Some years ago, one of my courses I took that led to my eventually obtaining a degree with the Open University had the title: “Victorian Religion”. One of my lecturers made the profound observation that one of the significant factors of that period were the unholy alliances that took place between Evangelicals, Catholics and Liberals. On Mondays and Thursdays, Evangelicals and Catholics were ganging up against the Liberals, on Tuesdays and Fridays it was Evangelicals and Liberals against the Catholics and on Wednesdays and Saturdays it was Catholics and Liberals against the Evangelicals. And this was at a time when half the population attended church and religion played an important part in public life.
I have reflected on this phenomenon in my Theological Musings book, including traditions like the Anglicans embracing all three strands. My own background would place me unequivocally in the Evangelical camp, so much so that Catholics and Liberals were often looked upon with deep suspicion, Catholics because they added to the teachings of the Bible and Liberals because they took away from those teachings, and some of those who I associated with even regarded such people as not being true Christians anyway. As for Fundamentalism, and as discussed in my recent blog, this was often regarded as synonymous with Evangelicalism, although these days many Evangelicals see this as a more extreme variant.
I ought to make clear at the start that the idea of belonging to this or the other camp is not one that enthralls since the only two I read about in the Bible is God’s camp and not God’s camp and where it is clear which one God would have us in! Sadly, much religion is man made and inevitably many camps exist. I am also adverse to the wearing of labels, especially when not fully defined. Although use of labels can be crude and flawed, it can help when it cuts to the chase trying to understand what it is people believe, although such is the high level of ignorance many won’t know the distinctives of the camp they find they are in, whether by accident or by choice. Even so when it comes to labels, I would have to identify myself as being an Evangelical, yet with many other churchy strings to my bow that might be better identified with other strands. I would subscribe to the popular definition given by the historian, David Bebbington, and because of this I would likely admit to being Evangelical if pressed, but would want to elaborate.
- biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
- crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
- conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
- activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort
Having said that, I have found that as I live longer that while I know more, I find I know less than I thought I did and that not only do I find myself frequently joining forces and hobnobbing with Catholics and Liberals, I find that while there are aspects where I still strongly disagree and, to an extent I have to disassociate from them, there are also aspects where I strongly agree and I often find myself working side by side with these people for the common good. Areas where Evangelicals have been traditionally weak, e.g. community activism once seen as the domain of Liberals, and church tradition and the mystery of the faith, once seen as the domain of Catholics, I now realise are just as important as some of the simple certainties of my youth. From a theological perspective, I am mindful of the prayer of Jesus (in John 17) when he prayed that those who believed would be united as one, and therefore I need to reach out to those Christians who do see things differently from myself while at the same time refusing to compromise on essential matters.
Reviewing the current state of the church, I sense there have been a number of recent shifts in position, some subtle. While entrenched positions still remain, there seems to be a lot more cross-fertilisation between these three traditions, and recognition of each others contributions. Between them these might be considered to cover the entirety of mainstream Christianity. While those who are adherents of one or other of these streams may be less clued up when it comes to what they believe or why, there seems to be a greater willingness to throw off the shackles of the past, accept and embrace what other traditions are strong on and focus on the need to come to terms with the current culture. How well this is done is for another discussion. Some trends we have seen in recent years, such as the growth of the charismatic movement, and these cut across all three traditions.
There is an increasing tendency for some prominent ministers who purport to be Evangelical (although some will regard them as Liberal) to support things their predecessors would not have, like the remarriage of divorcees and homosexual relationships, and beliefs like the non-existence of a real Hell and the possibility of salvation other than through faith in Christ, while at the same time rejecting what were once orthodox positions on subjects like Creationism and Zionism and nowadays being more amenable to left wing politics and focusing more on social justice matters than those of a previous generation. Similarly we find Catholics expressing evangelistic fervour and Liberals practicing Evangelical piety. It seems today all three strands can accommodate things like Ecumenicism and Pentecostalism, and often take similar positions on many matters, such as social justice. Today, the edges that separate these three groupings in mainstream Christianity seem to have become blurred, although some think this to be a good thing.
Some having read this may feel all this may be interesting but hardly relevant to us now and could well fuel confusion and division. Others will point with consternation at the divisions that do exist and inquire how to remove these. Even some Christians (those who are active followers of Jesus) might say all that matters is loving and serving Him. To a degree, I concur. The need to obey the great commandments are just as applicable now as in the time of Moses – to love God and our neighbour and, with the pertinent reminder of the new command Jesus gave to his disciples, that they were to love one another as He had loved them, which would override these or any other divisions we might care to make. What is important though is understanding the truth and doing accordingly, which dare I say it requires us to believe and act in a way that seeks to honour God. While I have often found that when those from different camps work together to address a pressing need, differences strangely dissipate, not knowing what we believe and what our other camp brethren believe, can also create problems.
It is on the basis of understanding we best engage with those found in camps other than our own and do the important job of seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, spreading the good news of the gospel (humankind’s only hope) by word and deed, and loving one another even when we differ. And it is well to be reminded that in heaven these divisions will no longer appear and all that will matter is God and our worship and service of Him.