Who Speaks for Evangelicals?
Do Christians even need a unified voice?

One of the advantages of being Catholic is that, whether you agree or not, at least you know who speaks for you. When a controversial subject needs to be discussed, there are vehicles and forums to help it get a hearing with the right people around the table.

Who coordinates the discussion for evangelicals? When we have difficult issues to ponder, who makes sure they get talked about by the right voices, with conviction and civility?

I think it was Mark Noll who wrote that at one time you could pretty much define a person's relationship to evangelicalism by how they would respond to the name Billy Graham. There was a pretty clear sense—not just of what evangelicalism stood for—but that its core leaders and organizations were tied together by a thick strand of overlapping relationships. The leaders often had gone to school together, done ministry together, or served on boards with one another. The evangelical community had large deposits of what Robert Putnam would call social capital—relational interconnectedness.

This didn't mean that every issue got consensus—or even politeness. We have always had a fair number of cranky characters. But there was generally a sense that the main players around the table at least knew and understood each other.

It's not clear that the players know each other so well today.

It's not clear they're all at the table.

It's not clear we have a table.

Scot McKnight, that thoughtful New Testament professor/author/blogger, said recently that evangelicalism seems increasingly divided into different factions. The centrifugal force is greater than ever. And emotions around factional identity seem to run hotter. (Scot said, in what came as a surprise, that the single topic that will draw the highest number of responses in a blog is not sexual orientation or politics, it's mentioning John Piper.)

One of the reasons for the controversy around Ted Haggard was that the national media often seemed to assume that his position as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals was a little like being the pope of that branch of the church, that he had been chosen by evangelicals as their voice. That wasn't exactly the case. Current NAE head Leith Anderson has brought terrific leadership to that position, in part by maintaining a more under-the-radar profile.

Why is there a decline of social capital among evangelical leadership?

One reason is that evangelical leaders tend—like our society generally—to be more narrowly niched. Some are leaders of local churches—Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and Andy Stanley. Some work in spiritual formation—Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson. Some of them are New Calvinists; some head up parachurch organizations (in the 1940s and '50s, this was a disproportionately large part of evangelical leadership—beginning with Billy Graham himself.) Today some are identified more generationally. Scot mentioned the names that his college students are highly aware of and in tune with—including Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and Donald Miller.

July 20, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 29 comments

Dan Allison

August 01, 2010  6:42pm

I'm satisfied that in 2010, Tim Keller, NT Wright, Brennan Manning, and Eugene Peterson speak for me. Saves me from having to write a book or something.

Report Abuse

Jeff House

July 30, 2010  1:13pm

Paul the apostle spoke about this for us when he said "For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged."

Report Abuse

Sheri G.

July 29, 2010  4:24pm

I agree with some of the existing posts. The first thing that came to my mind was Jesus speaks for me, hopefully before the Father...that is the biggest and only serious advocate I need. As for a voice, we have all been dumbed down and lost our voices...I think we should be speaking up for ourselves more often than we do. Larger scale things like governmental watchdogs and legal advocates for Christians in general is of the upmost importance...if we each chose to use our voices more in our households, in our communities, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our political realms, perhaps we wouldn't get dumbed down so much...

Report Abuse


July 29, 2010  11:49am

Janice, Rachel and Kelly. In a way, as an Eastern Orthodox woman, I stand a little outside this conversation–yet I'm not insensitive to the concerns on both sides. In Orthodoxy, the answer about who will be the disciple who is given primacy of place at the right hand of Jesus has been answered and is very visible on our Iconostases (Icon screens in front of the Naves in our places of worship). It is a woman, the Holy "Theotokos," the "God-bearer" or "Mother of God" (jarring as that title can be to modern, protestant, literalist sensibilities, it was and is a dogmatic affirmation of the orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation as opposed to variations that held that Mary bore only the man, Jesus, a mere human being, in her womb). Yet Mary holds this place, not primarily because she physically bore the Word of God within her womb in the Person of Christ, but because of the great faith and humility she exhibited in yielding to the will and word of God in hearing the word of the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation. Through her faith and willingness, in a very real way, she of all human beings was the one who opened the door to salvation for the entire human race. She was and is through her humility and willingness, the consummate co-worker with Christ for our salvation, and the prototype for all Christians, the symbol of the whole Church. All that she is proclaimed to be within the Church is what all Christians are called to become–bearers by grace through faith of all the fullness of God in Christ.

Report Abuse

Janice Brown

July 29, 2010  10:12am

Rachel and Kelly, Jesus is a male. Do we want to object to that, too? How could He possibly represent us "fairly"? I am a female. But I object strongly to women who are always looking for ways they are not fairly represented. Remember the story of Deborah. She was a judge over Israel. She was the person behind Barak encouraging him to leadership. And when it comes to acknowledgment, Barak is listed in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews not Deborah. Deborah was successful in doing the job that God called her to do - but her most important role was in encouraging Barak back to his rightful role as a leader. What is wrong with evangelicalism today is women are usurping these roles and then whining when men are not the strong leaders they should be. It takes a strong woman to take a back seat and cheer the men on to leadership. I don't need a female representative, I just need Jesus, His Word and a good and faithful pastor to feed and lead the flock.

Report Abuse

Rachel Lee

July 29, 2010  9:10am

I agree with Kelly about the lack of women leaders mentioned in this post - and not only that: as much as some of those leaders such as Claiborne, Miller, Peterson, Bell, Warren, Jim Wallis etc have spoken for me, they are still white American males who cannot encapsulate and express wholly the sentiments of women, minorities or the marginalised, etc... but I am still grateful for their dedication to leading the evangelical church in so many ways

Report Abuse

Kelly Hostetler

July 28, 2010  8:42am

I usually thoroughly enjoy John Ortberg, but what struck me most about his assessment of the spokesmen for the evangelicals is just that: all men. Are there no women voices in the quorum of evangelical spokespeople? Or does the patriarchal tradition of evangelicals continue even in its analysis? Are the "women's events" of the sort that Anne Graham Lotz and Naomi Cramer Overton inspire not significant enough or controversial enough to make the list? I am grateful for the many women who are brave enough to enter into the evangelical fray to speak for me, as a member of the clergy, a believer and a woman. I deeply appreciate what Leith Anderson posted a couple years ago, although it struck me as a little enough acknowledgement - at least it was a mention: Evangelical denominations and churches have been led by women clergy for generations. One of our member denominations at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded by a woman–Aimee Semple McPherson started the Foursquare Church. The Salvation Army has had women officers (clergy) for almost a century and a half. And, another denomination, the Wesleyan Church, recently elected Dr. Jo Ann Lyon as General Superintendent. In other words, women have been church leaders for a very long time–much longer than women have been business and political leaders in much of America; and, longer than women have been able to vote in America. Thanks, Leith. Usually John Ortberg does a better job of acknowledging the gifts of men and women in the work of the kingdom. The mere mention of one or two of these women in leadership would have helped to round out what ended up as a very narrow appreciation of the evangelical movement.

Report Abuse


July 28, 2010  5:34am

We are all one in Christ. Jesus asks who do you say I am? Those who have had a revelation of who Jesus is become the body of Christ (His church) with Jesus at the head. Throughout the denominations are such a body. It is a tragedy that we have denominations as Jesus urged us all to agree with one another so the world would believe in the one He sent. Man has formed a religion out of what was quite simple in the NT church body. The reason christianity is under attack is due to a lack of unity. It is not the RC church representing the body of Christ although it is a well formed organisation with a heirachy that speaks for the RC view. It is the fact they require all to accept the Pope as the head whilst the New Covenant clearly states we are all priests and Jesus is the head. Man struggles to accept such freedom as the world says we need leaders etc etc.

Report Abuse

M Bauman

July 27, 2010  11:09pm

Christ speaks for me... The rest are simply commentators.

Report Abuse

Tim Graham

July 27, 2010  8:40pm

First, I think the question posed by John Ortberg ought to be rephrased a little. I think the question that he is really asking is "who speaks for the evangelicals?" as opposed to "who speaks for you?". That is, there is a presumption that most or all of the readers here are "evangelicals". And even rephrased that way, there is still plenty of ambiguity. The term "evangelical" no longer has a concrete definition in terms of the body of Christian doctrine which is shared by that group. Instead the term often denotes an amorphous self-identified group whose defining characteristics are not at all clear. Indeed, I was struck by the inclusion of Brian McLaren and Rob Bell on the list above. These men in what they have taught deny the fundamentals of Christianity, including the fact that Jesus vicariously suffered and died in the place of sinners to save them from sin and death and grant them eternal life. Any definition of "evangelical" that includes those teaching such things with those teaching the historical truths of the faith is too broad. So, who would I trust to represent my views on governmental and social issues to political leaders, believing that they are faithful representatives of historical orthodoxy (to varying degrees) and effective, educated spokesmen? John Piper, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and J.I. Packer would be a good starter list. As for the (slightly) younger crowd, I'd start with Al Mohler, Tullian Tchividjian, Tim Keller,

Report Abuse
  • Seeing God on the Silver Screen
    An interview with Kevin Harvey on how engaging pop culture might be the best way to share the gospel.
  • Have Stethoscope, Will Travel
    Nurse Kelly Sites talks about her experience battling Ebola overseas
  • Actively Seeking Change
    Daniel Ryan Day talks to us about his attempt to live intentionally different
  • Digging For Truth
    Josh McDowell on the Bible's truthworthiness, the internet, and the future of the church