The Death of Moderate Evangelicalism

With the death of John Stott last year and the recent death of Chuck Colson, a formative generation of evangelicalism is passing away. Other formative figures are well into their retirement. Billy Graham is 93 years old, and J. I. Packer is 85 years old.

I lament the passing of this generation for the obvious reasons that any passing of great persons of faith is lamentable. Their presence and their example is an encouragement to us all. But, I lament the passing of this generation for another reason. It is the passing away of a moderate evangelicalism — not moderate in its fervency to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, their unrelenting focus on the core of Christian faith — conversion toward Christ — made them moderate in respect to those who would draw the lines much tighter on what it means to be an evangelical.

Thus, Billy Graham famously worked with mainline Protestants and Catholics, much to the consternation of fellow evangelicals. Billy Graham would also question strict exclusivism (for example, in his perfectly expressed reply to Larry King on this topic). John Stott would take his own exploratory path on the scope and means of salvation, the nature of hell, and so forth. As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stott and Packer, along with Roger Nicole, supported women’s ordination. Most of the leaders of this generation were open, in varying degrees, to evolutionary science and most certainly an old earth. I use these examples because they are the hot-button issues among the Gospel Coalition crowd.

With Chuck Colson, the controversial matter was, like Billy Graham, his ecumenical stance toward Roman Catholics. Along with J. I. Packer and other evangelical leaders, Colson worked together with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to form Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The reaction against ECT, by R. C. Sproul et al., is much ado about nothing in my opinion. The recognition that Christ is proclaimed in the Catholic Church, and is active and working in the Catholic Church, should be a common assumption among all Protestants, even as we hold dear a Justification based upon the complete and sufficient work of Christ.

The new generation of evangelical leaders — those to whom young seminarians look toward for guidance and inspiration — is notably hostile to these moderate elements of the generation past. The likes of a Chuck Colson and Billy Graham would not get invited to speak at the major conferences currently, such as Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. If an aspiring evangelical leader today were an inclusivist, evolutionist, affirming of women’s ordination, or ECT-affirming, they would be accused on a number of fronts for diluting the “purity” of the gospel. Thus, it is not surprising to see Tim Challies, one of the most popular Piper-esque bloggers today, criticizing Colson for working “against the Lord’s church” and laboring “for outright sinful causes.” Why? His work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

This mindset is, frankly, saddening and a wee bit maddening, but that is our future. Goodbye, moderate evangelicalism! Thanks for all the hard work.

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14 comments

  1. At the same time, plenty of people have gone after Colson for being too politicized and right-wing. I wouldn’t entirely disagree (he enthusiastically supported the Iraq war), but the vitriolic screeds by Franky Schaeffer and others spitting on his grave are pretty poor taste.

  2. It does seem like the major evangelical leaders today are less politicized, but more hardline on hotbutton doctrinal issues.

    • Yes, and I would agree that Colson was a bit too politicized. You can scarcely find an evangelical from 1969-1989 who wasn’t too politicized.

      From what I’ve observed, the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd is indeed rather disinterested in politics, with the exception of the gay marriage debate. Yet, gay marriage is a theological and moral issue, so they see it as directly relevant to their concerns. As for the bulk of political issues (economics, legal jurisprudence, foreign affairs, etc.), they don’t really care, which is sad. I’m no fan of the evangelical love affair with politics, but the total disinterest is indicative of an intellectual sectarianism and myopia on theological themes. There should be a healthy interest in politics (as with art, science, philosophy, etc.), but their curiosity doesn’t extend that far…sad indeed.

  3. And abortion of course. On that issue, I would probably tone down their rhetoric some but am basically with them.

    Gay marriage I am less certain about. I am boringly orthodox on human sexuality. I’m a single straight man in my mid-20s with no immediate prospects for marriage and I’m pretty bad at dating, so I would kind of like to find liberal Christian treatments of the subject convincing. But I don’t.

    With that said, I’m not convinced that legalizing gay marriage would be as disastrous as its opponents say. The best argument against it seems to be that some Christians (maybe not churches, but photographers and the like) may be coerced into going along with it to keep their jobs, but I get the feeling the courts would uphold freedom of consicence in that regard. As for the decline in general sexual morality and the threat to the family, the heterosexual hookup culture and proliferation of pornography have already done much more damage in that area than the legalization of gay marriage would. And well, I’m not sure if the extent to which opposing it antagonizes the gay community is worth it.

    I might post more thoughts on evangelicals and politics later when I have time.

    • I am boringly orthodox on human sexuality. I’m a single straight man in my mid-20s with no immediate prospects for marriage and I’m pretty bad at dating, so I would kind of like to find liberal Christian treatments of the subject convincing. But I don’t.

      Ha! Except that I’m in my late-20s, I could have written that exact same thing. If I’m ever to be convinced of gay marriage, it would probably be by Sarah Coakley or someone like her. From where I stand now, I don’t see any way around the gender norms of Ephesians 5 (and elsewhere) that ground Christian marriage. The negative texts (whether Leviticus or Romans 1), where homosexual acts are rejected, are important but not nearly as convincing as the positive texts (Eph 5) where the Christ-church parallel is made in terms of the union of the two genders in heterosexual marriage. In other words, how does a homosexual marriage supporter interpret Ephesians 5? A good exposition on that is sorely lacking, from the queer theology that I’ve read.

      I agree with everything you say about gay marriage. In fact, the whole push toward gay marriage, especially in the mainline churches, is actually an attempt to Christianize homosexuality, i.e., to fit homosexuality into the Christian ideal of (heterosexual) monogamous marriage. This is a totally new development in human history, and it is entirely the result of the Christian faith transforming ideals of relationships and marriage.

  4. Packer supported women’s ordination? I didn’t know that and wouldn’t have guessed it. Not questioning it – just surprised.
    Evangelicals in Australia seem to be much less political than their American counterparts, and always to have been so – more along the British line, if you know what I mean. Personally, I think US Evangelicals place way too much importance on politics – “put not your trust in princes…”

    • Yes, apparently Packer supported women’s ordination but with some qualifications about senior positions. I read this somewhere, and I don’t know exactly what these qualifications were/are for him — my guess is that he wanted male headship still within the church, thus bishops and the senior vicars should be male, while associate vicars can be female.

      • Sounds very much like the position of Anglican Evangelicals in Australia. When I was “seeking” in the 1990s I attended a service in an Anglican Evangelical church once where there were two sermons, one preached by a female deaconess or minister (not sure which; she wasn’t wearing any vestments or distinctive clothing) and the other by the rector, who was clearly in charge and even wore a collar with regulation black suit. Personally, I’m not convinced this position can be justified in light of the Pauline texts.

  5. You said above, “… even as we hold dear a Justification based upon the complete and sufficient work of Christ.”

    How do you think the Catholic position would differ?

    • The Catholic position makes justification contingent upon sanctification, thereby making justification both extrinsic and intrinsic. The Protestant position is that justification is entirely extrinsic (located in the complete and sufficient work of Christ), without the contingency of sanctification. For the Protestant, sanctification always follows upon justification, but the relationship does not work in the other direction. Thus, the cycle of mortal sin, confession, penance, works of satisfaction, then back to a state of grace (and repeat as necessary) is ruled out by the Protestant, especially the Reformed, understanding of justification.

      • Freedom has a role to play in the subjective appropriation of the objective fact of our justification in Christ.

        I’m Reformed enough to not make this freedom absolute (i.e., libertarian freedom), so I would locate our freedom in the complete and perfect freedom of God in his comprehensive providence. If you want more, see my review of Reformed Thought on Freedom (ed. van Asselt; Baker, 2010):

        Part 1

        Part 2

        Part 3

  6. So is it within our power to accept or reject the grace offered to us for our salvation? Is our justification contingent upon us, upon you and upon me? Does God save irelevant of our will?

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