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The battle of ideas in America

Religion | Evangelical declaration takes aim at slaves to political fashion

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

Is William Wilberforce your ancestor?

What does it mean to be an evangelical? Decade after decade new declarations and explanations emerge, and some are mouthfuls of mush. But the latest, titled "An Evangelical Manifesto: The Washington Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment," scheduled for unveiling on May 7 by a group including Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and leading lights Rick Warren, Os Guinness, Dallas Willard, Timothy George, and Richard Mouw, is likely to do some good.

Although "manifesto" is an arrogant-sounding word, this one's confessions are credible, its hopes holistic, and its goals generous. The declaration starts with admissions-"the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term Evangelical have grown so deep that the character of what it means has been obscured"-and later, confessions: All too often evangelicals "have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk."

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So true. And the confessions keep coming: "All too often we have set out high, clear statements of the authority of the Bible, but flouted them with lives and lifestyles that are shaped more by our own sinful preferences and by modern fashions and convenience." Also true. So we need to scrape away the dragon skin, as Eustace does in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and come to the good definition that the declaration provides: "Evangelicals are committed to thinking, acting, and living as Jesus lived and taught, and so to embody this truth and his good news for the world that we may be recognizably his disciples."

As if in answer to a church question-"Evangelicals, what do you believe?"-the statement summarizes the basics: "Jesus Christ is fully God become fully man. . . . The only ground for our acceptance by God is our trust in Jesus Christ. . . . New life, given supernaturally through spiritual regeneration, is a necessity as well as a gift . . . the lifelong conversation that results is the only pathway to a radically changed character and way of life. . . . Scriptures are final rule for life and thought. . . . Being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives, secular as well as spiritual, public as well as private."

There's more, but the declaration takes pain to note that evangelicals do not live by words alone: "To be Evangelical is a belief that is also a devotion. . . . Evangelical belief and devotion is expressed as much in our worship and in our deeds as in our creeds. . . . What we are about is captured not only in books or declarations, but in our care for the poor, the homeless, and the orphaned; our outreach to those in prison; our compassion for the hungry and the victims of disaster; and our fight for justice for those oppressed by slavery and human trafficking."

Those emphases are important (in my experience many non-Christian college students define "evangelical" as "anti-homosexual"), so it's important to stress that "the Evangelical message, 'good news' by definition, is overwhelmingly positive, and always positive before it is negative. . . . Just as Jesus did, Evangelicals sometimes have to make strong judgments about what is false, unjust, and evil. But first and foremost, evangelicals are for Someone and for something rather than against anyone or anything."

Then comes a key defining point: "Evangelicalism should be distinguished from two opposite tendencies to which Protestantism has been prone: liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism." Liberals "have tended to accommodate the world . . . to the point where they are unfaithful to Christ; whereas those more conservative tended so to defy the world that they resist it in ways that also become unfaithful to Christ."

Theological liberals, the declaration contends, typically have "an exaggerated estimate of human capacities, a shallow view of evil, an inadequate view of truth, and a deficient view of God. In the end they are sometimes no longer recognizably Christian." But the declaration also accurately criticizes the tendency of fundamentalism "to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian or worse." What's important to remember: "The Gospel of Jesus is the Good News of welcome, forgiveness, grace, and liberation from law and legalism."

What does all of this mean concerning the key public affairs issues of our day? "We cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman." At the same time, "we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emphasis."

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