Why do many people not like evangelicals?

Evangelicals are much nicer than people think
If you bump into one then your heart shouldn’t really sink
They’re really lovely guys
Who just aren’t keen on compromise
So change the subject if doctrinal issues should arise…

Thus begins a jaunty little ukelele calypso I’ve been working on. The first line repeats each time, getting progressively more qualified until it ends up ‘(Most) evangelicals are (mostly) nicer than (most) people think (most of the time)’. Which isn’t fair, but might be a little bit funny, perhaps – so that makes it okay, right?

Okay, much as it galls me to, I must admit I’ve been guilty of anti-evangelical bias in my thinking and in this blog. There are reasons for this, but I’d like if possible to take a slight step back from that now, apologise for hurt caused and try for a slightly more positive and balanced position. That’s not to exclude legitimate critiquing, but I’ll try to avoid cheap shots and carping. Mostly.

The caricature and the reality

I’ve tended to caricature evangelicals as lacking in imagination and humour, as ploddingly literal, embarrassingly earnest, Pharisaically fun-hating. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s all too easy for liberals, progressives and Anglo-Catholics to dismiss all evangelicals (unfairly) as sanctimonious, self-righteous, sin-obsessed, po-faced, puritanical, pious, homophobic and a whole bunch of other things we  don’t like, and which in reality most evangelicals aren’t like.

When we think of evangelicals it’s often the more vocal ultra-conservatives, über-Calvinists and fundamentalists who come to mind. But evangelicalism is a far broader church than that. There are progressive evangelicals, open evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals and contemplative evangelicals. There are evangelicals who support gay marriage and female ordination. There are evangelicals who accept evolution, evangelicals who don’t believe in a literal hell, evangelicals who question biblical inerrancy. There are even evangelical universalists.

There are extremely intelligent and deep-thinking evangelicals (think Tom Wright for starters); evangelicals who understand science, do nuance and get metaphor. There are open-minded and generous-spirited evangelicals, like the late John Stott. And there are deeply compassionate evangelicals who work their hardest to make the world a better place for everyone to live in. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was famously an evangelical, and Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis are contemporary examples of progressive evangelicals with a passionately strong social conscience.

But are these not just the exceptions? I don’t believe so. I could list plenty more names, but more important are the many ordinary evangelicals I know personally who are for the most part kind, intelligent, good-humoured people – however much I may disagree with aspects of their theology.

So why do a lot of people – including other Christians, and including me – often dislike or misrepresent evangelicals, or feel that they’re fair game for mockery?

The Bible and bigotry

Probably one of the chief reasons evangelicals get a bad press is the perception that they hold bigoted, antediluvian views and beliefs – at least, views that look that way to anyone steeped in the values of modern liberal western culture. For example, we assume that evangelicals are fairly likely to oppose gay marriage and female ordination.

But that isn’t the case for all evangelicals, by any means. And where it is, that’s often not because evangelicals really want to hold these views – they simply feel they have to, because that’s what they’re convinced the Bible says and they believe the Bible to be God’s written Word and final authority.

But of course the Bible wasn’t written in or to a modern liberal western society. Plenty of stuff in the Bible is pretty repugnant to many of us now, and that (often unfairly) rubs off on those who feel they must defend the Bible, align themselves with it and try to live by its teachings.

Not really homophobic?

So I suspect that the majority of evangelicals probably aren’t significantly more homophobic or misogynist than the rest of us (a few may be). The difference is that they’re often sure that the Bible – God’s Word as they see it – unequivocally prohibits same-sex relationships and female leadership. So whether they like it or not, they feel they have no choice but to follow that line if they’re to remain obedient to God.

But there really is a difference between believing homosexual intercourse to be prohibited and being homophobic. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, and can be hard to spot if you’re feeling hurt or excluded by a group who consider any expression of your sexuality to be wrong.

But take the example of shopping or working on a Sunday. Many evangelicals used to consider this prohibited (fewer do now). The plot of Chariots of Fire hinges on Eric Liddle refusing to compete on a Sunday. Yet evangelicals didn’t once a week suddenly hate, fear or despise shopping or work or any of the temporarily prohibited things; they simply didn’t do them. And the same kind of distinction applies to many evangelicals’ views of homosexual practice – forbidden, not (necessarily) hated.

Hell and exclusivism

Then of course there are all the other repugnant ‘biblical’ doctrines – hell for example.

Again, many evangelicals feel that they have to believe in the doctrine of a literal hell of eternal conscious torment, because they’re sure that’s what the Bible teaches. I suspect that few evangelicals are really happy or comfortable with this belief, but again they feel they have no choice. But because we hate or fear the doctrine, many of us also feel some repugnance towards those who hold it.

What perhaps makes it worse is that evangelicals also often believe that this hell is the inevitable ultimate destination for all non-Christians, as they’re convinced of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel – that only those who submit their lives to Christ are saved. And of course this is pretty off-putting to those on the outside. I have at least one non-Christian friend who (rightly or wrongly) felt judged and condemned by the evangelical Christians at her university. I suspect she misunderstood them, but if so it’s an easy mistake to make.

Those of us who aren’t evangelical can sometimes feel looked down on, excluded or dismissed by (some) evangelicals. And evangelicals can sometimes seem arrogant in their certainty; unwilling to listen because they know they’re right because the Bible says so. Again, I don’t think this is entirely fair to most evangelicals, but it can feel that way at times.

But I’d also say that where a few (usually conservative) evangelicals really are arrogant or exclusivist, that’s often simply out of fear. They fear straying from the Only Right Path and so being damned; they fear associating with ‘heretics’ and ‘sinners’ in case that leads them astray. It’s not an enviable place to be; such as these deserve our compassion not our hate.

Creationism

Finally, evangelicals’ adherence to the Bible can sometimes lead them to positions which just seem silly to the rest of us and make them a laughing stock. Creationism – particularly Young Earth Creationism – is a prime example. For the secular world (and for many Christians now), evolution has long since won the fight and any who continue to deny it are, well, dinosaurs. But for some evangelicals, the Bible simply must be defended; nothing less than God’s perfect Word is at stake.

However, an increasing number of evangelicals, particularly scientifically-literate younger ones, don’t hold strictly to Creationism any longer. The Cambridge immunobiologist Denis Alexander is a prominent evangelical proponent of evolution, and he’s far from alone.

So a good number of evangelicals are prepared to re-interpret the Bible in the light of other evidence, whether it be historically on the issue of slavery like Wilberforce, or currently on issues like homosexuality, gender roles, evolution or the doctrine of hell.

And crucially, many evangelicals are much better than their theology. Even those who hold beliefs we strongly dislike or disagree with are often personally kind, decent and likeable people. It’s not our theology and beliefs that matter most in the end or that truly define us, but rather our humanity and how we treat each other.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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23 Responses to Why do many people not like evangelicals?

  1. Alfiethedog says:

    Delighted to see you blogging again. I think the key paragraph is your last: many evangelicals are (if you pardon the expression) a helluva lot nicer than their theology. In many ways I think the problem lies with the rather authoritarian (and damagingly male-dominated) leadership style that evangelical approaches often seem to attract. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve been told by a potentially lovely evangelical that ‘the Bible says’ something it doesn’t, I’d be a rich man (sorry, labrador). I’m struck by the Gospels’ not infrequent insistence that Jesus opened the scriptures to people – and that many preachers tend to encourage their congregations actually to close them.n

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    • Greetings, most noble Alfie! May your coat grow ever glossier and more golden.

      I attended my parents’ properly evangelical church yesterday. The service and in particular the sermon (predictably about preaching the gospel) largely left me cold, but the people who came and spoke to me were by contrast friendly and warm. It’s an odd dichotomy.

      But I suspect it’s probably good for my soul to be part of an evangelical service occasionally! As it also is to partake in/of the High Church Anglican services that Joel choristers for, to horribly verbify a noun. Oh, and again.

      By the way, hugely enjoyed ‘Acts & Omissions’ and now enthusiastically embarking on the sequel.

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      • Alfiethedog says:

        … and to split an infinite (if I may be so full of the spirit of grace and forgiveness as to point out such a thing).

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        • Alfiethedog says:

          Hoist by my own spell CV Becker (my device’s version of ‘spellchecker’. Same device that, last week, caused me to address a person called Sue as ‘Sir’ and to suggest to someone that he might ‘defect’ an opponent’s ire. Rather than deflecting it. At least it didn’t turn to ‘defecate’. Spellchecker’ are of course not ‘of God’, but maybe they’re a kind of twenty-first century cyber-equivalent of Cockney rhyming slang?

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          • I wouldn’t even have noticed had you not pointed it out! I like the idea of splitting an infinite. I feel sure there’s a theological lesson in there somewhere.

            On a more serious note, another thought about evangelicalism did occur to me following my church experience on Sunday. It seems to me that evangelicals often feel that it’s Them vs. The World; that they alone are representing Christ’s Truth in a hostile world that is fundamentally opposed to God. And if people misunderstand and misrepresent them, that is what they expect – it is persecution that proves they are truly following the Lord. Which leads to a vicious circle – the more they are against everyone else, and the more of a beleaguered minority they are, the more they feel they are right and must keep fighting, making a valiant stand for Christ. Again, this doesn’t apply to all, but I think it’s an easy trap to fall into.

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            • Alfiethedog says:

              Indeed – and in many ways it’s based on a theologically faulty view of the world outside the church, in which the very real and potent work of the Holy Spirit tends to be in practice ignored. So you end up sometimes with the dangerous mixture of entitlement, arrogance, fear and a lack of imagination, as encapsulated most eloquently by a church near us, which proclaims in large letters ‘the Holy Spirit is welcome here’ ( but not, presumably, in the surrounding area).

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            • Hmm, that’s an interesting and rather complex one… I need to think that through a bit before committing to print!

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            • Hello again Alfie. Your last point has given me much pause (no, I didn’t say paws)…

              For on the one hand, I do very much believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active in all sorts of ways outside the church – which is a source of hope and joy to me. Yet on the other, it does seem to me that there may be some differences in the nature or quality of the Spirit’s presence and activity within and without the church.

              So if I were within a more High Anglican tradition, I might say that the Spirit was specially present or particularly manifest within the church’s sacraments. And within the charismatic tradition that I still have some remaining ties with, I might say that there are special gifts or outpourings of the Spirit that are particularly (though not exclusively) manifest within the body of Christ.

              That’s certainly been my own experience. I don’t believe that God is ever limited to the church or to our meetings or rites or doctrines. But I think I do believe that he may often be specially present within the community of those who actively seek him, in whatever form that may take.

              And I do believe that we can legitimately ask him to ‘come’, though in a broader sense he is already there; and to ‘be with us’, though he always already is.

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            • Alfiethedog says:

              Yes, this is certainly fair enough – with perhaps a couple of caveats! First, the activity of the Holy Spirit is, must be, a mystery – he ‘goeth whithersoever he listeth’, and we’re on a slippery slope if we try to predict, limit or even dictate that activity. And, relatedly, there is a big difference between feeling subjectively that the Holy Spirit is ‘especially’ present in, say, sacrament or emotionally charged worship, and making an objective or generally applicable doctrine out of it. He can do, quite simply, whatever he wants, wherever and however he wants.

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            • Yes, for sure. I would say on the other side that just because our experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence or activity is (inevitably and inherently) subjective, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not ‘real’ or genuine. But yes, it would be unwise to extrapolate it into a hard-and-fast doctrine.

              But I probably wouldn’t take quite such major exception to the ‘Holy Spirit is welcome here’ sign as you, though I think it’s unfortunately worded and can see why it irks you!

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        • I did notice the split infinitive seconds after posting the reply, and realised that it would not escape your attention! But as you know, I seek to cavalierly, brutally and wholeheartedly crash through the not-splitting-infinitives rule wherever possible. To Boldly Split Infinitives that No-one has Split Before! (My new slogan)

          I can only hope that we can still co-exist harmoniously despite our opposing views on this crucial issue of salvation…

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  2. I don’t know why we’re all so obsessed with labels anyway.

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    • Hi, good to hear from you! I agree, labels are usually an unhelpful distraction. The trouble is, it’s just what we humans do. We’re inveterate labellers. We just do sort things (and people) into labelled categories, because that’s part of how we give the world shape and meaning and determine our place in it – where do we fit? Who do we belong to? But of course the world and people are always more complex than our categories, and the labels end up dividing us rather than uniting us. We use labels to exclude those who don’t fit our picture of how things should be.

      The Fransiscan Richard Rohr writes helpfully about this tendency. His idea is that for the first phase of our life we’re marking out the boundaries of our ‘containers’, defining where our edges lie – which is necessary but becomes unhelpful if we get stuck there. But the second phase (which he calls ‘falling upwards’) is about leaping into the contents of the containers, enjoying and sharing them, rather than enforcing the rigid markers. But he puts it a lot better than that!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Terry says:

    Denis Alexander . . . Friend of yours?

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  4. Interesting to “eavesdrop” on you Brits (or mostly, it seems) discussing church and theological groupings in your region. I often hear about differences betw. British and American (my country) forms of Evangelicalism, and observed that from many years back while an Evangelical (in the likes of John Stott, C.S. Lewis, etc.). Now as significantly more Progressive, I hear about it more than see it directly. But in this post, I don’t think any significant differences are expressed… could have been written in the US context just as well.

    That said, over here, regional/cultural factors do play in quite a bit, especially to the media caricature (largely accurate, however). For example, the strong correlation of Evangelical with conservative Republican, homophobic, etc., becomes the case largely because of the more conservative and more religious South and Midwest and some pockets of overall conservatism elsewhere. (As with my own community in Southern Cal. Such are often related to concentrations of military people). Another factor here (and perhaps there?) is rural vs. suburban/urban, which in-turn often involves level of education and cultural exposure.

    So all that is not theological at root. HOWEVER, I do believe theological paradigms and broad worldviews play a large role as well. Even many well-educated suburban, professional Evangelicals (who are kind, caring, etc., as you note) believe they MUST accept eternal punishment dogma, believing it is what the Bible teaches; and that a holy God necessitates it.

    To me, this is a massive error resulting from a flawed paradigm. From time to time I write on this on my blog, and just yesterday posted a slightly-revised version of a comment I made yesterday on a much-older post of yours here (if I recall rightly). In essence it said that a God who is truly Love is not and cannot be coercive.

    Traditional orthodoxy, supported by statements by Paul, particularly, and others scattered around the Bible, is built around concepts and practices of sacrifice and atonement. I don’t believe Jesus understood or taught his death as atoning sacrifice. Most people, including Evangelicals, DO see Jesus as “Prince of Peace” (and personally non-violent–tho he is to return as Judge who will send people to hell!!). But they miss that Jesus saw “the Father” the same non-violent, non-agenging way; and the doctrine of the Trinity seems to demand both of them be either one way or the other. I suppose Evangelical scholars would split the human and divine Jesus on non-violence as a way around this problem, but I don’t think that’s feasible. (A great book on Jesus’ non-violent God is “Jesus Against Christianity” by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer).

    Another level of this, perhaps the foundational one, is supernaturalistic theism (of orthodoxy) vs. some other kind of theism (main options being deism or panentheism). Deism fits fine with science’s strict naturalism (basically binary pole to supernaturalism). Panentheism, requiring a more nuanced understanding of God’s nature and of revelation/Scripture, creates an opening for a “third way”. One that honors both a truly spiritual realm with spiritual phenomena (unlike classic liberalism of the Bultmann or earlier American type), and ALSO allows for evolution and use of the scientific method largely unfettered (except when it rules out everything it can’t yet measure or won’t look at seriously).

    The most satisfactory/satisfying (to me and many others) form of panentheism has been developed mostly in the last half-century in Process theology… give it time, it’s a relative youngster! At least some of us “Process” folks retain aspects of evangelicalism (lower case) and its spirituality, while sharing many of the values of liberalism. Check out Cobb, Griffin, Williams, Epperly, Ogden, Oord, etc. (and if brave/philosophical, Whitehead himself — more a scientist/philosopher than a theologian… and raised a Brit, worked in later life in the US. Again, the British “difference” seems to make a difference!).

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    • Hi Howard, as always you raise a lot of very interesting ideas which I’m not sure I’ll be able to do justice to in a brief reply!

      From what I’ve seen, I think there are some differences between US and British evangelicalism, but it’s possible that much of that simply may be down to cultural differences.

      As a small aside, the whole-hearted embracing of C.S. Lewis’s writings by evangelicals on both sides of the Pond makes me smile (and gives me some hope), given that Lewis himself was an Anglican and not strictly evangelical at all. Many of his ideas are quite radical for evangelicals, such as his very non-orthodox view of hell expressed in The Great Divorce.

      For myself, I’m drawn to some form of panentheism but I haven’t got a very clearly worked-out position on it – which suits me, as I prefer my reality with loose ends. And I do really like many of the ideas you raise from Process theology, while not necessarily agreeing on every single detail. I’m still perhaps a little more at the ‘orthodox’ or evangelical end of the spectrum, and I still see a place for miracles and some value in aspects of the supernatural theism model.

      I’m not sure most evangelicals would split the human and divine in Jesus over non-violence, or at least not consciously. But you’re right in identifying it as a troublesome dilemma, which I think most evangelicals prefer to ignore or excuse by special pleading. Most would say that God takes no delight in punishing sinners, but simply that some form of hell (not necessarily violent or directly punitive, and perhaps more exilic in nature) is an unpleasant corollary of creaturely free will and moral autonomy – indeed, that it is required by love which cannot be coerced.

      I hope to say more on miracles and panentheism if/when I manage to comment on your most recent blog post!

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  5. tonycutty says:

    This is great stuff. After reading it, I would even feel more comfortable with calling myself an evangelical once more….I fall into all the ‘rebel’ camps you describe: Pro-LGBTQ, (almost) Universalist, Old Earth, Intelligent design (evolution with a creative mind behind it)…and I have arrived at those points of view through honest questioning, research and prayer. I am simply too honest to not believe like that…and I think it’s all been God-led, too.

    I too am a worship leader, I am walking close to Jesus and still He’s not telling me anything different to believe. The only thing I have to be careful of is developing a hard attitude towards those brothers who do not share my freedom. Losing the love for these people – now that way lies the Dark Side! Shameless plug here: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2015/07/23/its-a-trap/

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    • Hi Tony, that’s great to hear! I’d also call myself ‘almost’ universalist (or ‘hopeful universalist), as well as Pro-LGBTQ and most of the others. And very encouraging that you feel your own thinking has been God-led in these areas. I’m never so sure for myself – I hope God’s leading me, but sometimes I feel like I’m just straying way off the beaten track!

      Definitely agree about not developing a hard attitude to others who think differently! That can be very hard.

      And I look forward to reading your post(s). 🙂

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  6. “It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, and can be hard to spot if you’re feeling hurt or excluded by a group who consider any expression of your sexuality to be wrong.” It’s not so subtle and pretty easy to spot the people raising their hands and praying in front of the Houses of Parliament every time anything to do with gay rights is debated. They don’t tend to confine themselves to private disapproval, your remarks are disingenuous. They lobby MPs, raise funds, write, preach, boycott… you name it, no other group in society militates against ‘any expression of our sexuality’ with half as much energy, except arguably the RC hierarchy.

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    • Hi Lorenzo, I hear you and of course you’re right about the people who lobby and boycott.

      In this particular article I was trying to be generous and accommodating towards evangelicals in general – I’ve spent a lot of time criticising evangelical beliefs and behaviours, so this was to redress the balance a little. But no, I don’t condone lobbying against gay rights.

      My point really was that many evangelicals are not like this, despite popular perception. The quiet and decent majority don’t lobby, preach or boycott against gay rights, even if they also do not support them. There are a vocal and unpleasant minority who do preach and lobby, and I was not writing in support of them at all. Though I don’t wish to vilify or hate them either – in many cases, they have issues and need help.

      I wish you all the best.

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  7. DerekJM says:

    Interesting article.
    But some of this, really?
    Although I rarely come into contact with Evangelicals in real life, living in a very secular society and where most Christians are Catholic or Anglican. (in fact would not be regarded as Christians by the fundamentalists), this is not the values that they eschew.
    I am sure they are nicer than that which I read on forums and youtube and the like.
    Hell and exclusivism are the cornerstones (enter through the narrow gate means them literally) for evangelicals, and Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox are no different to Mormons/ JWs or non-believers.
    Even Pentecostalism is deviant for many.
    Unfortunately this amount of good faith and acceptance is not what they are all about.

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    • Thanks for writing. I can only speak from experience – the evangelicals I know are a mixed bunch, some better and ‘nicer’ or more open than others. Most are (I think) pretty decent people who hold views, based on their church’s teaching and interpretation of the Bible, that others often find narrow, harsh or hateful.

      Some evangelicals don’t really care too much about this – for them, all that matters is Truth (‘what the Bible says’). Others however do care for people deeply, but in conscience they believe they have to uphold their narrow/harsh views, believing this to be the truly loving thing. For an evangelical who really believes that someone is going to hell because they won’t repent of their homosexual behaviour (say), then from their perspective the loving thing is to say that, however hurtful that might be. They often don’t want to, but feel compelled by conscience and desire to save people from a terrible fate.

      So I do think it’s easy to misunderstand evangelicals, though there are of course a minority who are just bigoted and unpleasant. But that’s not unique to evangelicals.

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