The Union of Lousy Evangelicals

A colleague's reference to a Rachel Held Evans blog posting called "Things that make me a Lousy Evangelical" sent me off on a train of thought this weekend. I recalled the first time I heard the term 'evangelical', when I was going into my first year of study at the University of Auckland. My Dad had told me not to join the student Christian group called the Evangelical Union, it was "full of fundies" and that the Student Christian Movement was the place for a good Presbyterian like me. I'll leave the full story for another post, but by the end of that year I had found that recommendation was based on his outdated prewar experience, and that the EU was just the place for me. But I didn't really know what Evangelical meant, until the following year when the Union had a robust and lengthy debate about changing the name to Christian Union. Thus I learned the subtle difference between being 'evangelistic' and being 'evangelical.' The former reflects a concern to reach out to nonbelievers in active processes of gospel-sharing, like Billy Graham rallies or Open Air Campaigners street events. The latter is a rapidly growing sector of the Christian church, where several core values unite believers of quite diverse denominational backgrounds. At that time our discussions mainly revolved around the evangelical view of Scripture, one that takes the Bible seriously as Divinely Inspired Revelation. But later in my reading and conversations I found that there were other central convictions that placed me in the EU constituency.

In 1972 I read Issues of Theological Warfare (an out of print book I still own because its author has the same name as my husband!) and realised that the notion of personal faith as an inward experience, and the practice of prayer which brings the risen Christ into daily life, were also key aspects of evangelical approach. Some years later David Bebbington described the distinctives as a "quadrilateral of priorities" - conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. More simply put these are:
* The need for personal conversion, often called being "born again"
* Active expression and sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ
* A high view of biblical authority, in some cases defined as biblical inerrancy
* An emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And more recently I enjoyed Derek Tidball's (also now out of print) historical account "Who are the Evangelicals?" which traces the roots of our tradition as well as describing the diversity of its current expression.

Technically, Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s. Today, however, the term usually encompasses the movements that grew out of revivals led by Whitefield and Wesley in eighteenth century UK and America. These revivals led the Baptist and Methodist denominations to rise to their place as the two largest Protestant families in America today; an American Research Institute describes evangelicalism as “folk religion” in many states, particularly the South. Tidball's book and others remind us that, especially in the US where the term has political nuances, evangelicals are more often known by caricature and crime than for their authentic expression of Christian faith. "It's now pretty much agreed," states a recent article in Christianity Today, "that the evangelical church mirrors the dysfunctions of secular society, from premarital sex stats to divorce rates to buying habits. Much to our dismay, we are hardly a light to the world, nor an icon of the abundant, transformed life."

All of this is to preface this intriguing list of thirteen points where Rachel Evans - a resident of Tennessee - departs from what she sees as the Evangelical Tradition. In each case I have added a comment of my own.

1. The word “inerrancy” makes my scalp itch. (Me too, because most of its adherents are highly selective about which bits of the Bible they treat as inerrant)

2. Sometimes I vote for democrats (That's Labour in NZ - and my vote here is usually red too)

3. When the kids choir sings about Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, I lean over to my husband and whisper something about genocide, drawing harsh stares from parents (Its a very uncomfortable theme to preach, especially for those of us who oppose modern Israel's strategy in the Middle East, but I have made myself do so on more than one occasion, because I believe God has something for us in every Scripture)

4. I’ve never read The Purpose Driven Life (I have, under sufferance, but its hard to opt out when the eldership you lead has decided to spend ten weeks doing the Ric Warren thing. Surprisingly, when you get past the hype, there is plenty of good stuff in there, and its helpful to then have a shared language in a faith community)

5. I think the earth is 4.5 billion years old (I'm not sure about the exact date -one of the Questions I have for Jesus when I meet him face to face - but its certainly not six thousand years)

6. When we’re stuck in traffic because there’s been an awful wreck up ahead and somebody says, “Wow, God definitely had his hand on us when we left five minutes late this morning,” I ask, “But what about the people in the wreck? Did God not have his hand on them?” (huge question, and one I have blogged about before, but if I was the one that survived, I would still say thankyou)

7. I ask a lot of annoying questions (so did the psalmists)

8. I have issues with authority (so did Jesus, and Paul, and Luther, and Mother Teresa.....)

9. Since discovering The Book of Common Prayer, the evangelical tradition of “popcorn prayer” sends me into a complete panic. (I couldn't go quite that far, I am still a Kiwi Baptist pastor! But at least half my congregational prayers are written down and mostly not by me)
10. As a woman, I’ve been nursing a secret grudge against the Apostle Paul for about eight years. (I used to, till I heard Dr Chris Marshall explain the Sticky Passages in Timothy)

11. I support gay rights (No problem with me in the world of next of kin, property rights and protection from hate crimes; however the issue of leadership in a faith community is a lot more complex. The Baptist church in NZ still has to find that out)

12. Occasionally I have nightmares about Sarah Palin becoming president (so do I, give me Tina Fey anytime)

13. I have vowed never to use the phrase “It was really good for a Christian movie." (Not sure I would ever have occasion to consider that comment, but I have found myself saying "at least they got some of it right" after seeing the re-ordering, augmentation and excisions of Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

(Numbers 14, 15 and 16 would deal with owning a black Bible, rebuking of ill-health, and churches that demand that women leaders have a male senior "for covering.")
Rachel finishes by asking "Do you ever feel like the black sheep in the evangelical family?" I would say, "Yes, but probably far less in good old godzone than you do in Tennessee. In fact in my faith community, there are quite a few lousy evangelicals. But we still know the heart of it. It's Jesus."

To Chew Over: What about you?

We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial and confined.
Now let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
George Rawson


  1. I haven't come across your blog before, but this post interests me, as I'm the current president of the EU at Auckland Uni. I've been doing some googling, looking into EU history.

    I'll be interested to see the promised fuller post once it's up, if I manage/remember to find it.

    We're planning a reunion for EU later this year, probably in the second semester; if you're interested, or know anyone who is, feel free to get in touch with us via the website you've linked; our email address is there. We're also putting together an email database of supportive grads, to keep people in the loop.


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