Liberalism and Evangelicalism both have long traditions of development. When we concentrate on these movements only in their contemporary embodiments, we miss much that is of value. This chapter delves into the history of both traditions and highlights several periods of cooperation between Liberals and Evangelicals and areas of potential overlap and coordination. When we better understand the rich history of both ideas, we become better able to envision a future for Liberal-Evangelicalism.
Chapter 12 is about defining and claiming the terms “evangelical” and “liberal.” But Chapter 12 is also about authority. Where does it come from? How do we follow it? What authorities should we recognize?
It may not always be immediately apparent, but when we fight over the definitions and boundaries of terms such as evangelical and liberal, we are really fighting about the kinds of authorities that we recognize. Unfortunately, we do not always know the full range of meanings of the terms we use, nor can we fully understand our own motivations, habits, and inclinations. We may say that we acknowledge only the authority of the Bible, but in fact we use other ideas as interpretive keys. We may claim only to honor a biblical picture of God, but in fact we imagine God in ways that are more reflective of Greek philosophy or New Age wisdom. We may think that we can stand outside of our culture and view it from a neutral Christian perspective, but in fact we are all embedded in our cultures and to a significant degree we live and think inside the boundaries our cultures provide.
Chapter 12 argues that the present popular understanding of “evangelical” and “liberal” as diametrically opposed categories is a dreadful mistake. “Liberal” and “conservative” are opposed, as earlier chapters have shown, but “evangelical” properly belongs to neither side of the liberal-conservative contrast.
We can understand how this misunderstanding came about by grasping the history of the words “evangelical” and “liberal”. This is why Chapter 12 emphasizes the pedigree of these terms. Once we know where the words come from, we are better able to assess their appropriateness and understand their best uses. An Evangelical is one who announces God’s good news in Jesus Christ; both liberals and conservatives can do that! A Liberal is one who accepts the responsibility of making free choices. Of course many Liberals are not Evangelicals and do not make the choice to follow Jesus. But many Liberals do make that choice. Furthermore, Liberal Evangelicals own up to their decision to announce the Gospel and do not try to explain away their decision as mandated by culture, tradition, church authorities or doctrines. And when they are wrong, Liberal Evangelicals do not hide behind textual or institutional authorities but rather take responsibility for mistakes and also for correcting them.
As anyone who has ever taken over a position in ministry knows, the easiest thing to do at the beginning is to follow the example of your predecessor. If the previous minister preached 20 minute sermons followed by a single praise chorus, then you will rock the fewest boats by doing the same. If the church bulletins have always been printed on blue paper, you will upset the fewest parishioners by doing the same. If the youth group always hosts an Easter egg hunt, then continue painting and hiding eggs on the church lawn. The easiest thing to do in most instances is to maintain the traditions, repeat the past, and uphold the status quo. When you ask a parishioner, a minister, a congregation, or a denomination to change its ways, you are in effect trying to alter their personal habits and redirect social momentum. As in the laws of physics, any change of course requires a tremendous expenditure of energy.
Take a few minutes as a group to name and describe several scenarios that you have personally experienced that involved a substantial change of direction within a social group. The group may be a family, a business, or a church so long as the scenario involved asking a collection of people with entrenched habits to do something different.
Once you have described several such situations to one another, answer the following questions.
- In each case, what kinds of reasons were given for avoiding or postponing change?
- What kinds of authorities are invoked in the name of preserving the tradition? (The previous CEO never did it that way. Your grandfather always did it that way, so you should as well. Well, people expect us to do it this way. Etc.)
- Obviously change is not always called for, but in situations where it was appropriate, what were the biggest obstacles?
- What kinds of emotions did changing course evoke in you and the other people involved?
- What social tensions or factions emerged in the process? Were you able to successfully overcome these? How?
- In situations where a radical change was accomplished smoothly and with minimal social frictions, what made this easy transition possible? Desperation? Bribes? Rational argument? Preexisting consensus?
Most of us are conservative most of the time. This may come as a shock to those who identify as liberals, but it is true. Conservation lies at the root of conservatism and suggests a strategy of preserving the values, habits, and traditions of the past. Most of us regularly practice this mild form of conservatism as we frequent the same cafe each day, consistently order our favorite sandwich, talk to our closest friends, listen to the same TV and radio programs, or follow any number of well established personal habits. Political and social conservatism takes this basic conservatism a step further and makes it intentional. It works to preserve not merely our personal habits but our social customs, cultural and economic hierarchies, religious institutions, and government policies.
Conservatism works to maintain the present order. This makes good sense when we consider that there is much about the present order that is good and should be preserved. Liberals recognize that there is frequently much of value in the past. and the present, that should be cherished, but liberals work to make the decision about what to preserve and what to change a free decision. Therefore, in many circumstances liberals will look to change something about the status quo that conservatives would like to preserve. Most often, what liberals want to change is the limitations placed on who is allowed to participate in our cultural, religious, social, economic, and political systems. Sometimes this liberal tendency toward a more inclusive society comes up against the hard conservatism of ideology and economic interests. More often, liberalism must confront the broad but non-ideological conservatism of persistent habits, entrenched traditions, and subtle biases that we all have.
When evangelicals set out to do what they do best, announcing God’s good news in Jesus Christ, who should they announce it to and how should they announce it?
Liberal evangelicals insist that the good news is for everyone. But at one time liberals had to fight for this point. Liberal evangelicals insist that all Christians should announce the good news. But liberals are still fighting for the rights of many Christians to share their testimony. Liberal evangelicals insist that the good news of Jesus Christ cannot be locked up inside a particular doctrinal scheme – “hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine!” But liberals are still fighting to change the status quo that confines the Gospel and interprets it along narrowly traditional lines.
The previous exercise asked you to discuss scenarios in which social change was achieved or attempted and the ways in which this change was brought about. What might we learn from the examples in that exercise about the challenges that liberal evangelicals face?
Liberal evangelicals face an uphill battle whenever they seek to advance a progressive agenda in part because they must ask other evangelicals to risk changing their traditions and habits to accommodate new people and new ideas. These changes are seldom easy to make. What new insights or ideas emerged from the earlier exercise that might make such changes easier? What kinds of arguments would you make to people of good will who are hesitant to change what has worked so well for them in the past?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Homework this week is very straightforward. It is a matter of verification. Check out the etymology (that is the linguistic history) of the words “liberal” and “evangelical” presented in Chapter 12 of Lost. Confirm that the account furnished there is correct. Try to add new details if you can. Make notes on your findings and bring them along to your study session.
Religion Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
Your homework for today was to confirm the etymological and historical analysis of the words “liberal” and “evangelical” that is offered in Chapter 12 of Lost Share your findings with your study group. Make a note of any additional details that you came across. Then discuss the following questions among yourselves.
- Is the history of these words surprising to you?
- Is there a difference between your preliminary gut reaction to these words and your response to them after thoughtful reflection and learning about their history?
- Does knowing the history of the words make you more comfortable claiming them as labels for your own faith journey?
Bible Reading: Ephesians 2
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,
2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –
9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)
12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,
16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household,
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
One of the constant themes throughout the letters of the New Testament is that in Christ the old boundaries are overcome. Sadly we know that this was more often an ideal than a reality on the ground and in the churches. As the church grew and began to attract more affluent converts, more of the old social distinctions entered the churches. Slaves were treated differently than freed people, men and women were not equals, and the distinction between rich and poor soon found a place in Christian worship. But in the first century of the church, when the books of the New Testament were being written, the ideal of perfect unity was difficult to attain.
In this second chapter of Ephesians we catch a glimpse of the radical joy that some early Christians must have felt at the possibility of a Church in which the whole body of Christ “is joined together and rises to become a holy temple.” The architectural metaphor of the final verses is mixed with a narrative of immigration – a narrative many in the Roman world would have been familiar with. The foreigner, who was once a legal outsider despite geographical location, has been welcomed in through the death of Christ. The author of Ephesians is stressing the need, not only for strong native stones in the building of God’s dwelling, but also for the import and inclusion of exotic timbers. Just as the temple in Jerusalem included cedars from Lebanon, so too will the church of God need those who were once foreigners but are now people of God.
“I don’t know, but I just trust my gut on this thing. It doesn’t seem right.”
Taylor thought for a bit about how to respond to his friend’s comment. After almost 50 years of friendship he knew Peter to be a thoughtful and generous person, so he was a little surprised at his reaction to the news. Earlier that morning the senior minister had announced that the hiring committee had chosen a candidate to become the church’s new director of Sunday School programs. To the surprise of many in the congregation they had picked a man.
Peter continued, “I just don’t see why the committee had to make such a political choice. It’s almost like they weren’t satisfied that we have a female senior minister, now they have to really prove the point.”
After thinking for another moment Taylor responded. “Pete, maybe he was just the best candidate for the job. I’ve seen the guy’s resume, he’s certainly qualified.”
“That’s exactly my point,” Peter went on. “Why is this qualified guy so interested in teaching kids. It just doesn’t feel right. Don’t you think it’s weird?”
“Yes Pete, I do think it’s weird. I agree. But I’m not willing to let my gut reaction make the final decision. Six years ago my gut told me that it was wrong to bring in a woman to be our senior minister, and she’s turned out to be great. So, I guess I just don’t trust my gut as much as I used to.”
Pete answered quickly, “It’s just all getting to be too much. When you put all the changes together and all of the new people, it’s just too much. I feel like I’m losing my church.”
“Well maybe that’s why I’m not so worried about the new hire,” Taylor answered. “I’ve learned over the last few years that it’s not just my church. Pete, we’ve both got grandkids now. Twenty years from now if we’re still around, do we really want them running the church based on the gut reactions of two old guys like us? Should they come running to us to see if we think things feel right?”
“I see your point Taylor, but when I joined this church under the leadership of Rev. James Knox, I never thought I’d live to see the day when a woman would be the senior minister and a man would run Sunday School.”
“Well Pete, I’m glad we lived to see it. It’s better than the alternative.”
Change is hard on almost everyone. As creatures of habit we tend toward the safety of repetition. As social creatures we build institutions that operate with considerable social momentum to sustain themselves. Venerable institutions and long established habits may be the hardest to challenge and overcome precisely because they have proven themselves over the years. Change as a mere slogan and change merely for the sake of novelty are not necessarily good things. As liberal evangelicals committed to sharing the radically inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, we must embrace change whenever we see new opportunities for sharing the good news in a more inclusive fashion.
As chapter 12 of Lost mentions, Conservatism and Liberalism may be diametrically opposed to one another, but Evangelical and Liberal are not necessarily so. In fact, Evangelicals have been most successful in forwarding the Gospel when they have acted as, and in cahoots with, Liberals over the past centuries. In the movement for women’s suffrage many Evangelicals acted as Liberals to allow women equal voices in elections. As abolitionists many Evangelicals acted as Liberals to push for the emancipation of slaves. Many of the darkest parts of Evangelical history have involved Evangelicals “following their guts” and working alongside Conservatives to preserve the status quo. Most notably, many American Evangelicals were so committed to the “old ways” that when public schools were integrated in the 1960s and 1970s they removed their children and put them in the newly founded Christian schools.
Taylor and Peter, from the dialogue above, find themselves worshiping in a congregation that has to some degree passed them by. Their favorite hymns are not as popular on Sunday mornings and the sermons now frequently make reference to cultural phenomena with which Taylor and Peter are unfamiliar. It’s an adjustment for both men, but both of them, to some degree, realize that their situation is inevitable. Each generation must work to make the Gospel intelligible in its own language. Luckily Pete and Taylor have one another to commiserate with, and are helped considerably by a good sense of humor.
In the dialogue above Peter mentions that the new staffing situation “just doesn’t seem right” to him, and Taylor agrees that the situation feels weird to him. However, for Taylor this gut reaction is less important.
- What does Taylor say about the importance he places on his own gut reactions? What do you think of his strategy?
- Where do our gut reactions and social instincts come from?
- Can they be changed?
- Under what circumstances should we seek to change them?
- What criteria might we use to critique our gut reactions and conservative instincts?
Over the course of a lifetime many of us are lucky enough to encounter people or situations that change our basic attitudes, alter our habits and expectations, and shatter our conservative instincts. If you have had such an encounter, consider sharing it with the group.
For Further Thought
In many circles Evangelicals are known not just as conservatives but as know-it-alls and as condescending Bible thumpers. At times Evangelicals have acted more like the religious authorities that Jesus condemned than like Jesus. We need to own up to this aspect of our history. But there is nothing inherently conservative about the drive to share the Gospel that should cause us to shy away from innovation, new social forms, and liberal inclusiveness.
One challenge that we may need to overcome is tied to the term “born again.” As born again believers, Evangelicals have new life in Christ, but this should not be confused with a state of perfection or inerrancy. Some Evangelical traditions have fought for decades over Christian perfection, sanctification, and the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian living. But no responsible Evangelical church suggests that, having been born again, Evangelicals no longer make mistakes. Our history is too replete with our own errors to allow us to claim the mantle of inerrancy. No, Evangelicals are just as sinful and prone to error as everyone else.
When we see that our past is thoroughly tainted with our own failings, when we note that Evangelicals fought both for and against the abolition of slavery and on both sides of the struggle for civil rights, when we note the meanness and vitriol that characterizes so much of the public face of Evangelicalism, we cannot make the conservative mistake of trying to preserve old forms and habits. Being born again is not a license to stop responding to new needs and to cease reforming ourselves when we see problems. The real potential in Liberal Evangelicalism is that Liberalism encourages us to be born again, and again, and again.
Thank you God for giving us new life in Jesus. Thank you also for giving us a mission, for calling us to share your gift of love with the world.
Grant us God the strength to share the Good News in our words and deeds with everyone we meet. Grant us also the wisdom and grace to know how best to share your Gospel.
We thank you God for making us unfinished so that we might be continually fashioned and refashioned as we struggle with your call to engage your world. Teach us to respond with love, even when our instinct might be hatred. Teach us to open ourselves to new people, when our instinct might be to close ourselves off. Teach us to go forth and share, when our instinct might be to stay home and hide. Make us bold, but humble. Make us meek, but courageous. Make us strong, but mild.
Lord God you have changed our lives. Continue to stretch our minds and soften our hearts.