Chapter 12: Early History
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 13: Modern History
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.
Chapter 14: Liberal Evangelicalism
Liberal Evangelicalism is not a contradiction in terms. The fact that it might appear so at first is due to the peculiar unfolding of Evangelical history during the last century. Now that we are more familiar with some of that history, we are better able to see the living possibility of reuniting Evangelicalism and Liberalism. As this final chapter argues, Liberal Evangelicals have never disappeared. Rather, the term “evangelical” was claimed as the exclusive moniker of conservative evangelicals by conservatives and traditionalists. Contemporary Liberal Evangelicalism is poised to reclaim the term and to assert our place in Evangelical history. One of the key components to this reclamation project is learning to recognize our Liberal Evangelical forbearers. In this chapter we learn about some Liberal Evangelical heroes and look for ways of using their witness as a source of current strength.
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.
As Section V outlines, Liberal Evangelical have a noble past. What was before, can be again!
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)
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.
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 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
Evangelicalism is a living and changing tradition. It is not an entity that is wholly set in stone or reducible to a list of litmus tests. It is difficult to describe, as is Liberal Evangelicalism, but we may hazard a closing analogy. Evangelicalism is a big sprawling family. Like any family it has its internal disagreements and fights. There are regional, ethnic, linguistic, and denominational differences that provide color and texture to the various different branches of the Evangelical family. Many of us have distant relatives that we do not often see, and when we come together by chance at weddings, funerals, or family reunions we sometimes find those distant relatives somewhat strange or foreign. Can we really be related to them? Can you believe we have the same great-grandparents?
When we are gracious, however, we often find ways of getting past our differences and our sense of unease. Making the effort to celebrate children and marriages together and to mourn the common loss of a beloved family member is a good framework for such graciousness. There are many strong families that have cousins and great-aunts, step-sisters and third cousins who have little in common but manage to share barbeque and potato salad at the reunion. We come together in families that include Republicans and Democrats, Celtics and Lakers fans, young and old, black and white. Families that work at civility and generosity find ways of loving one another, even if that love is only ever expressed in the form of mutual respect.
Evangelicalism, in many ways, is like such a family. And Liberal Evangelicals are discovering their lost heritage as full members of the Evangelical family with every right to take up the family name. We are learning that we belong in the Evangelical family, that we have always had a place there. Conservative and Fundamentalist Evangelicals may not recognize us at first. They may work to deny us our birthright and fight to preserve a privileged claim to act and speak as the sole legitimate descendents of the great Evangelicals of the first two “Great Awakenings” and the Abolitionist movement. But that heritage is ours as well.
As Liberal Evangelicals, how then should we act toward our newly recognized sisters and brothers? How might we take up the name Evangelical without denying it to those with whom we disagree? How might we take up the Gospel of Jesus Christ and evangelize without putting down our Conservative and Traditionalist siblings as we do so? Now that we know that we belong as Evangelicals, how might we make the tradition more inclusive so that the Good News of Christ might be made known?
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.