Why I am evangelical but not an Evangelical

The catalyst for this post was An Evangelical Manifesto, which I reflected upon in my last post. And my perspective on the subject is deeply informed by two traditions/movements within the Christian church with which I have been heavily involved. One is Quakerism in which I spent much of my life. Another is what is often referred to as the Emerging Church conversation or movement. While I have only formally been a member of an Emerging Church for three years, I was part of a group which had much of the same perspective long before the term Emerging Church had been dreamed of. That little spiritual community which became known as Friends in Christ melded Quaker and what now would be called Emerging Church perspectives in a way that could be called an early precursor of the loose Convergent Friends movement of today. Here I will note that in the long list of Manifesto signatories I could not identify any Quakers or any of the prominent public faces in the Emerging Church conversation.

As I indicated in my earlier post, I fully identify with the definition in An Evangelical Manifesto: “Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” Playing off that document’s insistence on capitalizing Evangelical, I am saying I am evangelical in terms of the root meaning of that word expressed in that Manifesto definition, but I’m not comfortable with some other aspects of the description of Evangelical, in which the Manifesto is faithful to the tradition of that part of the Christian church. That leads me to seeing myself as fitting the term if left lower case, but not really accurately defined when it is upper case.

The Bible and Authority

The Manifesto, and here it is indeed representative of Evangelicalism, refers to sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), the “supreme authority of the Bible,” and “the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.” It claims this is shown by “Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude.” This is a Manifesto, not an apology, and it doesn’t do references, so I’m not sure what they rely on for that.

I find Jesus saying in scripture that I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6, NIV) This is a radical statement, and one hard for us humans to accept because we want to be able to package up truth in a neat, rational box. Jesus tells us this impulse is wrong. The people that he had such conflict with are precisely the religious leaders of his day who wanted to tie up faith in a neat little box. Relying on purely the written word of the Bible as the Truth doesn’t really quite succeed in achieving the goal of the neat little box, but the urge to make the book supreme is an attempt to move in that direction. Evangelicals also proclaim Christ is Lord, but their emphasis on the written word as the sole determiner of Truth tends to contradict that. I am not an Evangelical because, in the end, I’m not sure that Evangelicalism is really centered on Jesus Christ.

I believe the premier Quaker apologist, Robert Barclay, put this question of authority well in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. He states that the scriptures do contain revelations of God to the saints, but notes that, “because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.” Barclay notes “that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth” and goes on to make this key argument:

If by the Spirit we can only come to the true knowledge of God; if by the Spirit we are to be led into all Truth, and so be taught of all things; then the Spirit, and not the Scriptures, is the foundation and ground of all Truth and knowledge, and the primary rule of faith and manners

I find Barclay’s arguments convincing. (See also Friends (Quakers) and the Bible.)

My immersion into the Emerging Church conversation has provided me with further insights into understanding the scriptures. I have learned about narrative theology. To me, this provides a way to better explore the richness of the scriptures than a doctrinally centered theology. I can observe that Jesus taught largely by telling stories, and by the story of what he did. Looking at the whole Bible, I can see that it is predominantly stories. By taking the narrative approach rather than a literalist approach, we are better able to explore the many facets of the stories in the scripture and to translate them into lessons for how we can live more faithfully.

The narrative approach sees the narrative as continuing, not stopped at some point in time with what’s in the canon, which is consistent with the early Quaker reluctance to embrace the idea of a fixed canon. When I participated in the Journey Seminar, the membership class for Cedar Ridge Community Church, I appreciated the approach of a journey which included what was recorded in scripture, the history of the Christian church in its many variations, and the life of this particular local faith community. It gave me both a sense of the “cloud of witnesses” and of the importance of the continuing spiritual journey in which I can participate. At the end, to become a member, I signed a sheet of paper that was committing myself to principles of living out the journey with Christ within the context of this particular community, but did not contain doctrinal propositions. This felt right to me.

Protestant?

While what I have just written about is the primary reason for my reluctance to consider myself an Evangelical, there is another (albeit related) concern. Evangelicals hold strongly to being Protestant, in contrast with the alternatives of being Catholic or Orthodox. I feel a reluctance to limit my Christian understanding to just one of the main divisions of the Christian church. This view, too, has been heavily impacted by my involvement in both Quakerism and the Emerging Church conversation.

There has been a debate about whether or not Quakers are Protestants. (See Are Quakers Protestant?) Early Quakers contrasted themselves with both Catholics and Protestants (Orthodox were simply not a part of the religious conversation in 17th century Britain where the Quaker movement started, but I’m sure Quakers would also have contrasted themselves with the Orthodox if they had been), essentially regarding both streams as apostate. In some areas, they saw Protestants as having moved from part of the errors of Catholicism, but not all the way. As regards the scriptures, their argument was in fact primarily with Protestantism.

While identifying with the Quaker reluctance to put themselves in one of the big boxes of Christianity, I became increasingly reluctant to see that solely as rejecting those major streams. My participation (1993-94) in the Spiritual Nurturer Program of the School of the Spirit greatly contributed to that. While the Program was Quaker, the majority of the readings were from the monastic tradition, which has been writing in depth about spiritual nurture for many centuries. I found that I really identified with most of what I read from the monastic tradition. That did not make me want to convert to Catholicism, but it did result in a great appreciation for the spiritual richness within that tradition.

At Cedar Ridge, the teachings and practices draw from all three major divisions of the Christian church. All are seen as part of the story in which we see ourselves. While in the Emerging Church conversation we recognize many ways in which all three traditions have gone astray at various points in history, we don’t have the unrelenting negativism towards them that marked the early Quakers. We also see a lot of spiritual vitality in all of these streams of Christianity. I identify with this perspective.

* * * * * * * * * *

This post may be too long, but I hope it gave you some food for thought. I would welcome comments on it.

Share/Save/Bookmark

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 Responses to “Why I am evangelical but not an Evangelical”

  1. kevin Says:

    A thoughtful discussion, Bill. A short initial question: Why three streams–Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant? I recognize that the diversity among the “Protestants” is so vast that the term today is largely artificial, and even leaves the missing-link Lutherans and Anglicans somewhere in limbo. But what about the Syriac Orthodox? For convenience, we might start with traditions based on numbers of adherents (which is reasonable, and gives us three or so), or on seriously-divergent conceptions of what is involved (which would include the Quakers as one of about five).

    Old Howard Brinton never thought about the Orthodox at all, and included the Friends as a third branch among three.

  2. wsamuel Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Kevin. Honestly, I have not studied in depth how Christians are classified (but I know not everyone classifies them the same way), and it is quite possible there are groups besides Quakers which might be left out of The Big Three formulation, and I would want to include them in the Christian story. Lutherans and Anglicans generally consider themselves Protestant (In America, Anglicans call themselves the Protestant Episcopal church), although in some respects they do fall somewhere between most Protestants and Catholics in practice. I don’t know about the Syriac Orthodox, but I did say Orthodox, not Eastern Orthodox, so I’m not trying to distinguish some Orthodox streams from others. Coptic might be difficult to classify, although I think some classifiers include them with Orthodox.

    A lot of folks in the West, now as in the past, don’t have much awareness of the Orthodox, and tend to think of just two major divisions, Catholic and Protestant. Some with very little knowledge of Orthodox lump them together with Catholics, although there are quite important differences.

  3. kevin Says:

    That’s one of the things that’s so interesting to me. There’s also the Thomists in India, and the Roman Catholic Tamils from Kerala. Some of the Jesuits in India adopted Indian practices (I think) in the same way that they did at first in China.

    Christianity is vastly diverse, when you bring all the threads together into one cord, and only looks homogeneous to people who restrict the category to their own version.

    Orthodoxy itself is pretty diverse–with each branch even maintaining separate canons. \\Gotta go

  4. Nate Swift Says:

    I’m not sure I’m understanding an apparent distinction from Quaker position in your valuing elements of other traditions while not accepting the whole package. I could be wrong, but I never got the impression that Quakers at any time rejected “all things Catholic,” or “all things Protestant.” I would expect that there are some things that would fit into all three “boxes,” as well as into any relationship with God through Christ. Am I missing something?

  5. wsamuel Says:

    Nate, I think you’re correct that early Quakers never went so far as rejecting all things Catholic or all things Protestant, but the tone of writings of George Fox and others is almost always negative towards the faith and practices of other Christians of their day. The focus was on how they departed from the “everlasting Gospel” not a balanced perspective. I suppose that’s pretty natural for a new faith movement which has some clearly different understandings from the major Christian groups at the time the movement began. And this wasn’t a one way street. Quakers were being subjected to very strong criticism from other Christian groups, and were defending themselves against it.

    It’s also true that there is a difference in the tone among different prominent Friends. Isaac Penington’s tone generally seems much gentler than Fox’s, for example.

  6. Nate Swift Says:

    Thank you, Bill. I should have said how much I appreciated your comments and especially the exposition on authority. As usual, I got all caught up in a question and neglected the main thought. Oh well, I’m sure I will do it again as that appears to be the way I’m constructed.

    In His Love,
    Nate

  7. Kent Says:

    Bill,

    A thoughtful epistle. I would agree with your implicit argument that many modern-day Evangelicals and Fundamentalists ignore what Christ actually taught for the more comforting and self-affirming certanties of the Bible. Quakerism probably IS its own strain of Christianity, as unique as Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy or anything else.

    Doesn’t Simon at Light and Silence talk about the similarities between Quakerism and Greek Orthodoxy?

  8. wsamuel Says:

    Kent, I agree with Simon that there are real similarities in Orthodox and Quaker spirituality. That’s not to say they’re quite the same, and of course there are real differences in some areas.

    A number of Quakers have left for Orthodoxy. It may be a natural move, melding some common elements of spirituality with a rootedness in the historical church and the acceptance of mystery expressed through physical means without quite the salvific meaning with Catholicism seems to put to it.

    I think Quakerism is weak in its understanding of the Incarnation, and the Orthodox are strong in that area. And I think that leads to the differences in such areas as the sacraments.

  9. Timothy Says:

    Bill

    You really go to the center of things quickly, here, and I appreciate that given where I am at the moment, have been for a while and am more and more comfortable.

    I struggle with the use of “Quakerism,” any more, and have stopped using it, myself, for two reasons. I am now more apt to use the phrase (as you do, above) the “faith and practice of Friends” (a broader term than The Faith and Practice, which is the title of some books formerly called Disciplines).

    First, “Quakerism” conjures tendencies toward ideology–socialism, Americanism, nationalism and the like. This creates a mind set in some of us sometimes that makes it difficult to maintain that faithfulness to listening to and being guided by the Spirit. By “some of us,” of course, I mean me. Our faith and practice is not merely following an ideology, a set of ideas developed in elaboration on a propositional acceptance of what amount to notions. It is, as you say, a listening and obeying that which is not adequately explained or accounted for by notions or the ideologies that grow from them.

    Second, Quakerism is a term both vague and ambiguous. It is one that three people can use meaning different things to each yet conveying the appearance of unity with the others. That’s fine if everyone in the conversation understands and accepts that. It’s usually not fine when someone realizes it, for the first time, in the middle of a discussion. Or maybe it is fine, but it’s likely to lead to contention before it is entreaty. (There is nothing like the revision of a Faith and Practice to bring this insight home.)

    You know that I am located in what may be the most radically inclusive domain of the Society–where Wiccans and Buddhists and Atheistsare accepted in the same spirit of unity with which Joel and Hannah Bean were able to gather Conservative, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christian Friends together 130 (plus or minus) years ago for a fellowship that sought reconciliation after a century of schism and division in the Society.

    So my take on what you have written is that it is wonderfully edifying and yet, in discussing “Quakerism” in the context of Christianity, it seems to only be talking about some of the domains of the Society, or, perhaps better said, only some of us (Christians) in all the domains of the Society as it exists today.

    But I do know that you know that such as Fox and Woolman owned that Jesus has worked in and saved many people in many times, places and spiritual traditions who never heard his name or even his gospel (the original meaning of the term “universalism”). And it is the fruit, not the sticker on it, that proves the tree.

    I am constantly in mind, as I walk among those everywhere whose spiritual take is different than my own Christian orientation, of Gamaliel’s advice in Acts 6:38-39.

    You do good work for us all, Bill. Please accept these comments in the spirit of support and encouragement with which they were written.

    Timothy

    “I was directed to His own perfect example. He never separated Himself from His people in all their opposition and enmity toward Him. He did not disown the Church of His Birthright, though it disowned Him.

    Letter from Joel Bean to P. Doncaster, 1-4-00

  10. Diane Says:

    Hi Bill.

    I agree that Friends in Christ was in the emerging church or convergent Christian model, ahead of its time. Actually, it happened alongside the emergence of the emerging church, only without the label. Of course, Richard Foster, a big influence on the emerging church’s ecumenicalism, was a Quaker.

    I also agree that sola scripture can take Christ out of the center of the faith, and I agree with Barclay that it’s Spirit, not word, that matters most. However, quotes like Barclay’s above can and are taken out of context and twisted at times into “anything goes” or as an invitation to throw out Christ as the center of the faith. I think that’s what the sola scripture people fear. So we need a healhty tension between the two streams.

    One of the things I like best in the contemporary church is the rediscovery of Eastern Orthodoxy. I would callit a powerful illumination.

    I also like Cedar Ridge’s use of unbounded set theory, the idea that at the center of the community is Jesus and becoming Christlike is the goal of the community, but anyone at any stage of their spiritual journey can join in, without pressure to be what they are not. That seems congruent with early Quakerism, where people were to profess only what they possessed, but where knowing Jesus was at the center of the faith.

  11. Linda Wilk Says:

    Dear Friend Bill,

    I am grateful for the differentiation you make between evangelical and Evangelical. I also appreciate your references to both Barclay’s understanding of authority, to the place of Convergent Friends in this discussion and to the place of narrative in ongoing revelation.

    I find myself asking the question lately, what do we Friends have in common? I think the discussions among the different ‘branches’ of Friends have become too focused on what is different between us, rather than what is common among us. You offer a refreshing alternative to this in helping us remember where early Friends viewed themselves.

    When we look at the Bible as part of the narrative of our faith tradition, and we remember to see ourselves and our faith community as part of that ongoing revelation, we become more responsible participants in our faith tradition.

    How much ego is involved in all of those divisions between us! We all want to think we have the one right way. I am struggling to overcome that tendency which seems so natural, but which divides us even more. What is God revealing to us here? What are we being called to do which will create the unity that God showed us through Jesus’ teachings?

    Again, thank you.

    Linda

  12. forrest curo Says:

    Bibles…can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

    Meanwhile the Author of Bibles keeps on teaching us–me, certainly, and you as well, I’d say!

    It’s a little like: “My flag is the flag that says you can burn this flag!”

    And God is making it pretty clear that I won’t have time to say all I’d like today, nor would it necessarily come across what I mean, but if we keep listening… And keep asking for what we need to keep learning from Him!

    Each day we try to lie down somewhere (as you say) with our minds in a box, and He finds us there, and says: “Come on, now! You can’t die here!”

  13. biblejesuscat Says:

    1 Lissenup, youse yammerin, wez miawing bout Ceiling Cat anna Kitten Jebus,
    2 we seez Invisible Water Dish anna graze inna littrboxz, anna miaw-miaw to da Ceiling Cat.
    3 More d00dz, webe yammerin bouts Tribbles, anna Trouble Wit Tribbles (datbe da Staw Twek, Season 2, Episode 15) makus gud catz;
    4 anna keeps doon it, nice earz; anna nice paws, noses.
    5 Miaws summore, slavin ta Ceiling Cat iz gud an youse bin miawin to da Hover Cat, gud fur youse, srsly.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.