SBC Life Articles

The Evangelical Nature of the Church

Evangelicalism Defined: Doctrine and Experience

A necessary first step in any discussion of the evangelical nature of the church is to explain the meaning of the word evangelical.

Evangelicals are defined both theologically and in terms of religious experience. These categories broadly approximate the Formal Principle, (sola scriptura) and Material Principle, (sola fide) of the Reformation.

Evangelicals are theologically orthodox. We accept the teaching of Scriptures as normative. We believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, His incarnation, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection. We believe in justification by faith, the bodily return of Jesus Christ, and other essential elements of historic Christianity.

Evangelicals also profess to a religious conversion that is described by the phrase "born again" and are genuinely interested in leading others to the same kind of conversion experience.

It may seem passé to speak of what seems so apparent. After all, there is nothing new about this list of convictions. But evangelicalism cannot be rightly understood except as an alternative and reaction to a movement which is broadly called "liberalism" now.

Until after the Civil War every mainline church in America was evangelical in its theology However, slowly at first, the broad evangelical consensus in America's mainline denominations began to crumble under the assault of liberal views from Europe that gradually took root in mainline seminaries. The first attacks were directed against the integrity and authority of Scripture. After that important ground had been captured, the growing liberal presence in the mainline churches extended its agenda of unbelief to such essential Christian tenets as the deity of Christ and the bodily resurrection.

Evangelical scholar J. Gresham Machen, who combated liberalism from his teaching post at Princeton Theological Seminary, maintained that religious "modernism", or liberalism, its more current designation, could not properly be seen as merely a variation of historic Christianity; it was, in fact, a totally distinctive, new religion which desired to retain the 'Christian' label solely for the legitimacy it afforded, making it more acceptable to the uninformed.

Ronald H. Nash, professor of philosophy and religion at Western Kentucky University, has written extensively on the nature and impact of liberalism. In his words, "Protestant liberalism was a religion without a personal God, without a divine Saviour, without an inspired Bible, and without a life-transforming conversion."

Those who subscribed to this new-sprung dogma captured the control of denominational schools, publications, mission boards, and eventually the leadership mechanisms of the mainline denominations. With the success of liberalism in gaining control of denominational structures, many conservative, traditional Christians simply walked away from them, to begin new denominations, or to join with others which had maintained fidelity to orthodoxy. Of course, those departures only made liberal control more complete. It is almost impossible to calculate the damage which resulted.

The revised theology of liberalism undermined serious Christian missionary practice. After all, if the witness of Scripture that men are lost and in need of the Savior is not to be trusted, the sacrifice required by missions does not make sense.

Other destructive effects on the mainline groups are well chronicled. Sharply declining memberships and revenues resulted in cutbacks in personnel and programming.

Nash and other observers are hopeful that theological renewal, which they believe they see beginning, will make possible renewed vitality and fruitfulness in the mainlines; but they make no bones about the reason for the great declines experienced by the mainlines — a departure from the doctrinal base of historic Christianity!

This is the historic backdrop against which evangelicalism became a vital and viable faith expression on the American scene. Early evangelicals knew there could be no real, lasting, or significant impact upon a world which has lost its way without a settled, consistent, and Biblical approach to theology.

Evangelicalism and the Moral Crisis

Evangelical Christian researcher George Barna recently said in a seminar in Nashville, "If I were a betting person, I would bet that we are going to see massive moral anarchy take over our country" This pessimism is born out of an intimate knowledge of, and years of reflection upon, the beliefs and attitudes of Americans.

He says, in a most uncomplimentary way, "The Christian church in America has been unable to stop a massive moral and ethical decline." He cited the following evidence:

A majority of people who marry this year will have cohabited with someone before getting married.

One-third of Americans believe it is acceptable for married people to have an affair, as long as both parties want it.

50 percent of people getting married this year believe their marriage will end in divorce.

71 percent of American adults believe there is no such thing as absolute truth.

96 percent of American adults say they believe in God; yet 45 percent believe Jesus Christ committed sins while on earth.

A majority of Americans believe salvation may be found in either of two ways: through relation with Jesus Christ or through their own good works.

Americans are not only not keeping the Ten Commandments, they don't even know them; 58 percent of American adults cannot name one-half the commandments!

If present trends continue, fifteen years from now, more than half of all children will be born in homes without two parents.

Can it be doubted, in light of these findings, that we have done an appalling job of communicating the life-changing content of the Scripture? The Biblical illiteracy and moral anemia represented by these data caused Barna to predict a bleak future for American churches unless churches help laypeople to embrace a biblical worldview that affects their daily living. He charged, "Christians don't understand the fundamentals of the faith. (American) Christianity is so shallow there's not enough depth to build on."

The "character quotient" of the country is arguably the lowest it has been in our history. Moral decay is the product of spiritual decline! Government programs or self-improvement efforts will not solve the problems posed by a people without moral restraint or ethical compass.

Nothing less than conversion of individual persons on a wide scale will match this challenge. And nothing less than a straightforward evangelical message calls men to such life conversion!

Evangelicalism and Scholarship

Because of the commitment evangelicals have to the Word of God, we are committed to study, and to propagate its claims. It is crucial that evangelicals put forward the teachings of Scripture into the idea marketplace for evaluation, debate, and meaningful discourse. For this to be done successfully requires settled confidence and a strengthening of those "connective tissues" which tie us to the historic dimensions of our faith.

Robert Wilkens of the University of Virginia said, "At times it seems as though the ticket of admission to religious studies is a forfeiture of memory. And that is too high a price to pay. … Without memory the language of scholarship is impoverished, barren, and lifeless, a tottering scaffold of secondary creations in which 'words refer only to words.'"

Evangelicalism, which coalesced in reaction against liberalism, seems to be losing its memory Sober observers see grave threats to evangelicalism. They see evangelicalism "by cultural and secular measures" as a success story, but one in which the spiritual and theological integrity of the movement is in doubt.

In a confused age, clarity is called for; in a timid age, bold courage is required. Sadly, some scholarly pursuits are held captive to an artificial "etiquette of disinterested secondary discourse." Evangelical scholars must not indulge that faux etiquette; they should embody the impassioned appeal of committed evangelists for the claims of Christ, in touch with the truth from the past, and effectively restating it for our own generation. We are not disinterested — we are partisans in truth's struggle — we dare not shrink from that confession!

Some now counsel the church to modify its message in order to make it more palatable, believable, or acceptable. That is precisely what must not be done! Richard John Neuhaus recently referred to a conference speaker who remarked that evangelization today requires addressing "the modem mind" with a message stripped of its primitive origins.

We must not give ear to those counsels! Those who offer such counsel seem not to believe the truth claims of Christianity at all! I assert that certitude born of fidelity to Scripture is the hallmark of evangelicalism, and the key to integrity in Biblical scholarship.

The issue is truth! As Os Guinness said, "Evangelicalism can only remain evangelical if it is passionately serious about truth and theology."

An example from nature illustrates the centrality and dependability of the Word of God.

The one thing that characterizes the North Star and makes it useful as a celestial point of reference is that it does not move in the sky. Polaris, (another name for this star) remains fixed while every other star revolves around it during the twelve hours of night.

Often you will see a time lapse photograph of circular streaks around a single fixed star. Here is the unmoving center of a pinwheel that always points us to the North. It is not the brightest spot in the sky, but it is the most reliable.

And that is what the Bible is — it faithfully remains unchanged — and is the only safe center for our lives.

Evangelicalism in Practice

Evangelicals believe that all men are sinners, and that to be right with God, a sinner must trust Christ alone, through grace alone. This grace of Christ is accepted solely on the basis of faith. Christ's "doing and dying are alone" our basis for acceptance with God.

An alluring deviation from this historic understanding has attracted some from around the edges of evangelicalism. I am talking about the retreat from the exclusivism inherent in normative Christianity, which is one of the greatest threats to any serious effort to evangelize our world. Even some non-Christians see it for what it is. Historian Eugene Genovese, a self-described ex-Marxist who yet clings to his atheism, is one who does. He puts his finger on the tendency of some to deny the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. He said, "I would not presume to tell Christians how to be Christians, but I must confess that I cannot understand how Christians, without ceasing to be Christians, can retreat one inch from a belief that Jesus is the second person of a triune God, the Christ, the Redeemer. If other religions offer equally valid ways to salvation and if Christianity itself may be understood solely as a code of morals and ethics, then we may as well all become Buddhists or, better, atheists. I intend no offense, but it takes one to know one. And when I read much Protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow nonbelievers."

Orthodox belief and theological fidelity, when yielded to the spirit of the seeking Christ, will give birth to truly evangelical practice. A true grasp of evangelicalism will thrust us out into a world in need of reconciliation and forgiveness. We are compelled, on evangelical principles, to proclaim the evangelical, life-changing message of the Gospel to all men everywhere.

Evangelization can only be effected and its results conserved as local churches are renewed and revitalized. That is where the action is! Local churches, not denominations, are best positioned to reach people with the life-affirming, life-changing Gospel. But they cannot do that if they are lifeless, distracted, disheartened, or isolated from those in dire need of the Gospel. Attention to authentic spiritual renewal is crucial. And the Word of God is the key to lasting renewal.

There is a great need for vital leadership in the local church. Barna asserts that most pastors are not gifted with the leadership skills necessary for directing aggressively the work of a local congregation. `We do not have people with strong, visionary leadership," he said.

If Bama is correct, that shortfall must be sup-plied. This is not an optional matter! Without visionary and compelling intentionality, the evangelization of our country and the world at large cannot be accomplished.

What about the denomination in Baptist life? Given our understanding of local church autonomy, how do we encourage and provide leadership without being, or being seen as, overbearing? Rick Warren of Mission Viejo, California, a pastor who has demonstrated evangelical vision and leadership, was asked recently his advice for denominations. He urged them to consciously draw on the strengths of its large churches, suggesting they see their large, successful churches as their "research and development department," and that they should "watch them closely for what is working and be wise enough to use whatever is adaptable," building on them as "islands of strength" in the denomination.

He also urged denominations to invest energy in supporting and strengthening pastors personally and professionally, saying "Reposition the denomination as the pastor's greatest ally — ask, 'what can we do for you?' — rather than `what can you do for us?" He said, "Forget about preserving programs and assume the role of servant to the shepherds. Any denomination that does this will be rewarded with lifelong loyalty from its pastors and heartfelt gratitude from its congregations." I believe that Warren is on target in his assessment.

With a new millennium looming just ahead of us, let us recommit ourselves to the principles and practice of evangelicalism, and let us call upon the Lord of the church to bless these commitments, remembering that He said, "apart from me, you can do nothing."

This is no time for retreat, and no time for a lack of clarity. The apostle Paul's metaphor underscores the demand for clarity and certitude, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for the battle?"

There is too much at stake for the ambassadors of Christ to give an uncertain sound. It is hope that is at stake, the only hope there is for this earth. The closing words of one of Charles Colson's books reminds us of that …

"Where then is hope?
It is in the fact that the Kingdom of God has come to earth —
the Kingdom announced by Jesus Christ in that obscure Nazareth synagogue two thousand years ago.
It is a Kingdom that comes
not in a temporary takeover of political structures, but in the lasting takeover of the human heart by the rule of a holy God …
His rule is powerfully evident in ordinary, individual lives,
in the breaking of cycles of violence and evil,
in the paradoxical power of forgiveness,
in the actions of those little platoons
who live by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God
in the midst of the kingdoms of this world,
loving their God and loving their neighbor.

Thus in the midst of the dark and habitual chaos of earth,
a light penetrates the darkness.
It cannot be extinguished;
it is the light of the Kingdom of God …
(W)e can take heart — not in the fleeting fortunes of men or nations,
but rather in the promise so beautifully captured in Handel's Messiah.
Stop. Listen. Over the din of the conflict, if you listen carefully,
you will hear the chorus echoing in the distance:
The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ."

    About the Author

  • Morris H. Chapman