What is evangelical Christianity?
Ask the average American, and they will probably answer with some variation on politicized religion of the right-wing variety. There is an element of truth to this. White evangelical Christians in America tend to be politically conservative, after all, voting for Republicans in large majorities. Then again, African American and Hispanic evangelicals, by contrast, tend to be economically liberal but socially conservative, voting for Democrats to a similar or greater extent. Worldwide, the politics of evangelicals are even more diverse.
There is an element of tragedy to the average American’s answer, then, for it reduces evangelical Christianity to a political stance that does not accurately describe it or capture its real essence. To discover that essence, one must define evangelicalism theologically, recognizing that right-leaning evangelicals (such as the late Charles Colson) and left-leaning evangelicals (such as Ron Sider) are more united by their theology than they are divided by their politics.
Even when one factors in theological differences among evangelicals—such as the Arminian/Calvinist debate, the cessationist/continuationist debate, and the complementarian/egalitarian debate—the underlying theological foundations of evangelical Christianity are still held in common. That is why, in the 18th-century transatlantic revivals, John Wesley and George Whitefield could view one another as friends and colleagues, despite their strong theological disputes. That is why today, the National Association of Evangelicals can encompass a wide spectrum of opinion on those issues and more. There is something more basic to and common in evangelical Christianity than those disputes.
What that basic, common theology underlying evangelical Christianity is can be gleaned from the pages of Christ in Conflict by John Stott. Stott, who died in 2011, first published this book in 1970 under the title, Christ the Controversialist. Langham Literature, which was founded by Stott and holds copyright to his books, has reissued this little work with a new title and a few editorial changes, principally, Americanizing the spelling, changing the Bible version used, and deleting some illustrations that had become dated.
Stott himself stated the “aim” of his book very clearly at the outset: “to argued that ‘evangelical’ Christianity is real Christianity—authentic, true, original and pure—and to show this from the teaching of Jesus Christ himself” (p. 15). To accomplish that aim, Stott turns to eight conflicts recorded in the Gospels that Jesus had with either the Sadducees or the Pharisees. We might state those controversies in the form of a question:
- Is religion natural or supernatural?
- Is theological authority found in tradition or Scripture?
- Is the Bible an end or a means to an end?
- Is salvation based on merit or mercy?
- Is morality outward or inward?
- Is worship a matter of the lips or of the heart?
- Is it the Church’s responsibility to withdraw from the world to become involved in it?
- And should our highest ambition be our own glory or God’s?
In each case, Stott aligns evangelical Christianity with the second option. What, then, is evangelical Christianity? It is a supernatural, biblically grounded, Jesus-focused, merciful, heart-changing, authentic, socially engaged, and humble form of religion. Or rather, that’s what it should be. To the extent that it is not, it has departed from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
On the whole, I found Stott’s treatment of these controversies both enlightening and persuasive. Stott was a moderately Calvinistic Anglican priest. I am a thoroughly Arminian Pentecostal minister. And yet, I see how both his form of Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism agree wholeheartedly on these more basic matters. There are a number of theological nuances to these matters that I would have liked Stott to embrace, not to mention a few interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors that I think need to more carefully qualified. Regardless, his Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism are clearly siblings in the same religious family, a family into which all of us have been adopted by God.
Although 40+-years-old, Christ in Conflict can help American evangelicals today—besmirched and begrimed by politics as we are—uncover again our basic theological assumptions. Doing so will have several salutary effects: It can help us refocus us on the mission Christ gave us to make disciples of all nations. It can help unify us across denominational and even national boundaries. And it can remind us that we unites us in Christ as evangelicals is greater, more important, and more foundational than what divides us in Washington DC.
What unites us is nothing less than the gospel—in Greek, euangelion—that gives us evangelicals our name.
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.