Last in the series “Evangelicals in Search of Identity”
Many evangelicals, longing for spiritual normalcy in the best sense of the word, are quite ready to go beyond obsolete institutional loyalties and to follow more challenging life charts. Desiring the evangelical community to be what it ought to be, they are ready to venture upon more biblical ways. But they will not be bludgeoned unpersuaded into new paths. They are waiting for trusted leaders who will rally fragmented forces to comprehend and carry out the new vision of a uniting task.
Often, unfortunately, these leaders champion their own special causes as the superhighway into the future. Many discerning laymen and clergymen know, however, that a numb conscience is one of Satan’s choice wishes for the evangelical community. Such a conscience reconciles Christians to the pressing needs of the age. To rely solely on already existing resources and on frontier techniques perpetuates evangelical deficiencies.
Fortunately the evangelical movement is not, for all its tensions, deeply haunted by a pluralism that embraces radically contradictory beliefs. Evangelicalism insists and relies, moreover, on the regenerating reality of the Holy Spirit to spiritually enliven those who find forgiveness of sins through the crucified and risen Lord, and it demonstrates much of the moral power that distinguishes a redeemed people from their secular milieu. In our sexually adolescent and aberrational age, evangelicalism fosters wholesome family resources. In a time when for multitudes work lacks meaning and challenge, it can define vocation in terms of divine calling and human service. In a land of greying goals and values, it can stress anew the nation’s answerability to God, who gave it birth and preserves it still for justice at home and abroad. Evangelicals have abundant vitality that, if properly applied, can energize both them and the world with promise and hope.
Yet we often deport ourselves on the public scene like outcasts to Russia or China; we resign ourselves to a subculture if not underground existence. That is the surest way for a minority—and Christians are likely to be a minority in many if not most places—to turn the possibility of underground existence into actuality. Our churches are more frequently cities of refuge than bases from which to invade the secular society that in the past made the Puritan distasteful and is now trying to make the evangelical no less so.
We need first and foremost a fresh touch of fire upon our lives and lips. There is little to fear from this anti-intellectually-tempered age. Ecumenists have become “manythingarians,” Unitarians are phasing into “nothingarians,” and liberals are fading into “anything-and-everything-arians.” Trinitarians have seldom had so opportune a day in which to champion the claims of revelational theism; it is nothing short of high tragedy to withhold a bold evangelical witness.
Perhaps we have too many alien alliances to present evangelical Christianity forthrightly and persuasively; perhaps we have substituted clichés for conscientious conviction and need to reinstall informed dedication. Perhaps television routinely robs us of time better given to serious reading and contemplation and prayer. Perhaps our love of God has paled and we need, in keeping with our own message, to return in contrition to the Risen Lord who asks, “Lovest thou me?”
Some key evangelicals are not even on speaking terms, let alone on learning terms. How does one speak convincingly to the world of a body whose members are indispensable to one another when the arm disowns the head or the mouth declares of the ear, “I have no need of you”? How do erstwhile Christian co-workers drift apart? How do charismatics invalidate one another’s tongues and even go to court with one another while trumpeting charisma as the deepest unifier of the Christian community?
Perhaps we ought to listen in on what our children are saying, those who resist part of what was their evangelical heritage because they desire greater loyalty to Christ and the Word. It would be illuminating to have a major evangelical dialogue that involved not simply elder statesmen but also younger statesmen such as John Woodbridge, Clyde Donald Taylor, Thomas McIntire, Richard Kantzer, Marlin VanElderen, John Walvoord, Tom Howard, Stephen Monsma, Don Wyrtzen, and Paul Henry. We might learn whether in overcoming the polarities of the recent past they are simply rearranging these polarities, whether they are enmeshed in new polarities of the emerging future, or whether they are blessed, as we hope, with insights that assure a better day.
Those who declare that unabashed commitment to biblical inerrancy guarantees theological vitality have the past twenty-five years of meagre production by the Evangelical Theological Society to explain. Those who contend that personal evangelism best guarantees national sensitivity to morality and social justice have the breakdown of public ethics to explain. Those who maintain that doctrinal consensus best guarantees ecclesiastical unity have to explain the ongoing divisions among evangelicals, whose churches have much more in common theologically than do ecumenical congregations. Those who insist that God frowns upon any and all cooperation with those outside our own church structures should honestly examine the fruits of such exclusiveness. Those who contend that the theology of revelation is the most persuasive context for forging world-life concerns must explain the dearth of serious philosophical exposition of rational theism in our evangelical college circles.
In modern warfare, supremacy at sea means little without supremacy in the air; in Christian engagement, evangelistic success and social change devoid of theological truth and power are but temporary and vulnerable gains. Social change without evangelistic regeneracy easily capitulates to radical excesses or unexpected reversion; theological profundity without evangelistic compassion spawns arid ecclesiastical introversion. We are fighting in the modern world with seriously impaired strength if we think that even at the human level the evangelical cause depends mainly on the evangelist or the theologian or the social activist per se, and does not involve a three-pronged approach.
While we supposed leaders champion our special interests and assure our followers that the evangelical prospect was never brighter because of what we represent, more and more discerning Christians are asking what has happened to comprehensive, coordinated leadership that stimulates not only evangelical initiative but also evangelical reconciliation. It is time that the evangelical movement sees itself for what it is: a lion on the loose that no one today seriously fears.
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