NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Citing widespread confusion about what it means to be an “evangelical,” a group of Christian leaders issued a manifesto proposing to define the identity and commitments of evangelical Christians.
Appearing at a Washington, D.C., news conference May 7, the group unveiled “An Evangelical Manifesto” and invited other Christians and people of other faiths to engage in dialogue about what it means to follow Christ.
Evangelicals’ primary identity “by definition is theological, not political, social or cultural,” said John Huffman Jr., pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Calif. “Yet we are quite concerned that, because some of the more strident voices in our midst, we are increasingly perceived as people whose primary agenda is political. That simply is not the case.”
In its broadest sense, evangelicals are “men and women who endeavor to live our lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ, our Savior, a Christ who is above culture, is not subservient to any culture, and who desires to transform and serve in positive ways those cultures in which His people live,” Huffman said.
While some voices in society and the media identify evangelical Christianity with a specific moral or political agenda, evangelicals are at heart “Christians who define themselves, their faith and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus Christ,” the statement declares. “To be evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace and well-being that are at the heart of the Good News of Jesus.”
The declaration asserts the group’s desire to distance themselves from two sets of extreme attitudes toward Christian faith:
— “Privatized faith,” which “falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular and causes faith to lose its integrity,” and “politicized faith,” which makes Christian beliefs “the weapons of political factions,” whether conservative, liberal, moderate or progressive.
— The “sacred public square,” which would give one religion a preferred place in public life, and the “naked public square,” which would ban religious expression from public life.
“We are committed to a civil public square — a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths as well,” the statement says. “Every right we assert for ourselves as Christians is a right we defend for all others.”
Rejecting both “liberal revisionism” and “conservative fundamentalism,” the document calls for evangelical Christians to “part company with reactionaries by being both reforming and innovative” but also “part company with modern progressives by challenging the ideal of the-newer-the-truer and the-latest-is-greatest and by conserving what is true and good.”
The manifesto also calls for a reformation of behavior among evangelical Christians:
“We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. …
“All too often we have attacked the evils and injustices of others, such as the killing of the unborn, as well as the heresies and apostasies of theological liberals whose views have developed into another gospel, while we have condoned our own sins, turned a blind eye to our own vices, and lived captive to forces such as materialism and consumerism in ways that contradict our faith.”
Evangelical Christianity should be automatically identified in people’s minds with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ out of which flows a life of service to His claims over all of life, not with a specific ideological agenda, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said during the news conference.
“Evangelical Christians have had this pattern of either giving up on the culture or we try to take it over,” Mouw said. “It is not up to us to win all the victories. It is not given unto us to try and impose our will on a whole society, but rather to witness to the kind of justice, peace and righteousness that is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, working alongside people of other faiths and of no faith for the common good.”
The document was released with the endorsements of 75 “charter signatories” that included a wide range of evangelical notables, such as Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries, Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, Ergun Caner of Liberty Theological Seminary, John Ortberg of Menlo Park (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Rich Stearns of World Vision and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
The group’s website, anevangelicalmanifesto.com, offers visitors the opportunity to join an online dialogue about the document, add their names to the list of signatories and download a guide for further study of the issues involved.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor at Baptist Press.