This is what evangelicalism in the United States could be.
This is what it should be.
Alas, it will never be. Not as long as the Al Mohlers and John MacArthurs of the world have their way.
There is an organization in the UK called the Evangelical Alliance. This is an organization which seeks to bring together the UK’s evangelicals. This is not simply a group of self-appointed evangelical watchdogs trying to lay down the law and draw the lines to determine who’s in and who’s out. Instead, this organization is actually a well-recognized player in the world of British evangelicalism. This organization has some history–over 150 years of it–so clearly they are not a fly-by-night operation.
From their “About Us” page:
We are the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million evangelical Christians. For more than 165 years, we have been bringing Christians together and helping them listen to, and be heard by, the government, media and society.
From Skye to Southampton, from Coleraine to Cardiff, we work across 79 denominations, 3,500 churches, 750 organisations and thousands of individual members. And we’re not just connecting Christians within the UK. We are a founding member of the World Evangelical Alliance, a global network of more than 600 million evangelical Christians, and we work in partnership with Global Connections, the UK evangelical Christian network for world mission.
Unity is what drives us – but not just for unity’s sake. By bringing people together, we are following the John 17 mandate to show the immense love of God, who sent his Son for us. We connect people for a shared mission, whether it’s nurturing a church culture which is increasingly confident in the gospel, getting involved in community action or lobbying the government for a better society. We inform and inspire Christians with resources, analysis and articles about our society, what the church is doing and how they can get involved. And we represent evangelicals to the media, presenting God’s truth with grace and telling good news stories about the difference Christians are making.
We believe the Church is the key to long-lasting change in our country – and that by working closely with our amazing members, we can transform our communities with the good news of Jesus.
An example of what this organization does is in their response to the issue of conditionalism (or annihilationism), which has come up for discussion quite a bit lately at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. To sum up: Annihilationists believe that after death and after the final judgment, the souls of all those who have rejected grace in Jesus Christ will be annihilated and will no longer exist. This organization has evaluated the annihilationist position (summary statement here). Scot McKnight sums up their conclusions as follows:
Evangelical pedigree is determined by one or all of these four items: doctrine (Bible-based teaching), historical (fit in the evangelical contours of church history), ideological (fit in modern evangelical groups), and relations (are they on good terms with evangelicals?). Basic conclusions:
Yes, they are Bible-based people;
Less so, their view is a minority view in church history;
Yes, they are part of evangelicalism;
Yes, they are on good terms with other evangelicals.
Thus, conditionalists are a growing but significant minority evangelical group. They are evangelicals.
Thus, conditionalism is a secondary issue, not a primary issue. There is much unity over God’s final judgment and the irreversibility of God’s judgment; there is disagreement over consciousness or consequences, not over the judgment itself. Hell is real for both. God judges in both. Conditionalism is not universalism. The two sides ought to work toward agreement and not settle for “we agree to disagree.”
Another part of what they do is engaging with current issues and stories, such as the Vicky Beeching story from last week. Ed Shaw, pastor and co-founder of livingout.org, a website dedicated to helping Christians who experience same-sex attraction remain faithful to Biblical teaching while promoting the message that there is more than just one viable script for those who experience same-sex attraction, has a feature piece on Beeching in which he comes at the story from a different angle. While an awful lot of evangelicalism has gotten it wrong in engaging the gay community and Beeching has tragically been a victim of this, he maintains that Beeching is wrong on the morality of gay relationships.
We are simply not at liberty to change what the Bible says about sex being for the marriage of a man and a woman (Genesis 1-2). We cannot alter this God-given picture of the eternal marriage of Christ and his Church (Revelation 21-22) with unity in difference at its heart. Jesus didn’t –despite all his counter-cultural actions and words to women, tax-collectors, lepers and Gentiles –and neither should we. Vicky, and others like her, are wrong to try and change the essence of what the Church has always taught in this area.
So we need to hear Vicky’s story, but then listen to other same-sex attracted Christians who have a different story to tell. Our stories rarely make the national newspapers or TV news, but large numbers of us want to remain faithful to the teaching of the Bible. We do this, not only because we believe that God’s word is good, but also because, in the end, we believe it signposts the route to human flourishing –and to life itself.
To be sure, there are potential dangers inherent in an organization such as this. There is the possibility for it to morph into a group of evangelical watchdogs, or even worse, an evangelical Magisterium. The comments on Scot McKnight’s post speak to this. But I do not think that is what is happening here, with this organization and its role in British evangelicalism. Unfortunately, if such an organization were to form here in America, given the nature of American evangelicalism that is almost certainly what would happen. Either the theological watchdogs of our evangelical culture would hijack it to serve their agenda of drawing boundaries and defining who is in and who is out, or they would denounce it as hopelessly universalist. Or some combination of the above. This is tragic, because we are missing out on an awful lot in terms of what such an organization could do for unity among all the various strains of evangelicalism and for our witness to the outside world.