This penultimate chapter introduces the topic of “The Great Evangelical Split” a historical period when Liberal Evangelicals and Conservative Evangelicals parted ways. Anyone familiar with the tensions that permeate contemporary Evangelical congregations has felt the ramifications of this event, even if they were not aware of their source. As this chapter argues, there are real differences between Liberals and Conservative, between Progressive and Traditionalist Evangelicals, and these differences should not be ignored. However, it is equally important that come to understand the “The Great Evangelical Split” for what it is: an internal rift between distinct factions of Evangelicals. Neither side has the right to claim exclusive ownership of the Evangelical tradition or pedigree. There are real proclaimers of the Gospel in both the Liberal and the Conservative camps. By reexamining the events that precipitated this split, we can better focus on both our real differences and common aims, instead of being distracted by superficialities and misbegotten caricatures.
One of the subheadings of Chapter 13 is “The Great Evangelical Split.” Christian history and literature abounds with similarly titled events: “The Great Schism” is the name given to the eleventh-century split between the Eastern and Western churches, “The Fall” is used to refer to the break from God that occasioned the human condition of sinfulness. C.S. Lewis wrote a work of theological fiction called The Great Divorce in which he describes the willful human refusal to accept God’s grace. Each of these phrases calls our attention to a tragic event that somehow damaged God’s good creation. However, by pointing to these moments of fracture, each phrase also directs our awareness to the fact that God’s creative ideal is one of unity. Division is derivative. Disunity is a debasement of creation.
For those of us who feel lost in the middle of the culture wars that tear at our country and the theological battles that threaten our churches, it can be reassuring to note that beneath each split and schism there is a deeper divine unity. For Evangelicals, and especially Liberal Evangelicals, this means that we can look to the past, not as a golden era, but as a concrete example and reminder of what is possible. There was a time when Evangelical and Liberal were not popularly understood as contradictory notions. There was a classical period of Evangelicalism in which enthusiastic, robustly biblical, Christ-centered Christianity was not exclusively associated with conservative, reactionary, traditionalist Christianity.
What was before, can be again!
Part IV of Lost is dedicated to setting the historical record straight and sketching the history of Evangelicalism – a history that is not nearly as straight and narrow as conservative Evangelicals might have us believe. Correcting the historical record so that it more fully reflects the diversity of the Evangelical tradition and the testimonies of liberals and moderates has necessitated introducing several new terms and categories. Sometimes terminological distinctions are meant to create or reinforce divisions among parties. The purpose in this case is to register accurately the internal diversity of Evangelicalism. The terms are chosen to exhibit Christian generosity in the depictions of other groups. For example, there is no attempt to claim the title Evangelical as the exclusive property of Liberal Evangelicals. Rather, while Liberal Evangelicals have every right to claim the name Evangelical, we also freely confess that Fundamentalist and Conservative Evangelicals also share that right.
In the spirit of not bearing false witness against our more conservative sisters and brothers we think that precise terminology is important. It helps us to recognize our real differences and similarities, and can serve to facilitate dialogue. What is more, when we learn about our history and come to understand the heritage of some of our titles and labels, we can begin to use them accurately and descriptively rather than wielding them against one another as cudgels.
Take some time as a group to look back over chapters 12 and 13 and try to compose short one sentence definitions of each of the terms below. As you write, try to make your definition historically accurate, but also think about the manner in which a member of that group would understand the definition you are writing. Would they recognize themselves in your description and find your definition fair and balanced?
- Classical Evangelicals
- Moderate Evangelicals
- Fundamentalist Evangelicals
- Liberal Evangelicals
- Conservative Evangelicals
Now that we have historically accurate and nuanced descriptive terminology for identifying several different positions along the spectrum of Evangelicalism, how can we most effectively and fairly use this terminology?
Does knowing the historical genesis of the term “Fundamentalism” alter the connotations of the term for you? Does pairing “Fundamentalist” with “Evangelical” alter your perception of “Fundamentalist Evangelicals?”
In much political discourse the term “Liberal” is used as a term of abuse or ridicule. Does knowing the history of “Liberal” alter the connotations of the term? Does pairing “Liberal” with “Evangelical” make more sense now that you know more about the history of the label? Does “Liberal Evangelical” sound like a paradox?
After World War II some Conservative Evangelicals, who wanted to avoid the older doctrinal debates that fueled the emergence of the Fundamentalist Evangelicals, intentionally chose to call themselves “Neo-Evangelicals.” What connotations does this new term have for you that “Conservative Evangelicals” does not have?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
As you prepare to discuss Chapter 13, take a look at the list on page 160. It is a list of doctrines or propositions affirmed by the Niagara Bible Conference as distillations of biblical truth. More than a century has passed since this list of propositions was first affirmed, but many of them remain important today.
Take some time to write a brief summary of what you take each of these affirmations to mean in your own words. You may need to look up several of the terms that have fallen out of common usage. An English dictionary may be sufficient, but you may also find a theological dictionary or encyclopedia helpful. Next, consider whether or not you agree or disagree with each proposition. What are the reasons for your opinions? Remember to bring your list with you to your group discussion.
Religion Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
This week everyone was asked to consider a list of propositions that were affirmed in the late nineteenth century at the Niagara Bible Conference. These 14 propositions were intended as litmus tests for identifying biblical orthodoxy among traditionalist Evangelicals. Eventually the theological impulse that inspired this list of propositions would lead to the publication of The Fundamentals and the establishment of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism
You were asked to offer a short summary of each proposition in your own words, defining any unfamiliar terminology, and to say whether or not you agreed with the proposition.
As a group consider the following questions.
- What terms did you have to look up because they were unfamiliar?
- Were you able to find satisfactory definitions of these terms?
- Which propositions were the most difficult to translate into contemporary or familiar language? Why might this have been the case?
- What propositions did most people in your study group affirm?
- What propositions did people in your study group tend to reject or seriously question?
Frequently, when Christians first study the history of the ancient Church and learn about some of the controversies that lead to the early Church Councils and Creeds, they are amazed to learn how serious many Christians were about terminology. Some Christians were willing to kill or be killed on behalf of a single word. Others were excommunicated over the inclusion or exclusion of a single letter! The words “doctrine” and “dogma” may induce snores among contemporary Christians, but for others the details are worth fighting for.
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Evangelicals of both Modernist and Traditionalist persuasions recognized that massive cultural changes were taking place. For both sides, the truths of the Gospel, the Good News of Evangelicalism, would have to address a radically different world. “The Great Evangelical Split” was primarily a result of irreconcilable differences over how much Evangelicals should accommodate this new and different world. The Traditionalist conservatives argued for preserving the time-honored forms, while the Modernist liberals suggested that the Gospel could be faithfully translated into the modern vernacular.
It is interesting to note that for many Evangelical Christians, even Conservatives and Fundamentalists, phrases like “assurance of salvation,” “total depravity” and “substitutionary sacrifice” no longer carry the pointed connotations that they did for those gathered at the Niagara Bible Conference. Thus, for many of us it is necessary to translate these propositions – propositions written in order to ward off the Liberal impulse toward accommodation – into modern Evangelical vernacular. Thus the Traditionalist formulation has proven not to be timeless, but rather a historically particular distillation of the Gospel. What Liberal Evangelicals fight for is the continuing right to re-present the Gospel to the contemporary world, and the right to claim that in so doing we are attempting to be responsible for our witness.
Bible Reading: Matthew 12:22-37
22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.
23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?
27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.
28 But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.
30 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.
34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.
35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
This short section from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the most frequently cited and debated passages in the Christian Bible. In this passage Jesus seems to be both a pragmatist (“for a tree is recognized by its fruits”) who allows for a positive judgment of those who are good but not Christian, and an exclusivist (“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters”) who offers no hope for the non-Christian. This history of interpretation is unfortunate since it often seems not to recognize the context of Jesus’s response.
In this passage Jesus is being tested. The skeptical religious leaders bring him a possessed man as a kind of litmus test. If he heals the man then he must have Satan’s power, but it he can’t heal the man then he must admit that he is no different from them. As usual for Jesus in such situations, he thwarts expectations and undoes the trap. He heals the man, but drives home the point that litmus tests and linguistic traps cannot capture the power of the transcendent God. In an almost satirical voice, Jesus notes that not even Satan could function in such a divisive and hairsplitting manner. A house “divided against itself will not stand.”
Jesus saved his scorn for those who used the letter of the law to divide the people, those who robbed people who were thirsty for God of the Holy Spirit, and those who manipulated religious custom to maintain the status quo. For generations the people of Israel had been shepherded by God’s prophets and guided by God’s law. They were a strong people. Yet now they were being robbed by Rome and held captive by the machinations of a narrow-minded religious oligarchy, intent on preserving traditional forms and distinctions. Some distinctions, Jesus insists in his comments on judgment, are necessary and valid. There are good and bad actions, after all. But the move to offer definitive definitions, doctrines, and judgments here and now is a usurpation of God’s function as the one righteous judge.
There is no avoiding the fact that Jesus offers some of his harshest words in this passage. How then can we take them to heart? How might we best avoid acting as a “brood of vipers?”
As a first step, we might consider whether we use words, labels, and definitions to divide the body of Christ and enforce distinctions where there should be unity. In Matthew Jesus says, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” What do our doctrines and our lists of fundamentals say about our hearts?
There is nothing wrong with using proper terminology and defining our terms, but do we do so with a generosity of spirit and a desire faithfully to portray those who are different than us? Can any of us exclusively claim the labels “Christian,” “Bible-believing,” or “Evangelical” in such a way as to exclude those who don’t meet our narrow criteria?
Philadelphia, like many other large cities in the United States, has been losing manufacturing jobs for decades. Amid the unused factories and boarded up plants in what used to be a thriving center of industry, a new venture is underway. In the 1990s an organization came in and took over an unused warehouse. There they receive pallets of donated food and household cleaning supplies and sort them into boxes for distribution to the elderly and the poor. It is a large operation, but much of the necessary work is menial and can be handled by unskilled workers. It didn’t take this organization long to figure out that church youth groups could fill this role.
Laney is a youth minister at a Liberal Evangelical congregation just north of Baltimore. Each year she plans a service trip for her youth. They travel to another city, worship with another church, work in the community on various service projects, and build the strong social bonds necessary to keep teenagers active in the church. Unbeknownst to Laney, across town Richard is planning a similar trip. Richard is the youth minister at a Conservative Evangelical church just south of Baltimore. Some years he travels overseas with his youth to spread the Gospel, but this year funds are tight and he has decided to take his youth to Philadelphia for a week of Christian service. Coincidently, Laney and Richard have both volunteered their youth groups to spend the first Saturday of their trip working at the food warehouse assembling food boxes, breaking down pallets, unloading food, and restocking the food bank.
When they arrive at the site both youth groups are excited to see another group of young people. The chaperones introduce themselves and Laney and Richard chat about the challenges of youth leadership. There is more than enough work to keep everyone busy, so they decide to let the youth mingle and work as a single group throughout the day.
Later in the day as they break for lunch the two youth groups seem to have integrated successfully. Both groups open their coolers and set up a common buffet. As they prepare to eat Laney gathers her youth in a circle for prayer and then pauses to invite Richard’s youth to join them. As an act of openness she asks Richard to say the blessing. Laney has prayed with her youth many times, always thanking God for the generous blessings they have received and asking that the work of their youth group would truly serve others. As Richard prays, however, some of her youth begin to look to her with questioning eyes. Not only is Richard’s prayer longer than they are accustomed to, but he invokes the power of Jesus Christ to ward off the devil and protect the youth from the dangers of alcohol, liberalism, and secularism. No one makes a scene, but Laney knows that many of her youth will have questions for her at dinner that evening.
The rest of the day passes quickly. After lunch the youth work for several more hours. At 5:00 they break for the evening with sore muscles and some blisters, but they can look at the warehouse floor and see all that they have accomplished. As the two groups prepare to part ways the youth exchange awkward hugs and phone numbers. Laney and Richard shake hands and heartfelt thanks. The other chaperones help load the vans and Laney’s youth are soon back at the place they are staying, preparing to have dinner and nightly devotions. Knowing that her youth might have questions, Laney ditches her plans for the evening’s devotions and tells her chaperones that she wants to lead the youth in a discussion of the day’s events. As soon as she opens the floor for questions one of the older youth asks what was on nearly everyone’s mind, “So, did those guys really believe in demons?”
Laney herself grew up in a Conservative Evangelical church, so she knows the tradition and is prepared to explain it to her youth, but she also knew that her current church was Liberal. When Richard prayed to protect the youth against the evils of alcohol, liberalism, and secularism he did not know that many of her youth were the kids of avowed liberal families who drank wine and vigorously defended the separation of church and state. Her church loved Jesus and kept him at the center of its worship, so it was Evangelical, but it was a decidedly Liberal Evangelical church. She knew that her youth were confused. On the one hand they had made some new friends and she wanted to instill in them a deep respect for the people they had worked alongside that day. On the other hand, she felt the need clearly to describe the differences between their own Liberal Evangelical church and the more Conservative Evangelicalism practiced by Richard’s church.
As she prepared to answer the questions of her youth, she knew she had to walk a fine line.
Fredrick Douglas, the former slave and early advocate for African American economic empowerment, once famously stood before an all white group of southern segregationists and held up his hand. We can be as separate as the five fingers in all things merely social, he argued, but as unified as the hand in all things pertaining to the common good. The white crowd was thrilled with this notion, for Douglas was recommending a kind of pragmatic unity that would allow the south to recover economically by harnessing both black and white labor, but maintain the status quo of social segregation. Douglas’s idea has been roundly criticized for preserving the separation of the races and seeming to justify the Jim Crow policies of the south. Douglas himself defended segregation as the best way of encouraging the development of self-sufficiency among the first generations of free African Americans. More than a century later we can see that Douglas’s idea was at best a half measure.
Though she might not conceptualize her concerns in quite this manner, what Laney fears is reinforcing an idea similar to that of Fredrick Douglas. She is afraid of reinforcing the boundaries that separate Liberal Progressive Evangelicals from Conservative Traditionalist Evangelicals. She worries about offering a merely pragmatic justification for working alongside other kinds of Evangelicals. She is heartbroken about the divisions among Evangelicals and is eager not to pass old biases and habits on to her youth. It is not enough to tell her youth, “We can work together despite our differences.” She wants to find a way of explaining the differences while at the same time calling attention to the deep convictions they share.
- How should Laney proceed? Where should she begin to tell the story of Evangelicalism?
- How should she present the differences between Evangelicals that adopt a Traditionalist stance and those that follow a Liberal path? Are there key terms or themes that she should be sure to mention or avoid?
- If you had to characterize some common threads that unite all Evangelicals, what would they be?
- Finally, re-imagine the scenario presented in our case study. If Laney had offered a Liberal prayer at lunch, what questions might Richard’s youth have asked that night? How might Richard answer with the same care that Laney wants to demonstrate?
For Further Thought
In 1971 Satchel Paige was elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame with a lifetime record of 28 wins and 31 losses, probably the worst record of any pitcher in the Hall. What these statistics do not mention is that Paige only pitched in Major League Baseball for parts of six seasons. The rest of his legendary career was spent in various Negro Leagues and those statistics did not make the record book. Beginning with Paige, the Hall of Fame began inducting outstanding players who spent the bulk of their careers in the Negro Leagues. It was of course too late to undo history, but they made the effort to ensure that future generations of baseball fans who visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY would have a more accurate impression of baseball in America before it was integrated in 1947.
Why go to the extra effort of examining the past and working to tell a truer and more inclusive story? There are two reasons. First, fans and observers of the game deserve to know about players like Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson who were never allowed to play on the biggest stage. Second, today’s young minority baseball players deserve to hear the whole story, so they know they too have a place in the tradition. When we hear “Hall of Famer” we may still conjure images of Ruth, Cobb, and DiMaggio, but we now know that the exclusively white image is a false one.
In the same way, it is important to know and to tell the full history of Evangelicalism. It is vital that we not allow the contemporary connotation of the term as referring exclusively to Conservative, Traditionalist, and Fundamentalist Christians to go unchallenged. We need to relearn and retell the history of Evangelicalism so as to include Liberal Evangelicals. We need to fight back against the notion that Evangelicalism is a name brand, reserved for those who advocate a narrow understanding of Christianity. As Liberal Evangelicals we need to become historians of our tradition and archeologists of our moderate heritage.
This task is critical for two reasons. First, as Evangelicals we recognize Christ’s call to be a witness to the Good News. This includes sharing the witness of those who have come before us, and we do ourselves and the world a disservice when we forget the moderate tradition of Liberal Evangelicalism that preceded us. Second, unless we want to perpetuate the contemporary myth that Evangelical and Conservative are synonymous, we need to show young Liberal Evangelicals that they can and do have a place in the Evangelical tradition. We need to show them that they are not alone in their moderate intuitions and in their instincts to read Christ’s Gospel in a progressive fashion. When we re-present Evangelical history in a truer more inclusive fashion, we show our young people that they need not feel lost. We show them that they belong.
Lord God, as countless generations of Jews and Christians have prayed to the God of their forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we pray today to you, the God of our moderate Christian and Liberal Evangelical forebears.
We ask for your aid in reclaiming our tradition and sharing its vision of your inclusive love.
Help us to cherish and keep alive the memory of those who have worshiped you and the Gospel heritage they have passed along to us. Make their words and deeds ring anew in our ears and churches so that their example of faithful and thoughtful Evangelism might encourage us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ again.
Most of all Lord God, help us to find in their vision and actions precedent and courage to act as agents of moderation and inclusion as we preach, share, and live the Gospel.