Labels don’t tell the whole story.

With friends like this, who needs enemies?” That’s what many of those labeled as “left evangelicals” in Richard Quebedeaux’s latest book The Worldly Evangelicals are certain to ask. If he didn’t repeatedly make it clear that he considers himself a “left evangelical,” the reader might well think that Quebedeaux is a “right evangelical” who wants to expose the errors of wandering brethren who need to be called back to the fold. And if they won’t return, they should be expelled.

A common response to the book will be for readers and nervous leaders associated with donor-dependent schools and evangelistic organizations to think that the author is distorting the picture about the particular groups with which they are associated but may be closer to the truth about others. It would be better to reserve judgment across the board on Quebedeaux’s assertions and accusations.

Quebedeaux wants to help nonevangelicals (both religious and secular) understand who evangelicals are, what they believe, how they behave, and where they are changing. He also wants to alert (or warn) evangelicals themselves about where he thinks they are headed and whether they really want to go there.

It’s hard to guess how much the nonevangelical will be helped here, since such a welter of individuals and groups are named and located. The impression one receives is more that of jumping beans hopping around on a checkerboard than pieces of a puzzle being firmly joined together.

However, one hopes that nonevangelicals who trouble to read Quebedeaux’s book carefully can lessen some of their misunderstanding of who evangelicals are. Quebedeaux consistently defines the core of evangelicalism quite satisfactorily: “That group of believers who accept the absolute authority of the Bible, have been converted to Christ (are born again), and who share their faith with others” (p. 7). From time to time throughout the book he elaborates on what this means, so that none of the unregenerate need be in any doubt.

Unfortunately Quebedeaux immediately clouds his definition by accepting Gallup Poll figures that one out of every five Americans, aged eighteen and up, is a “hard core” evangelical. If tens of millions of adult Americans are committed evangelicals (not just folk who are nominally religious or know what kinds of answers they ought to give to pollsters), where is the evidence in American life or, for that matter, in the religious institutions? I think the 40 to 60 million figure for practicing evangelicals that one increasingly hears is inflated. How about some state-by-state and denomination-by-denomination breakdowns of that figure by those who assert it so that skeptics can check it out? When the country has a bumper wheat crop or a season of bad weather, we get specifics that add up to the generalization. Let the boon (or bane) of evangelical fecundity be documented and demonstrated, not mindlessly declaimed.

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According to Quebedeaux, evangelicalism is divided into three “highly visible subcultures”: fundamentalists, charismatics, and evangelicals proper (formerly known as neoevangelicals). The last group is then subdivided into right, center, and left. The book is primarily concerned with the subdivisions of the last group and claims to refer only in passing to the first two.

Quebedeaux used a slightly different classification in his first book, which he finished writing in 1973, The Young Evangelicals (Harper & Row). (See Carl Henry’s review article in our April 26, 1974, issue, page 4, to which Jim Wallis responded in our June 21, 1974, issue, page 20.) There he distinguished separatist from open fundamentalism, and establishment from new evangelicalism (with the young evangelicals of the title emerging as a more venturesome and action-oriented thrust from the latter). The charismatics constituted a fifth (or sixth) group. Interestingly Dallas seminary, which was the key institution in open fundamentalism, has shifted by Quebedeaux’s reckoning so as to be, along with Trinity, one of the two key schools for nonleft evangelicals. In both books, Fuller seminary is the school to which Quebedeaux gives the highest praise, but in the later one it has much more company on the left end of the spectrum. I am sure that this pleases Fuller.

It is unfortunate that the author chose to omit fundamentalism from his recent book, since journalists and scholars are constantly confusing that expression of evangelicalism with other forms. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably, to the displeasure of many. It would not have added many pages to discuss such men as Bob Jones, Carl McIntire, Jerry Falwell, Jack Hyles, and their related organizations. The omission leaves nonevangelicals to infer that fundamentalists are almost as divergent a group as the Mormons. Since Quebedeaux in practice constantly treats together those whom he calls right and center neoevangelicals, he could just as easily have used the term center for all of those who have separatist fundamentalists to their right. Right-wing evangelicals would then be simply another designation for fundamentalists and would more accurately reflect the historical and doctrinal links. Another good reason to have included fundamentalism in his purview is that so many of the center and left individuals were raised in it.

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Quebedeaux says he is largely omitting the charismatic movement, but in fact he does not. Its leaders and institutions constantly appear, sometimes labeled almost fundamentalist, sometimes linked with the center, sometimes with the left, and often the classification is fuzzy. Quebedeaux did his doctoral dissertation at Oxford on the older and newer pentecostalism (published in 1976 by Doubleday as The New Charismatics); he knows the movement well enough to realize that he can’t force it to fit into his right to left spectrum.

This leads to one of my major complaints: Not just charismatics, but all movements and organizations, and even individuals, are much too complex to classify so firmly. Quebedeaux acknowledges the precarious nature of labeling, but says it is because people move around or because they “will resist the labels we choose” (p. 27). I identify with those whom Quebedeaux warns “will repudiate labels altogether,” at least with the spirit and rigor that Quebedeaux uses. It is one thing to use labels for convenience when speaking about a particular issue, such as the role of women in the church. But the addition of even one other factor, such as the attitude toward alcohol, complicates the picture. It is not at all uncommon to be left on one of those two issues and right on the other. Moreover, Quebedeaux is not dealing with a few issues but with many, each with its own spectrum.

Knowing Who We Are

Several other new books reflect increasing interest in the evangelical movement. The most critical one is Fundamentalism (Westminster, 379 pp., $7.95 pb) by James Barr, a British professor of Bible. The book was released in the United Kingdom last year and we plan to publish a three-part discussion of it by Carl F. H. Henry, which will start next issue. We will also have a long review of it by a younger scholar, William Wells. Despite the title, the book is chiefly about evangelicals who Quebedeaux would classify as center or left.

In our April 21 issue we printed an article from Evangelical Roots, a collection of seventeen essays edited by Kenneth Kantzer (Nelson, 240 pp., $8.95). Like Barr’s book, this collection focuses primarily on the distinctive evangelical attitude to the Bible. In Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Zondervan, 256 pp., $8.95), Robert Webber of Wheaton College calls his fellow evangelicals to a greater appreciation of the subapostolic church. Another Wheaton Bible professor, Morris Inch, gives an overview of the movement in The Evangelical Challenge (Westminster, 144 pp., $5.45 pb). Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and John Woodbridge provide a historical dimension with essays composing The Gospel in America: Themes in the Story of America’s Evangelicals (Zondervan, 260 pp., $9.95). Also look for a major two-volume work of systematics to be released later this year from the prolific Donald Bloesch of Dubuque seminary, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Harper & Row).

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Last year revised editions of two books published a few years earlier appeared in paperback. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 184 pp., $3.95 pb) by Dean Kelley is well known. Sometimes those who approvingly cite his data do not seem to have thought through the implications of some of his explanations. The Evangelicals (Baker, 325 pp., $4.95 pb) is a collection of essays edited by David Wells and John Woodbridge. Most of the chapters are by evangelicals but some are by friendly critics. In the footnotes and in my own bibliographical essay one can find references to most of the available literature.


Besides women and drinking, at one or more points we are introduced to the evangelical diversity on: the inerrancy of the Bible and appropriate methods for biblical scholarship; historic confessional differences, such as Calvinism or Lutheranism, and the degree of attachment to them; conformity to comfortable suburban lifestyles, where the center keeps getting accused of worldliness; the practice of sex within (and sometimes without) marriage; political preferences, where we are continually told about the conservative Republicanism of evangelicals, though Jimmy Carter and moderates Mark Hatfield and John Anderson are the most often named evangelical politicians; commitment to charismatic and relational theologies; attraction to traditional liturgical worship, which seems to be called progressive but could as well have been called conservative; evangelistic methodologies; and the intention to stay within (or join) one of the mainstream denominations rather than to be in a consistently evangelical denomination or independent congregation. With respect to the last category, Quebedeaux conveys the impression that the left has or is in process of joining the mainstream to facilitate witness from within. But he gives at least as many examples of those he calls left who are definitely not in the mainstream, and much of what he calls center is in it.

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Quebedeaux’s book would have been much better had he confined himself to discussing such issues and the differing and changing stances that evangelicals and their organizations take regarding them. He should have resisted the urge to force people as a whole into simple left or center categories. By doing so Quebedeaux is guilty of promoting what has been called “lump thinking.” (It is not sufficient for Quebedeaux to put occasional qualifiers or exceptions. The overall thrust of the book is what readers remember.) Instead of respectfully and seriously considering what someone has to say about an issue, lump thinking encourages us to watch for a few code words, look for a few identifying practices, then quickly label the person, lumping him or her in with others whom we have so labeled. This penchant for labeling and lumping is repudiated by Paul in First Corinthians 1–4. There is no substantive difference between what Paul censured and our charging “he is far right,” or “she leans left,” while claiming “I follow Christ.”

I do not say that Christians should not be forthright about their differences. Just because Paul was against factionalism within the body of Christ, this did not blunt his drive to rebuke specific ideas or practices that were wrong. In the four chapters in which he lambasts the spirit of sectarianism, he also rebukes the wrong concept of wisdom and power advocated by at least one of the Corinthian factions. Later in the letter he finds fault with a good many other practices and teachings that were going on in Corinth. We should follow Paul’s example. Faults can be identified without factionalism being fostered. But if we engage in wholesale labeling we greatly reduce the possibility of ministering to one another.

The tendency to factionalism is not restricted to those who are more conservative. Those to the left on one or more issues often demonstrate a sectarian haughtiness toward their brothers who defend the former ways.

I suspect that by reading Quebedeaux many center evangelicals might oppose change of any kind for fear of where it might lead. But I would urge everyone to remember that what Quebedeaux says about those on the left (or elsewhere) is not necessarily so. Many of his more provocative statements are undocumented, such as the assertions: that Bethel, Gordon, and Trinity colleges are more liberal than their respective seminaries; that “rumor has it that 70 percent of Wheaton College seniors are breaking the pledge regularly” (p. 93); that “we can assume that the radicals’ methodology will eventually become dominant in left evangelical circles” (p. 124); or that “the governing boards of these colleges are not blind to this situation. They know that many of their faculty sign the required statement of faith tongue in cheek.… What does concern the governing board … is that the infringement of doctrinal standards and rules of conduct remain a local, ‘in-house’ matter. As long as professors do not publish their liberal views in widely circulated popular magazines read by conservative financial backers of these institutions, much can be tolerated” (p. 93). Quebedeaux predicts in his preface that “many evangelicals will not like what I say or the way I say it.” Such conjectural barbs will undoubtedly make his prediction come true.

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Other charges and changes are adequately demonstrated, but then the question needs to be asked, is change necessarily wrong? What might loosely be called the center has undergone many changes in the break with the right that began in the forties. Nor has the right been standing still. Older readers can remember when bobbed hair for women was as keen an issue in many a family and church as ordination of women is today. Doctrinally speaking, a staunch Calvinism befitting Westminster seminary was once widespread among evangelicals. This, too, has changed.

The basic question is not whether someone or some organization has changed, but whether the change is for the better or for the worse. The Protestant Reformation was a movement that introduced major changes. Jesus did many things quite differently from the normative Judaism of his day. The problem is not that Quebedeaux says all change is bad, or that any of his readers would say it in so many words. But in practice many readers will resist even minor changes, because they fear major ones are just a little further down the road.

Instead of resisting all change each proposal or development should be considered on its own merits, and in the light of the Word of God as we are guided in our understanding by the Holy Spirit. Virtually every practice and every doctrine of every believer and congregation is the result of change somewhere along the line, since the days of the apostles. Does this mean that truth changes? No. But our perception of the truth is partial and distorted. And effective ways of communicating truth can change with the circumstances. Change sometimes means that we are moving away from the truth, as evangelicals think that the mainstream has done, or closer to it, as anyone who makes changes believes that he is doing.

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Earlier I asked, “If tens of millions of adults are evangelicals, where is the evidence in American life?” Perhaps there aren’t that many evangelicals. But perhaps evangelicals (however many there are) aren’t more conspicuous in the world because, as Quebedeaux says, we have become too worldly. That is a disturbing possibility. Indeed, if evangelicals of the right, center, and left on any issue would seriously consider the shortcomings and sins of which we accuse each other, we might very well do together what we are not doing separately—attaining to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, speaking the truth in love, growing up in every way into him who is the head, from whom the whole body, when each part is working properly, upbuilds itself in love (Eph. 4:13, 15, 16).

D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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