Three Myths About EvangelicalsWho are the Evangelicals? The definition applies much more broadly than we might assume, and assumptions don't reflect who Evangelicals really are.
Fast-talking, money-hustling television preachers. Pushy, simplistic proselytizers. Dogmatic, narrow-minded know-it-alls. Straight-laced, thin-lipped killjoys. These are just some of the caricatures of Evangelical Christians abroad in the land.
Calling an Evangelical a fundamentalist, Stiller said, was like calling an African Canadian a "nigger."
Some myths are perpetuated even by people who know something about and sympathize with Evangelicalism, including Evangelicals themselves. Yet these myths distort the truth, sometimes with alarming and significant consequences.
Evangelicals are fundamentalists: The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's former president Brian Stiller won an important round in the public relations battle over the image of Evangelicals in Canada in 1994. He convinced the Canadian Press to stop using "fundamentalist" as a synonym for "Evangelical." Calling an Evangelical a fundamentalist, Stiller said, was like calling an African Canadian a "nigger."
As it turned out, the Canadian Press formulated a sensible policy that saw the truth in Stiller's contention. Journalists ought not to use the word, they advised, unless the Christians they are describing use that term to describe themselves.
And that is where Stiller's analogy is both mostly right and a little bit wrong. For some Evangelicals do use the term "fundamentalist" to describe themselves, whereas no African Canadian conceivably is comfortable with the term "nigger." Fundamentalists today are glad to be known as Protestant Christians who are "willing to do battle royal" for the fundamentals of the faith (as the term was coined by an American in the 1920s).
Not only are fundamentalists militant, but they are separatistic as well, and this to the "second degree": they dissociate themselves not only from those who compromise the faith, but also from anyone who does not keep all of his or her associations equally pure. (So Billy Graham has always been a favourite target of fundamentalist ire because, though he is indisputably orthodox, he has the "distressing" habit of consorting with all sorts of Christians—even at Crusades.)
Canadian history, however, has thrown up few fundamentalists, especially in comparison with the strong and continuing heritage of fundamentalism in America. Canada has had its T.T. Shields, the feisty Toronto preacher who helped to split the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec in the 1920s. It has had its Perry F. Rockwood, a long-time radio preacher in the Maritimes. But there have been only a few "battles royal" in Canadian Protestantism, and most Evangelicals in the past, as in the present, refuse to support extremely militant and separatistic reactions to modern challenges.
Instead, Evangelicals in Canada characteristically join together across a wide range of denominational lines to further their common interests in mission, education, social ministry, and so on. Stiller thus is importantly right: Evangelicals cannot be called simply fundamentalists.
Evangelicals are conservative: In his very valuable studies sociologist Reginald Bibby has used "conservative Protestant" as a term to draw together a wide range of denominations into a category different from the "mainline" one he uses for United, Anglican, and Presbyterian Protestants. Yet "conservative" is an inaccurate term for these Evangelicals, even though Bibby can be forgiven for this usage especially as many of the Christians in these denominations use the term "conservative" for themselves.
Evangelicals, Bruce affirmed, should believe things because they are true, not because they are traditional.
The late British scholar F.F. Bruce insisted on being called an "Evangelical" rather than a "conservative Evangelical," much less a "conservative." He once testified in his memoirs, "Many of my positions are indeed conservative, but I hold them not because they are conservative—still less because I myself am conservative—but because I believe they are the positions to which the evidence leads." Evangelicals, Bruce affirmed, should believe things because they are true, not because they are traditional.
The Evangelical tradition is now widely recognized among scholars as being only selectively conservative. Doctrines and practices that have divided churches—sometimes violently—are not of primary importance to Evangelicals, whether varieties of baptism, the Lord's Supper or church government. Traditions and techniques of worship, fellowship, and mission often have been cheerfully updated or even replaced by Evangelicals, whether George Whitefield preaching at a crossroads or Billy Graham preaching via satellite feed, whether William Booth's Salvation Army brass bands or Bill Hybel's Willow Creek jazz-rock bands.
Finally, it seems odd indeed to describe as "conservative" such self-consciously innovative denominations as the Pentecostal Assemblies or recently founded denominations as the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Evangelicals have all had a conversion experience: The belief that each Evangelical has had a precisely datable, once-for-all conversion experience is widespread even in Evangelical ranks. Many an evangelist, professional and amateur, has stopped an acquaintance in his or her tracks with the questions, "Have you been saved?" The expectation is that the true Christian can specify just when he or she was converted: any waffling indicates a soul in peril!
Even a recent work of Evangelical scholarship asserts that this kind of conversion experience is the distinctive mode of Evangelical spirituality—what makes an Evangelical in an experiential sense.
But this just is not the case. Billy Graham, for instance, speaks of three spiritual turning points in his life, no one of which can be clearly identified (by himself or his biographers) as his conversion. His pious Southern Presbyterian mother and his wife Ruth Bell Graham testify to no particular "turning points" at all—as Graham himself attests in his early book Peace With God.
What Evangelicals do believe is that everyone needs the saving grace of God to pass from spiritual death to eternal life, to be transferred from the power of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son (see Colossians 1:13). But as Graham and many Evangelicals through the years have affirmed, just when that line is crossed is not always discernible to outsiders, and often not even to the subject himself or herself. Each of us needs conversion, therefore. And each of us need to "take hold" of that conversion to personally, deeply commit our way to God in Christ. But many of us will never have a particular "conversion experience." Instead, such Evangelicals will join with all Christians in experiencing the continually converting grace of God throughout our lives.
We are not to write off these concerns as mere quibbling over terms. Words define us to ourselves and to others, and we can even begin to resemble those definitions, however mistaken they might be.
If fundamentalism is normal for Evangelicals, for instance, then militancy will be a badge of godliness. Compromise in secondary matters will not be praised as a mark of humility and of a willingness to cooperate, but condemned as a sign of weakness and infidelity. All of our associations with others will be subject to the strict test not only of the associates' own orthodoxy but also of the orthodoxy of their associates.
Maintaining absolute purity to the second degree will become all-consuming, as too often it does in fundamentalist homes and churches. And imagine how such a preoccupation will retard and distract from the truly pre-eminent task of sharing the Gospel with our Canadian neighbours.
Furthermore, Evangelicals will be written off by a culture that has a sharply etched stereotype of the fundamentalist. Anti-intellectual and ignorant, self-righteous and insistent, close-minded and intolerant—Evangelicals will not get even a hearing unless we dispute this prejudice.
Second, if conservatism is the norm for Evangelicals, then the status quo assumes the status of perfection. Any deviation from the established pattern becomes a declension from the True and Right. Any innovation, any suggested improvement, any new idea becomes a threat to the Absolute Order which must be conserved at all costs. Thus the Church ossifies, hardening into a protective rigidity incapable of responding positively to new challenges. For its part, the world justifiably ignores this irrelevant fossil.
Can we just allow that some Evangelicals are fundamentalists, but not all?
Third, if a specific, one-time conversion experience is the norm for Evangelicals, then the Evangelical community suffers a giant, painful rupture. Only some Evangelicals are "truly" born again. The remainder, especially in Anglican, Methodist, United, Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian traditions, are not Evangelicals anymore. In fact, it seems that they are not even Christians, and need to seek a rebirth as soon as possible to begin to make up for all those years of pseudo-Christianity!
And imagine the pressure now on Evangelicals as they witness to others: unless our friends and family members "pray the prayer" at a particular time and place, they are doomed—just like that. Now that is an incentive to hard-sell evangelism.
Can we just allow that some Evangelicals are fundamentalists, but not all? That some Evangelicals are conservative about this or that (and all of us are about some things, of course), but not all of us about everything? That some Evangelicals have had wonderful crises of life-reorientation, but some of us have simply grown in grace for as long as we can remember?
Then we can concentrate on what Evangelicals are supposed to concentrate on: living in and sharing the good news of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Let's be known for that.
John Stackhouse is associate professor of religion at the University of Manitoba and author of Canadian Evangelicalism in the 20th Century.
Originally published in
Faith Today, May/June 1995.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.