracy; that he even rejoices in loose ends and rough edges.
Instead of putting scripture at the centre and using proof texts to settle every argument over theology, ethics, doctrine or church practice, I believe we must again put Christ at the centre. ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39-40). Jesus, not the Bible, is the true and living Word of God (John 1:1); scripture is at best an echo, a refraction, a partial record of a selection of God’s words, not the full and final account.
The evangelical emphasis on codified theology and morality also often leads to our valuing Paul more highly than Jesus, at least tacitly, as Paul’s letters are strong on worked-out theology and doctrine and codes of practice, whereas Jesus’ teaching is frustratingly full of parable, paradox and enacted symbolism. (Incidentally I think that the evangelical reading of Paul is often a misreading or at best a partial reading – Paul, like Jesus, is more of a mystic than we generally give him credit for).
The emphasis on sound or correct doctrine follows on directly from the centrality of scripture, as well as from the fear of sin and Satan. Evangelicals are people of the book; we place tremendous value on the written word, and in particular on anything that can be codified, categorised or systematised. So we generally favour neat, systematic theologies, propositional preaching and logical, quasi-mathematical models of atonement (see substitutionary sacrifice below). Sound doctrine – holding ‘correct’, scripturally-based beliefs – is therefore seen to be of crucial importance.
What we often seem to forget though is that, as Paul himself says, ‘the letter kills but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). Scripture and sound doctrine alone are not enough. As Paul also says elsewhere, what matters is a new creation; faith expressing itself in love. ‘Without love, I am nothing.’
We also forget that our doctrines are interpretations and extrapolations based on particular readings of scripture with particular emphases and biases, and are often derived by the application of human logic and reason; they are not God’s Word but merely a particular gloss on it, and other readings are possible and sometimes fit better.
The Bible does not present us with a systematic theology nor with a set of clear and unequivocal doctrines for us to accept. Nor is orthodoxy in theology and doctrine the most important thing that Jesus came to bring. He came to draw us – and the whole cosmos – back to God, to model the way of love and truth; doctrine and theology merely support this, and where they don’t they have ceased to be useful.
Again, I’m not denying the reality of spiritual evil, nor that this has a personal dimension or aspect. I’m agnostic on whether or not there is a literal super-powerful spirit-being who heads up the fight against God and goodness, but I’ve seen enough to be prepared to believe that there may well be.
It’s just that I think that evangelical Christians (particularly of the more charismatic wing) often have an unhealthy preoccupation with Satan and spiritual warfare, seeing satanic attack behind every headache and setback and temptation. It seems to me that this has a number of negative consequences:
- It breeds superstition and fearfulness – a kind of spiritual hypochondria; a tendency to believe ourselves to be under attack, which can lead to a persecution complex or a ghetto/victim mentality of ‘us against the world’.
- It also breeds suspicion of anyone else who holds different theology or beliefs, particularly beliefs that we find threatening. It can lead to a view of other people as ‘heretics’ or ‘apostates’, agents of the devil sent to lead us astray. It makes it hard to listen to or take on board new ideas, for fear these might be misleading false teachings of the enemy. (It can also lead to a suspicion of imagination and the arts, which we fear may bring dangerous ideas or emotions – look at the widespread suspicion about Harry Potter, which I believe to be deeply Christian books.)
- It encourages not taking responsibility for our lives, conveniently blaming ‘the enemy’ whenever things go wrong rather than looking realistically at our own faults and issues.
- Finally, ironically it often blinds us to the real spiritual problems in our lives – pride, self-righteousness, judgementalism, lack of love etc.
In the physical realm, our bodies are attacked by various diseases, viruses, cancers and toxins. Perhaps something similar operates in the spiritual dimension of our lives, but if so that doesn’t mean that we need to become hypochondriacs or hygiene obsessives, always on the lookout for spiritual contagion and infection. Instead, as with physical risks, we should seek to be aware of possible hazards, to live as healthily as we can, to take sensible precautions and avoid obvious hazards, and to take specific action when it’s necessary. But our main focus must always be the good, not the evil – Christ, not Satan.
Incidentally, the over-emphasis on Satan also goes with the over-emphasis on sin, because we think that there is this super-being whose main raison d’être is to get us to sin. It also goes hand in hand with the emphasis on soul-saving (below), as part of a theology or worldview in which above all we need to be saved from Satan’s power or rule and from a literal hell.
Many evangelicals see their primary purpose as ‘preaching the gospel’ in order to ‘win souls for Christ’. ‘The bottom line is bums on seats in heaven’, as one of my good evangelical friends put it. To me though, this is a narrow evangelism, preaching a partial and skewed gospel. The gospel Jesus preached and modelled is so much bigger and better, so much more all-encompassing and inspiring than just ‘bums on seats in heaven’. It’s about the redemption, renewal and restoration of the whole cosmos, all of creation; it’s about new life in the kingdom of God, the new heavens and new earth. It’s about reconciliation and restored relationships; about love and truth and goodness and hope for all nations and all people.
Yes, our souls do need saving, but so do our whole selves, our bodies, our minds, our world; the whole universe. And being ‘saved’ is not just about escaping hell and eternal damnation, if it’s even about that at all; it’s about life and love, about being made new, becoming the true reflections of the divine image that we were always meant to be.
Jesus’ death on the cross is of course one of the central aspects of the Christian faith. The problem comes when it becomes almost the only thing that Jesus was all about, and furthermore when one particular view or model of the atonement is given precedence over all others. Penal substitutionary sacrifice has become an unquestionable touchstone doctrine for conservative evangelicals – remember the angry reaction to Steve Chalke when he criticised the doctrine in his book The Lost Message of Jesus. Now I do think that substitutionary sacrifice is one aspect of the atonement, but it’s not the only one and nor is it necessarily the best or most important one.
The problem with elevating penal substitution above all other views is that again it reinforces the focus on personal sin and personal salvation above all the other aspects of God, Christ and the gospel. It reduces the gospel to ‘Christ died for your sins so that you could go to heaven if you believe in him’. It also reduces the cross to a kind of financial or mathematical transaction whereby Jesus simply cancels out our sin-debt by paying it himself. Yes, this is one facet of the atonement, but there’s so much more. The atonement is the ultimate victory and vindication and exemplar of Love; it is the utter defeat and confounding of evil. It is God’s ultimate identification with his broken and wounded cosmos and people. It is the great sign of God’s great redemption, his ability to bring life out of death and good out of evil. It is all this and it is more.
So, sin, scripture, sound doctrine, Satan, soul-saving, substitutionary sacrifice… all perfectly valid and even vital elements of a full Christian theology. But if we place these things at the centre of our faith and let them push out other aspects – love and grace, the wider dimensions of redemption, even perhaps Christ himself – then we may just end up with misdirected zeal for a partial and unbalanced faith.