Michael Pahl has some excellent posts on what it means to be evangelical, issuing a call for radical evangelicalism.
He notes some of evangelicalism’s problems, including its tribalizing tendencies and its grasping for cultural power. One problem to which I’ve given some thought is how it is that many evangelical institutions have unspoken doctrinal lines that are policed every bit as doggedly as those that are explicit.
I’ve been chewing on this over the last few days and I just wonder if it’s the case that evangelicalism goes wrong when it becomes the establishment.
Evangelicalism is more of a spirit or an ethos rather than a body of doctrine or an established church. It’s a movement that developed within established churches that called for genuine Christian discipleship over against a variety of cultural accommodations and capitulations.
Having broken away from actual denominations to form their own independent institutions, however, evangelicals also left behind governing structures, doctrinal frameworks, and established practices. Evangelicalism’s orienting spirit of Scriptural authority works very well within larger structures that give cohesion to communities.
In a sense, then, evangelicals are sort of prophetic rather than priestly. In Israel, the priests were the establishment, issuing God’s blessing on the king and the people. The prophets were outsiders, calling out corruption in the establishment and calling the king and God’s people to genuine faithfulness.
Evangelicals are prophetic in that sense. They function fruitfully in larger church bodies and institutions in which they call for others to attend carefully to Scripture and to follow Christ genuinely.
When evangelicals become priests, however, things go badly. When they become the establishment, founding their own institutions on biblical authority alone, there aren’t any other structures that hold communities together. What fills that vacuum, then, are powerful people.
Is it any wonder that evangelicalism is a fractured movement of cults of personality?
The major problem with this arrangement is that what “biblical authority” looks like in a given institution is defined by holding to the theological perspective or biblical interpretation of the most powerful people in that institution.
I’m still trying to get my mind around some of the sources of evangelicalism’s current shape, but it seems to me that evangelicals often thrive when they are culturally or institutionally marginalized. When they get power, however, things tend to not go so well.
The problem of power–and evangelicals’ craving after it–becomes quite a serious one in light of the evangel’s call to die with Christ.