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Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Power

On October 24, 2016

In recent years, we American evangelicals have struggled more than ever to manage our “image.” In 2016 alone, significant numbers of abused women and children have exposed one prominent evangelical leader after another. These evangelical leaders have betrayed the trust of thousands who invested in their theology and leadership, leaving a trail of victims in their wake.[1] And instead of denouncing this abuse and giving victims a voice, evangelicals have consistently allowed perpetrators to resume their positions of prominence as speakers and leaders on evangelical platforms.

Religious patriarchy has fueled the devaluation, marginalization, and abuse of girls and women globally.[2] For too long, we evangelical Christians have colluded with the powerful and failed to challenge our own complicity in oppressive systems around the world.[3] This explains why so many have renounced their affiliation with evangelicals. 

Yet again, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, we evangelicals find ourselves caving to self-interest, colluding with the powerful, and ignoring the cries of the vulnerable and abused. We can and must challenge the blatant disregard for Christian morality that spews from the lips (and lives) of politicians.[4] But unless we also address our own moral failings, we lack the credibility to offer a Christian counterpoint to our culture and to systemic injustice as a whole.

Yet, this is where evangelicals have demonstrated strength throughout history. Perhaps there has never been a better time to consider our legacy as evangelicals, beginning with our capacity to repent.  

Consider Bob Jones University—a conservative evangelical institution that issued an apology in 2008 for its racial segregationist teachings and policies.[5] The school came to see the moral depravity of its racist practices, realizing that it was submitting not to Scripture, but to American segregationist culture. The school admitted, “We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it. In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandments to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry.”[6]

Their apology is a recognition of the deeply entrenched racism that had eclipsed their biblical clarity. It also represents the evangelical moral capacity to admit error and our obligation to provide a counterexample to the racist ethos of American culture. The university’s apology is a testament to these two evangelical values and constitutes a significant first step in bringing moral credibility to a self-declared Christian institution that once championed racism. The university’s repentance also models the teachable spirit of evangelicals. 

Here and elsewhere, evangelical history offers inspiring models of humility and moral courage in correcting systems of oppression and injustice. It is this moral legacy that has defined the evangelical movement from the very beginning.

The term “evangelical” was consistently used to represent the victories of Calvary. In becoming an evangelical, you were expected to become more holy, to help make the world a better place. Early evangelicals believed that those who traveled the greatest distance possible, from spiritual death to spiritual life, had become new in Christ, and would naturally become better neighbors, citizens, leaders, pastors, theologians, and politicians—an improvement neighbors, churches, colleagues, community, and country would notice and celebrate![7]

Unsurprisingly, an evangelical ethos in which social action and the gospel were intertwined lent enormous momentum to social reforms like the emancipation of women and abolition—ideals that propelled the Golden Era of Missions in the 1800s.

Evangelicals believe that spiritual rebirth radically alters our human condition. Every believer, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or social class, is clothed in and identified with Christ (Galatians3:27).

Because of this, the early evangelicals challenged human prejudices that marginalized women, people of color, slaves, people experiencing poverty, and others. One of the greatest evangelical leaders of her day, Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915), explained how her identity as a woman and slave had been radically transformed by her rebirth in Christ. She wrote, “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.”[8]

Though the world devalued women, people of color, and slaves as property and objects, evangelicals like Amanda Berry Smith, Sojourner Truth, and Pandita Ramabai rejected that oppressive narrative. They believed that, as heirs with Christ, they received a new identity and God’s power through the cross.

Because of this, women and other marginalized groups walked out of slavery. They refused the trappings of caste, gender, race, ethnic, and class hierarchies, and embraced new vocations as leaders, politicians, gospel-agents, emancipators, and theologians.

The early evangelicals exposed exegetical fallacies that gave privilege to some and enslaved and abused multitudes. Their example was a model to the privileged that leadership should not be the result of physical birth, but comes through spiritual rebirth and a new moral character. It is not wealth, skin color, or gender that makes a leader but being clothed in Christ.

Evangelicals have historically modeled the moral strength we so desperately need today. They cast a new vision for humanity, and brought glory to the gospel rather than shame. Their work was a moral and social triumph that became the cornerstone of evangelical identity.

But where is that evangelical moral vision for humanity today? Are we a mere shadow of our former selves or can we reclaim the moral strength of an earlier evangelical heritage?

The legacy of the early evangelicals provides a counterpoint to our theological and moral failures today. It also provides a vision of the ideals we strive to embody—a high view of the cross, which remakes humanity in Christ’s moral image. Their example gives us a reason to declare pride in a history that cannot be marred by the failures of some modern evangelicals.

So, like Ron Sider and others like him, I plan to keep the evangelical label. Perhaps some of you, like me, identify as evangelical, but do not see yourselves in some of the evangelicalism of today. We can reclaim it. Together, we can model our theology and practices after an evangelical tradition that aligns not with the powerful but with the abused and marginalized. We need the moral credibility that comes through the power of Calvary, biblical clarity, and living the gospel in word and deed—ideals that characterize our identity as evangelicals.[9]

Notes

[1] See Mimi Haddad, “Silent No More: Exposing Abuse Among Evangelicals” at http://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/silent-no-more-exposing-abuse-among-evangelicals. See also the blogs by Aimee Byrd at http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/listening-to-abused-women#.V_6B0sl-7-u and http://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/housewife-theologian/the-silence-of-our-friends#.V_1r-8l-7-t. See also news coverage on the resignation of C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris at http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/may/c-j-mahaney-joshua-harris-resign-from-gospel-coalition-sgm.html and that of Bill Gothard, founder and CEO of the Institute in Basic Life Principles at http://www.christianpost.com/news/bill-gothard-quits-institute-he-founded-after-allegations-of-rampant-sexual-harassment-cites-bible-passage-on-reconciliation-115795/.
[2] Jimmy Carter, Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster 2014); Jimmy Carter, “Patriarchy and the Violence Against Women,” The Lancet.com Vol 385, April 25, 2015, 40-41, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)62217-0/abstract; Ruth Tucker, Black and Blue Bible, Blue and Black Wife: My Story of Finding Hope After Domestic Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016). See also Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Mimi Haddad, “Ideas have Consequences” at http://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/Ideas-Have-Consequences-reprint-web1.pdf.
[3] Kevin Giles, “Justifying Injustice with the Bible: Apartheid” at http://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/justifying-injustice-bible-apartheid.
[4] See the “Evangelicals4justice Statement on Electoral Politics” at http://www.evangelicals4justice.org/electoral-politics.html.
[5] See http://www.bju.edu/gcsearch/?q=evangelical&cx=017456826151234432158%3Auxwdfipsr-u&cof=FORID%3A10&ie=UTF-8.
[6] See http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=13489.
[7] Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 19ff.
[8] W.B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 91.
[9] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s-1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 2-17.


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