The Evangelical Confession in the Life of the Uniting Church
Thank you for this opportunity tonight to be with you tonight in order to share with you on an issue of such great importance. I particularly appreciate the grace shown by the fellowship extending it even to those who are not its members. It is always encouraging to see little illustrations along the way of grace triumphing over law.
With the first confession for the night out of the way let me turn to the second, the one which is on our agenda for the night, namely the evangelical confession.
Within a short time of undertaking some modest research into this topic, I managed to come up with some sixteen different understandings of what the word ‘evangelical’ means.
The Biblical meaning of evangelical is not difficult to unearth. In the New Testament it is simply the word ‘euangelion’, variously translated as good tidings, good news or gospel. However, when we come to the realms of theology and church history the word begins to assume divergent understandings.
For example, Richard Quebedeaux in the Young Evangelicals describes evangelicalism under five headings:
- Separatistic fundamentals,
- Open fundamentalism,
- Established evangelicalism,
- New evangelicalism, and
- Young evangelicals.
Peter Beyerhaus in his essay, Lausanne between Geneva and Berlin, adds to this list confessing evangelicals, Pentecostalists and ecumenical evangelicals.
Effectively the word being used from three basic perspectives:
- Theologically – This usage is primarily associated with the Reformation goal of recovering the gospel.
Luther summarized his agenda under the four well known headings of grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone and Christ alone. These axiomatic convictions then flowed on down through the various confessions until the nineteenth century when Protestant Evangelicals regrouped to preserve this faith in the nine articles of the Evangelical Alliance.
The fundamentalist/modernist debate then led to the formulation of the five fundamentals of faith in response to the growing impact of Darwinism:
- The verbal inspiration of the Bible.
- The virgin birth of Christ.
- The substitutionary atonement.
- Christ’s bodily resurrection.
- His imminent and visible second coming.
Subsequent evangelical doctrine seems to involve variants of these fundamentals.
- Historically – All evangelical groups do not come from a single source. There are at least nine major movements in the past four and a half centuries which have contributed to the various branches of modern evangelicalism, eg. Puritanism and dispensationalism.
- Sociologically – This focus emphasizes the complex variety of subcultures which have helped to shape our current evangelical culture.
Perhaps Karl Barth in his book Evangelical Theology, most helpfully draws much of this complexity together into his own definition of evangelical theology when he write, ‘Evangelical theology recalls the central truths and teachings of the Reformation and the New Testament in their treatment of the God of the Gospel. ‘Evangelical’ signifies the catholic, ecumenical continuity and unity of this theology.
For in our experience we probably don’t find it as difficult to identify an evangelical as this definitive complexity might suggest. It’s like a story I read the other day of a bus driver and a priest who died at the same time. Although the driver was sent directly to heaven, the priest’s case was apparently harder to decide:
“I don’t mind that you sent a bus driver to heaven,” the priest was heard complaining, “But after all, I was a priest. So why should I be kept waiting?”
To whom the answer came, “Father when you were preaching, everyone was falling asleep. But when he was driving, everyone was praying.”
Textually, of course, the term evangelical come from a Greek word ‘euangelion’, as in ‘Paul a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the euangelion of God [Romans 1:1].”
The content of that gospel is according to C.H. Dodd in The Apostolic Preaching and its Development that the age of fulfillment has come through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. That as a result of his resurrection he is exalted as Lord, that the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church is a gracious gift of God to his people that Christ will come again as Judge and Saviour and that forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation are available to all who truly repent and believe.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the term evangelical has two fundamental aspects to it. There is a spirit and secondly specific content associated with evangelicalism. After addressing these briefly, I want to rather tentatively suggest some tensions that may be seen to have arisen within our church as a result of developing methodologies inconsistent with these presuppositions.
By a spirit, I mean an evangelical has a sense of urgency. She is grateful to God that she has received the life of the one who came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it through His cross.
Because of this gift it is therefore impossible to thereafter conceive of life as in any sense, life without the personal and saving knowledge of God in Christ. A Christian can never affirm along with most world religions that if you have found a way that works for you then that is fine.
No person, no matter how great their wisdom, how profound their knowledge, how high their intelligence, how exciting their experience of how well adjusted their their psychological disposition can claim to be truly living until they have confessed with their mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in their heart that God has raised him from the dead. Such a confession naturally finds its way into a believing community.
Therefore, there is an urgency about Christian existence that we could call the evangelical spirit.
Secondly, there is a content to the word evangelical that is normative for all reflection whether theological, ethical or otherwise. The substantive content is as mentioned earlier and which defines the basis of evangelical reflection, or more technically, the evangelical paradigm, as normatively Biblical.
Thirdly, arising from these two fairly obvious and basic presuppositions comes what can be seen as the Biblical/evangelical methodology. Evangelicals are committed to a methodology of being and doing which reflect the primacy of the Lordship of Christ.
‘Methodology’ is of course being used here in its widest possible manner and can be used for example in referring to what we would call discipleship. Based on the Lord’s teaching, commands, expectations and Easter victory there are norms which are correlative for living as a Christian.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you [Matthew 5:43-44].”
In the domains of Christian reflection, there needs to be a methodology which gives the same primacy to the Lordship of Christ as does this area of relationships occurring under the category of discipleship.
Therefore, the primary question in Christian reflection for an evangelical is ‘What does Scripture have to say?’
This is to ask what God has already said and done, normatively in Jesus Christ. It is also to ask consequently, ‘What is the Lord still saying to us through His Word?’
All this is not to decry the place of reason per se. Nor is it aimed to detract from the richness of Christian tradition, rather it is drawing upon the greatest part of it.
This is to say, that for an evangelical this is the order of conceptual and existential priority. And it ought to be so for the church at all times and in all places.
In the light of these central evangelical presuppositions, I would now like to suggest some areas of our church life where there is some evident tension arising from differing perspectives.
Scripture and Reason
An evangelical is committed to the primacy of Scripture over reason. In terms of methodology, reason is the human resource we have been given to interpret and come to terms with the teaching of Scripture within the context of obedient discipleship. This is the order of priority we believe individuals and the church ought always to adopt in its reflections.
That this is not always the case within the modern church is a matter for concern. I think, for example, in our past Synod. In the material regarding homosexuality and the church it was quite obvious that primary methodological norms arose from other priorities than these.
The teaching of Scripture was ignored. These was no evidence of there having been any encounter with Genesis 19, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 or 1 Timothy 1:10. Our Lord’s specific teaching on marriage and sexuality was also ignored.
The implicit assumption was that there was nothing relevant in Scripture to the topic. I am not here concerned with the subject itself and the ethical issues involved. I am concerned that a position was arrived at which failed to take into account what God has said about the issue in His Word. In doing so we reify the place of reason, and end up with conclusions which are more focused upon the nature of compassion rather than the one in which truth is primary.
The methodology of oversight is one which seems to me to be alarmingly common. Once again, ignoring the issue involved, the debate affirming the place of women in ministry likewise evidenced the methodology of oversight. No attempt has been made to help people come to terms with some of the difficult passages God inspired Paul and others to write, perhaps pre-eminently for particular pastoral situations and needs in the early church. The resistance to the acceptance of the ordination of women among some of our most faithful people arises from their inability to come to terms with what is currently happening on that front, and the apparent norms of Scripture some perceive as restricting the functions of women within church. The methodology of oversight does not help these people in the Uniting Church who are often imbued with the kind of evangelical spirit we are so in need of for our church’s life and growth.
Apart from the particular pastoral consequences involved, a greater concern is that we may well find ourselves as a church in a state of disobedience to God as revealed through his word. And God will not bless people of churches in a state of alienation from what may be his revealed will.
In response to this methodology of oversight, it is not just our task to point out the theological inadequacy of such an approach, it is necessary that we study ‘as workmen to show ourselves approved’. The evangelical viewpoint needs to be presented clearly, articulately and in a biblically informed manner in forums such as Synod and Presbytery debates. Evangelicals, if they are to affect the future shape and emphases of our church need to be prepared to wade around the swamps of administration, research and theological discipline if a clear evangelical position is to be annunciated.
There is additionally the tension between the evangelical and the ecumenical.
This is not a principal or essential tension but a more practical one. It has more to do with affirmations that we regard as of primary importance in our structural and programmatic agendas.
Emilio Castro, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches gave a lecture at Union Theological Seminary in New York last year in which he helpfully addressed this tension and some of the caricatures which have developed in this debate.
After detailing the substance of the evangelical position along the lines mentioned earlier tonight, he then highlighted the three essential perceptions of the ecumenical movement:
- The authority of the Bible,
- The concern for the unity of the church,
- The realization that the church’s mission embraces the whole of human reality including the contextual.
What the ecumenist and the evangelical have in common he argues is:
- The Bible as the authoritative source of Christian reference,
- A common affirmation of the traditional creeds of Christendom,
- A oneness in missionary awareness,
- The reality of living in the same needy world context.
It is valuable to be reminded of these commitments in common, however I believe that the need to put into practice more evidently this theological commitment to evangelism is of primary importance.
For example, it should be a concern for us all that at our annual Synod the report on Evangelism is effectively regarded as simply one report amongst the others. It has the same kind of time slot as many other reports, as though evangelism were just one more church activity amongst aged care, school activities and so on.
However, the purpose of the church’s existence is primarily to evangelise. Everything else is secondary because it arises out of the foundational presupposition that we are related to the Lord through faith. The Great Commission to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, makes this quite clear. The emphasis is of course on making disciples, not converts. For in these words, the Lord clearly envisages that converts will go on to become learners or disciples. They are to be brought into the church through baptism, then taught about who we believe in and what we believe in, all to the end of obedience to the Lord.
The primary task of the church is evangelism. And that priority needs to be patently evident in how our Assemblies, Synods, Presbyteries, Parishes and Congregations use their time and resources.
As P.T. Forsyth put it:
“The church is the only organization which exists for the sake of those who are not its members.”
If we are not motivated to evangelise from our own experience of new life, or the imperatives of the Lord through Scripture, then we may well find ourselves lapsing into evangelism for pragmatic, utilitarian reasons. That is to say new members are necessary simply to keep the organization going, and ecumenical visions alive. It is difficult to see how we could ever expect the Lord to bless any kind of enterprise based upon such an orientation.
A further tension that periodically evidences itself is that between evangelism and social justice.
I would hope that the days are gone when evangelism and social justice were seen as mutually exclusive. The distortions that evangelicals have no interest in social justice and that the advocates of justice were uninterested in the need for personal conversion were always unhelpful, if nevertheless true from time to time.
They are necessarily and Biblically complementary. The same Gospel which gives us the Great Commission also gives us the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, as well as the description of the life of ethical possibilities embodied in the Sermon on the Mount.
Evangelism and social justice are both, ideally concerned with transformation. The foci are complimentary. The former focuses upon the transformation of the individual and the latter upon the transformation of the structures which create an affront to the dignity of human beings made in the image of a God who values them.
But at the same time we need to reaffirm that God so valued people that He has sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.
Without wanting to revive the caricatures from which we have become liberated in our dialogue within the church, it is important to reaffirm the redemption of structures arising from the redemption of God, initiated when He came in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself. God’s initiative is primary in His program of restoration. Only his initiative takes seriously the sin that caused injustices to arise in the first place, which resists the changes justice requires.
What is more important that we affirm as evangelicals is the point that structures are more likely to be or become just when people have been born again. When the conscience has been renewed by a heart transformed and a will re-directed, the call for a more just order will be heard more clearly and acted upon more decisively.
As Donald McGavran has put it in Understanding Church Growth:
“God give those who love and obey Him power to treat others justly. They receive power to live the good life. Just people can build a just society.”
While this is not to advocate that there need not be voices crying in the wilderness that the rich are selling the needy for a pair of shoes, it is to say that the ultimate effectiveness of social justice efforts will depend upon the effectiveness of evangelism in changing human hearts.
One of the most powerful illustrations I have seen of this happened in the United States shortly before our family returned from California and Fuller Seminary. It concerned the conversion of one Jack Eckert. Shortly after he became a Christian, through the ministry of Chuck Colson, he walked into one of his network drug stores and saw copies of Playboy and Penthouse being sold. He’d seen them there many times before, but now it bothered him. So he called his president and told him to get those books out of his stores. His president protested that they made three million dollars a year from them, but Eckert insisted. As a result from 1700 stores across America they were removed. Eckerd then encouraged fellow proprietors to get rid of the smut. They refused until they noticed many more customers now using Eckert’s chain because of his stand. As a result in the 12 month period up until we left, 11,000 retail outlets removed those magazines, plunging the smut empire into crisis.
And it happened because of one man’s conversion by the Spirit of God. Lasting and radical change comes because people are motivated to accept it. When transformation plus teaching and accountability add up to a desire to promote the welfare of one’s neighbor.
Other tensions could be noted, such as that between freedom in worship and the increasingly liturgical orientation of many Uniting Church services. While clearly God can be glorified through both ardour and order (as Dr. Arnold Hunt would say), we want to affirm that the Spirit blows where He wills. He is often doing his most potent work when He is able to move through the person in his/her total being including the emotions of spontaneity as well as the mind of constructive reflection.
In conclusion, it is worth noting that the contextual reality we live in, in Castro’s words is an environment in which there has never been a national revival of the church, nor a national awakening of Australians outside the church.
There has never been an era in which so many Australians (to say nothing of other countries) have never known Christ. There has never been an era therefore in which Australians have so needed an evangelical Christianity which emphasizes the primacy of new birth. Our church is not an evangelical church in the two key senses mentioned. Its priorities and therefore its ethos lie in other directions. There is a lack of doctrinal accountability, from an evangelical perspective, required of both theological colleges and ministers. There is also little accountability amongst parishes regarding their evangelistic activity or passivity.
Nevertheless, there is a freedom and a vision within our order that clearly provides a framework through which an evangelical theology and practice is able to be developed and practiced. I doubt if for example any evangelical could have come up with a sounder statement of the purposes of the congregation that does our Basis of Union and Regulations.
It is possible to compare these frameworks for our church’s existence with a phrase like ‘the Son of Man’ which lay dormant and undeveloped until our Lord filled it with His own meaning. Likewise, we have many patently evangelical visions of church life within our Basis and Regulations which invite us to fill them with the vital meaning and life, we believe is by God’s Spirit possible.
The cost involved in doing this is something each of us must weigh before God and with our parishes.
New births will become still-births, if conception takes place at all, if the future of the church is allowed to be dominated by liberal theologies which fail to take evangelism seriously, either by intention or by an implicit doctrine of universalism.
Therefore, evangelicals need to be prepared for dealing with a ministry to both the church and the world, for the sake of both.
By George Robert Iles