Evangelicalism-A Fantasy

Lewis Smedes
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Mar/Apr 2001

Among the "end-of-the-1970s" wrap-up articles filling the pages of periodicals a few months ago was one by Harold O. J. Brown in Christianity Today (December 21, 1979), called "The Church of the 1970s." What struck me about this piece is that, while it was about the 1970s, it was not at all about the Church. What Brown talked about instead was something called Evangelicalism.

Maybe for Brown-and for others who see things the way he does-Evangelicalism is the Church. When he speaks of Church divisions, for instance, he does not talk about a divided body; he talks about competing ism's: liberalism, conservatism, and of course evangelicalism. Belonging to a church comes down pretty much to espousing the right ism.

Evangelicalism, as Brown writes about it, is not just a system of evangelical beliefs. The ism is a kind of power structure. It has a hierarchy-somewhere-that can say to the faithful "Go," and expect them to go. There are evidently people in the top offices of Evangelicalism who can depose leaders and excommunicate followers. No one has ever told me who these powerful folk are by name, though I have some hunches.

Francis Schaeffer knows, and he is not satisfied. Brown reports that Schaeffer, winding up one of his current rallies, calls his audience to a radical curial reform-including, "if necessary, even removing our leaders." He also wonders whether "Evangelicalism can tolerate in its fellowship" people who will not condemn abortion. Schaeffer must then see Evangelicalism as a kind of authoritarian church, which can remove leaders and decide no longer even to tolerate people "in its fellowship." Schaeffer is not alone. Brown says that the "inerrancy group" is "asking whether [Evangelicalism] can tolerate within its leadership those who will not affirm inerrancy." Here, again, somebody must have power to determine the limits of evangelical tolerance for dissenters.

But leaving abortion and inerrancy to the side, let us focus on this image of Evangelicalism as a kind of hierarchical church. How does it make its decisions? When does its quasi-papal curia meet? Where? Who gets to participate?

I can imagine a scenario. I see a grim theologian, in a vested pin-striped suit, armed with a bulging initialled briefcase heavy with the latest Carl Henry volumes, arriving alone (via Ozark Airlines) at O'Hare Airport. Fighting his way past the Moonies, he joins a few other theologians, identically uniformed, at a hot dog stand. From there the small group is driven in a donated microbus to Wheaton, Illinois. After checking in at the desk and washing up, they are brought to Evangelicalism's rented curial chamber in the local Holiday Inn, where about fifteen more members of the ruling circle are waiting.

After an opening litany the evangelical College of Cardinals begins to discuss, in alphabetical order, this year's doubtful leaders. The discussion is somber, frank, and manifestly painful for everyone. Finally, as things must, it comes to a vote. Each ballot has one name at the top, and two squares-one labeled "Tolerated," the other "Not Tolerated." The ballots are collected and counted, and only the names of the nontolerated are announced. The secretary first declares-with a trace of unction-"non est tolerandus," and then gives the name of the fallen leader.

Their solemn work done, the cardinals bow for a "word of prayer," shake hands, wish each other God's blessing, pick up their briefcases, sign out, climb back into the shuttle bus to O'Hare, arriving in time to catch their flights back to their respective headquarters.

What will happen to the persons whose heads fall under the sharp-edged sword of Evangelicalism's official Non est tolerandus? Will they be fired from their jobs at the seminary? Will their articles now always be rejected by Christianity Today? Will they be taken to court if they continue to use the word "evangelical" in resumes? I just don't know. I know what it used to mean for the church to excommunicate a people: to bar them from the sacraments. But when Evangelicalism excommunicates a person from its fellowship or removes him from leadership, the effect must be more subtle and more spiritual.

Evangelicalism as a power structure, with hierarchy and all, is probably a fantasy. I suspect that people like Brown tend to imagine the Christian enterprise in terms of a kind of political party in which people jockey for position and power-and to see this party as the real church. This is a dangerous fantasy because it leads evangelicals to act it out, and this means that they ignore the real church and invest their energy only in the quasi-church called evangelicalism. Such a portrait of the Body of Christ is illicit from the point of view of biblical Christianity.

Evangelical people need to be protected from evangelicalism and its hierarchy. Evangelical theology needs to be free from power plays called by party leaders. Evangelical theology needs to be the theology of and for the Church. All the cracks in the earthen vessel notwithstanding, it is the Church-and not an ism-which Jesus Christ founded to be the carrier of his great treasure. And it is in the Church, not an ism, where the evangel, evangelists, and evangelicals find their true home. Evangelicalism is a fantasy-acted out perhaps, but still a fantasy. The church is still real.

1 [ Back ] Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing. First published in The Reformed Journal 30:2 (February 1980), pages 2-3.
Tuesday, June 12th 2007

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