A Recovering Evangelical

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(Originally posted on Jan 20, 2007 at randehle.com) I have at times described myself as a “recovering evangelical”. Recently I was asked what I meant by that, so I will take some space here to answer that question. First, however, I need to give credit where it is due. Roger Hedgecock, a conservative radio talk show host and former mayor of San Diego, describes himself as a “recovering politician”; I adapted the term for my own use.

So just what is a “recovering evangelical”? It is a person seeking to recover what is good in evangelicalism – primarily its essential doctrines – and recover from those aspects where evangelicalism has perhaps gone astray.

Recovering What Is Good – Doctrine
There is much that is good in evangelical doctrine, yet it is being called into question by some in the church today. Specifically, significant voices in the emerging church “conversation” are reevaluating their own roots and delving deeply into scripture in their search. This is certainly not a bad thing, but can become dangerous when these voices are taking with them less-well-rooted followers – or when they steer away from orthodox beliefs for fear of possibly “being wrong”.

I find three evangelical strengths in particular that need to be recovered:

  • Evangelicals have generally placed an appropriate emphasis on the rightness of scripture – a perhaps-less-divisive term than either inerrancy or infallibility. Evangelicals understand scripture to be right, true, and, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. Without this base, Christianity is all but lost.
  • Evangelicals correctly hold to the paradoxical identity of Jesus as both all man and all God…even if we don’t always live out the impact of that belief (more on this below). Again, without conviction about the person of Jesus, we can neither have nor proclaim hope for the world.
  • Evangelicals understand the imperative of spreading the message of Jesus (specifically, of salvation in and through Jesus) to a world that according to scripture is lost without him.

Recovering From Going Astray – Practice
As is true of every religion at every point in history, what we believe (doctrine) is sometimes not well worked out in what we do (practice). Such is the case with evangelicalism. In two specific areas I think evangelical practice has gone off course, even if only slightly.

  • First, we have focused on conversion as a point-in-time experience, a “profession (or confession) of faith”, rather than recognizing that coming to faith is a process. Our evangelistic efforts (“spreading the message”) have not kept pace with the changing culture around us. Whereas not many decades ago even non-believers believed the Bible and what it taught about Jesus – even if they didn’t adhere to those truths in their hearts and lives – today there is a great ignorance of the Bible and an acceptance of a less-than-divine Jesus; while those of the former persuasion may respond to a four-step gospel presentation concluding with “the sinner’s prayer”, the latter need to be drawn toward a relationship with Jesus in which they will eventually place their faith in him. In many respects, this is the difference between “becoming a Christian” and “becoming a disciple.”
  • Second, we have unduly emphasized separation, expressed through a rejection of both activities (e.g., drinking, dancing, movies, etc.) and those who engage in them. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we seem to be afraid that merely associating with “sinners” will make us unclean. Of course, this was what they had been taught; it grew out of the Mosaic Law with its strict definitions of clean and unclean. In our day, we read James’ counsel that pure religion is “…to keep oneself unstained by the world” and understand that to mean just this separation.

As for what a recovering evangelical should do, I think I will leave that question for another post….

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