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."
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."
The declaration does not call for big government, though: It asks us to remember and emulate the "vital but little known Evangelical contribution to the rise of the voluntary association."
The declaration also calls for neither a Christian America nor a secularized one, neither a sacred nor a naked public square, but rather "a civil public square-a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and a right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land."
The declaration's bottom line: "We should neither privatize nor politicize faith; the church should be identified neither with the religious right nor the religious left." In contrast with "being unquestioning conservatives and unreserved supporters of tradition and the status quo, being Evangelical means an ongoing commitment to Jesus Christ, and this entails innovation, renewal, reformation, and entrepreneurial dynamism. . . . Evangelicals part company with reactionaries by being both reforming and innovative, but they also part company with modern progressives by challenging the ideal of the-newer-the-truer and the-latest-is-greatest by conserving what is true and right and good."
Will the declaration lead to the useful reform of American evangelicalism? It takes as a model Britain's William Wilberforce (see WORLD, Feb. 10, 2007), the evangelical who two centuries ago fought both slavery and moral decline by asserting that Christians should "boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them be active, useful, and generous toward others. Let them show moderation and self-denial themselves. Let them be ashamed of idleness. When blessed with wealth, let them withdraw from the competition of vanity and be modest, retiring from ostentation, and not be the slaves of fashion."
Wilberforce proceeded boldly but not arrogantly, knowing that he could commend belief but not command it. He stated, "the national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies . . . as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail." This new declaration, which takes aim at slavery to fashion on both the left and the right, should hearten those who love and obey the gospel of Christ.
As American evangelicals attempt to define themselves, so do African Christians: Are they only the spiritual descendants of European missionaries unfairly tagged as "agents of imperialism," or does their lineage go back further? Can African Christian theologians conscious of their own heritage deepen and broaden their work so that various denominations and national churches will gain courage in the face of surging Islam?
U.S. theologian Tom Oden is working to challenge the attitude of some Africans that is an import from the north (see WORLD, Feb. 23). He points out that Africa shares in the incarnation, since Jesus spent part of His childhood there (in Egypt), and that Africa was the center of Christian thought in the early centuries after Christ: Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Athanasius were all African. Oden wants key texts of early African Christianity to be examined, translated, and distributed.
Research, though, does not always affect reality. Benjamin Franklin during the American Revolution suggested that he and other leaders should hang together lest they hang separately. Will African Christian leaders, facing surging Islam and internal division, hang together lest (if worst comes to worst) they be decapitated separately? A conference of African Christian church leaders and scholars last month in Addis Ababa took a first step toward bringing together Christians as divided as those in America.
The conference included Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical denominational leaders, along with academic leaders from a variety of seminaries. These Christians from Egypt, Ghana, Zaire, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere have often not gotten along. It's said that one way the North deviated from the South in the United States is that the Northern question, on meeting a new person, became "What do you do?"-and the Southern question remained, "Who are your people?" Individual accomplishment vs. family or tribal connections: Africa is Southern.
The April 11-12 conference paralleled an inaugural meeting of U.S. pro-life leaders that took place two decades ago at a time when some groups seemed to spend almost as much time criticizing each other as they spent on criticizing abortion. That meeting inaugurated a once-per-quarter tradition that has led to significant harmony and the saving of many lives.
Last month's conference started jaggedly when the first person to speak, Benezet Bujo, a Catholic priest from former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who is currently a professor in Switzerland, provocatively asked, "Shouldn't we speak of Christianities? There are many ways to understand God's revelation."
The responses of (Orthodox) Metropolitan Bishoy, (Anglican) Archbishop Mouneer Anis, and others, were consistent: One Lord, one baptism, one faith, one holy catholic church, within a variety of cultural situations and languages.
Oden moderated the conference and occasionally asked pointed questions, such as, "Is Athanasius your ancestor?" He spoke of how ancient Christian writers have much to teach us in many areas, including "care of the less" and "the role of Providence in history." He noted that Augustine lived at a time when the political order was collapsing, but he had "a long view of history." Today, "We become too disturbed about Islam if we do not see it in historical perspective."
Archbishop Anis spoke about his dialogue with Muslims: "They don't respect us if we say there are no differences." He proposed that Christians and Muslims acknowledge differences but work with each other by starting with common ground and then pushing on to discuss hard issues: "It takes years to develop heart-to-heart talks, as with a friend."
Anis noted that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions. He noted that imams "are offended by Muslims converting to Christianity, but what can we do? We must be true to the gospel." He asked what Jesus would do if He today came to Cairo: "Would He sit on the bishop's chair, or would He go to the Muslims and talk with them in the shops?"
He proposed engagement in the shops and a method for dialogue: "We should not be apologetic. We should not compromise. We should love."