The era of “Big Tent Evangelicalism” is over.
Like the super-continent Pangaea, evangelicalism has begun to fracture and to drift apart into smaller groupings that are travelling in very different directions. David Gushee at RNS identifies two groups – the progressives and the conservatives. Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition identifies three groups – the evangelicals, the moderates and the revisionists. While I’m not entirely sold on Wax’s terminology, I think he is correct in identifying three distinct groups emerging out of the old evangelical consensus. At root these three factions can be attributed to three very different approaches to the authority of Holy Scripture.
Group One: Those Who Relate To Scripture As A Fixed Anchor
The group that Wax identifies as “evangelical” tends to relate to Scripture as a fixed anchor and an absolute authority. Among these folks, if you have a Bible verse you tend to win the argument. Their definition of Biblical authority is succinct enough to fit on a coffee cup: “When the Bible speaks, God speaks.”
The text has a meaning and the meaning must be obeyed.
When these folks study the Scriptures, they are looking to discover authorial intention and contemporary application. Classic evangelicals will make use of historical background, language study and comparative analysis in order to discern the original meaning of a passage. They expect that their study will yield progressive understanding, but any movement or reformation within the group must be in the direction of the text, irrespective of cultural forces.
Group Two: Those Who Relate To Scripture As A Sea Anchor
A sea anchor is defined by Wikipedia as:
a device used to stabilize a boat in heavy weather. Rather than tethering the boat to the seabed, the sea anchor increases the drag through the water and thus acts as a brake.
These folks bristle when the more conservative evangelicals accuse them of having a low view of Scripture. They view Scripture as providing invaluable caution, guidance and ballast against the over-rapid process of cultural change. They place a larger emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit as “Guide” and “Teacher” within the church. The authority of the Scriptures as written tends to be played off against the authority of Scripture as heard, received and interpreted. Having a verse does not necessarily win the argument with this group, because each verse can be heard in a variety of ways.
When folks from this group study the Bible, they are looking for trajectory and priority. Progressives will often identify “defeater verses” such as Galatians 3:28 that are assigned governing authority over more culturally problematic passages of Scripture. These folks often develop a “canon within a canon”, giving far greater authority to some of the words of Jesus and relegating the Old Testament to essentially illustrative status.
Group Three: Those Who Relate To Scripture As A Historical And Cultural Landmark
These folks tend to speak of Scripture as “an important partner in the dialogue” but feel a much greater freedom of interpretation than either their progressives or classically evangelical cousins. While they respect the Bible as a useful landmark they do not feel restrained or governed by it. The receiving community is ultimately authoritative over the written text. A quotation from Ghandi, Karl Rahner or Henri Nouwen sits co-equal with citations from the Bible. When these folks study the Scriptures they are listening for hints, mystery and inspiration but they do not expect to receive authoritative instruction.
Change in this group is in the direction of the culture and is motivated by a desire to include as many voices as possible.
Life On The Other Side:
Given the Sovereignty of God and the historical reality of revival and reformation, it is never wise to assume a constant trajectory. Things could change. We could see a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the church in a way that would make all our plans and projections come to nothing.
May it be so!
And yet we must act and pray in relation to our present circumstances. At this time, short of intervention and revival, it certainly does appear that the era of Big Tent Evangelicalism has passed. Churches, denominations and parachurch organizations will all have to pick a team and form new partnerships and associations among those who hold to the same foundational convictions as they do. We are likely at the beginning of the greatest re-organization of Christendom since the 16th century. With that in mind, I offer the following humble suggestions:
Know what you believe
The broad consensus of evangelicalism that existed for much of the twentieth century allowed many pastors, churches and denominations to avoid articulating their theological convictions. Many para-church organizations attempted to maintain a broad constituency and donor base by retreating into theological minimalism; such groups now find themselves struggling to articulate their utility. In the post-evangelical world we now live in, individuals, churches, denominations and para-church organizations need to know and publish what they believe. The better you can articulate your conviction, the more likely you are to build functional community.
Partner in proportion to alignment
There will still be many opportunities for broad based partnership in the post-evangelical world. We don’t need to agree on the authority of Scripture or the doctrine of the atonement to hand out canned goods or to promote basic literacy among the poor. We do however require near total alignment to plant churches or to train pastors. Individuals and churches need to think carefully about what sorts of partnership require what depths of theological agreement.
Press forward in the Great Commission
It’s never a good idea to waste time crying over spilled milk. The genie won’t go back in the bottle, nor will the toothpaste go back in the tube. Let’s not spend the next 10 years trying to rebuild the Evangelical Empire. Let’s not have endless debate over the presenting issues while remaining intractably committed to our underlying presuppositions.
Let’s get on with it.
Let’s preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded us – as best we understand it. When the Lord returns he will judge everyone’s work. As the Apostle Paul said:
each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:13–15 ESV)
Could there be revival that changes everything? Of course! Should we continue engaging with each other in hopes of reformation and improvement? Of course! But I don’t want to spend the best years of my life trying to rebuild a mirage. Let’s talk, sure, but let’s talk on our way home from the field. Let the fruit speak and let the Lord judge; as for you and me, let’s get on with our labours.
Remember that God is in control
Evangelicals enjoyed a false sense of security in North America during the last half of the twentieth century. Ever since Billy Graham managed to gather well over 100,000 people into Yankee Stadium in 1957, we have believed ourselves an indispensible part of the culture. But now, as evangelicalism fractures into smaller and less politically significant groupings there is widespread panic as we begin to realize that we are no longer in charge. More than that, it seems that the culture is starting to turn against us. Having thrown off their evangelical overlords, the mob seems hungry for retribution.
Fear not; God is in control.
He is not surprised by these developments and he has a plan to use even this for the good of his people and the glory of His Beloved Son.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
N.B. A version of this article was originally published in April of 2016 and has been modified to reflect more recent trends and developments.