Are Churches of Christ Evangelical?: An Open Question (Part 1)

The question remains open, first because everyone has such a hard time defining “evangelical,” and second because evangelicals aren’t sure they want to claim us, and we’re not sure we want to be claimed.  Yet, I find the most relevant answer in a sociological, descriptive mode that doesn’t have any regard for what anyone involved wants.  Just as Churches of Christ don’t get to claim not to be a denomination just because they don’t want to be one, because that’s not the way language works, neither do we get to claim to be or not to be evangelical on the basis of desire.  In other words, there are some objective criteria that make us pragmatically evangelical.  Of course, this is where the problem with defining evangelical becomes primary.  While I plan to adopt a particular definition of evangelicalism for argument’s sake, my focus here is actually on other criteria: those a historical description of culture reveals.

I begin with a comment I left on Roger Olson’s post “Are Restorationists (Churches of Christ/Independent Christians) ‘evangelicals?’” in Dec. 2011:

I think that there is a major caveat to mention here. While the “majority” of CofCs are rural, traditional, and fit the profile of the hardline baptismal regenerationist, Roger’s observation in the post that the position is possibly changing quickly has to be confirmed. The rapid rate of decline among traditional CofCs has coincided with the deep-delving critical self-reflection of the last few decades, led by ACU profs. and the like. If we’re not counting heads, from my perspective as a native of a very middle-of-the-road stream of CofC life, these thinkers are certainly the most influential voice in a discussion about whether Restorationists are evangelical. And if we are counting heads, the shift is happening very quickly anyway.

Yet, as you (Roger) have repeatedly emphasized, the issue is the definition of evangelicalism. So, if the question is whether this “mainstream” CofC holds to the view of baptism that qualifies as faith+, the answer is . . . it depends on whom you’re talking to and just how you parse out the semantics. At least on the face of it, while many would have no desire whatsoever to label themselves evangelical, they would have a strong desire to affirm salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And this is why I don’t find your question “do they want to call themselves evangelical” to be a very helpful litmus—because the issue (in your post/book) is actually how they fit certain criteria, and, by and large, they do want to fit those criteria (again, “they” is the mainstream). As I think the book referenced various times in these comments, Evangelicalism and the Stone Campbell Movement (which is actually two volumes) demonstrates comically, the answer may actually be that CofCs are evangelical whether they want to be or not. (If these volumes are representative, it seems that Christian Churches are far more inclined to be evangelical.)

A few other observations while I’m at it (thanks for the post–it’s very engaging!). McKnight’s observation about the puzzling “spread into the mainline” is actually very relevant to this discussion. Precisely because CofCs (you’ll have noticed I’m not trying to speak for all Restorationists) have had no interest in being evangelical or anything else defined by a particular set of positions (not that they don’t have their own, but this sort of discussion of “are we [insert label]” is just what Restoration was about avoiding by virtue of literal-logical biblicism) allowed for a paradoxical sort of theological freedom. Admittedly, the movement swam in the same cultural waters as everyone else and split down the middle basically along the lines of the liberal/fundamentalist divide in the early 20th century. But the freedom from imperatives not to go in one direction or another (referencing McKnight’s comment) actually allowed for a kind of early post-liberal/post-conservative thought in serendipitous moments. So more than moving in a particularly mainline Protestant direction, some have been more “liberal” in the same sense that post-conservatives are more liberal. This is, I believe, largely because we were not especially committed to a conservative agenda in the programatic way that most evangelicals are/were. The result is a strange hybridity that encompasses a good deal of conservatism and a very strong kinship with evangelicals but makes room unselfconsciously for more liberal kinds of theological moves on a micro level (but among influential, i.e. academic, voices). That’s a shot at explanation, at least.

Speaking for myself, that kind of freedom of thought is what I feel anxious about losing when the question arises as to whether I “want to be” an evangelical. As you mentioned just below, some of that reaction is specifically to characteristics of neo-fundamentalist evangelicalism. So, perhaps you would make the same caveat that I did above—they may be the majority (? it sure feels that way) but they don’t get to define the whole. My anxiety arises, however, because the CofC (being largely southern) is succumbing rather unconsciously to the pull of cultural evangelicalism, which is strongly colored with the “takeover” you mention. In other words, the degree to which the mainstream CofC is evangelical is less a matter of its intentional conformity to your book’s criteria or the quadrilateral or whatever; and more a matter of cultural assimilation. Sure, that’s not the definition you’re working with, but it is actually how many arrive at the positions you do want to use, as JR said, by virtue of the same devotional literature, music, media-hyped culture wars, etc. This is far from all bad. If I could caricature a little, there are no few middle-aged CofCers who have woken up, walked into Sunday Bible class, and found themselves quite mysteriously discussing their interpretations in a far less sectarian, semi-pelagian mode.

So, when I consider whether I want to be evangelical, it’s virtually impossible for me to contemplate that possibility apart from the real-world implications of that direction for the congregations I know—pop-evangelicalism is evangelicalism. As a whole, they aren’t implications that appeal. Add to this the preference for “freedom” to revisit conclusions such as the place of baptism (I like the reference to N. T. Wright above—exegetical theology continues to nuance/challenge systematic conclusions) or to reflect critically on 4th century Greco-Roman-world credal formulations, and I’m very hesitant to say yes. The CofCs are getting over biblicism, and doing so while maintaining a healthy skepticism toward pat positions from the outside (not saying evangelicals can’t have healthy skepticism, but it is different for a committed insider) places us in a position for really fruitful biblical theology as a movement (idealism, I know…). Finally, considering the best impulses of the Restoration Movement, which were toward a very big-tent Christianity (alas for derailing), there is narrowness in the self-definition “evangelical” (with all due respect, truly) that isn’t what we’re (theoretically) about. And if the label “evangelical” isn’t being used in the sense of “faithful Christian,” then my question is, why would I want to be labeled as such—what do I gain?  If it’s the approval of a large, influential association or getting to be “in” with those who define American conservative Christianity, I can’t say that motivates much. But I may well be missing the point.

Now, if you’re asking whether I want to be a post-conservative, theologically substantive, kingdom-oriented follower of Christ, then the answer is absolutely.

Finally, getting back to the descriptive notion of evangelical, there is an important though somewhat accidental sense in which CofCs are shown to be evangelical in regard to the question about baptismal theology. The entire question, in both the post (I think) and throughout the comments, is in reference to what one might argue to be a defining characteristic of evangelicalism—namely, a particular view of salvation. The question is about whether one is “saved” by God at immersion or only “saved” by grace through faith. But the reference is to a soteriology that both hold in common, which is fixated on personal forgiveness and salvation from sin and hell. I get that it’s important for evangelicals to uphold grace-alone/faith-alone and for CofCers to be committed to textual statements about baptism, and there is nothing wrong with splitting hairs when they matter, but it is splitting hairs when you step back and see the commonality regarding what the religion as a whole is about (which is why, sociologically, I think there is no way CofCs don’t get labeled as evangelical).

As I said then, the big picture of our placement in both the historical culture wars and the current stream of evangelical culture should be what answers the question.  Most discussions of other criteria focus on doctrinal particulars, which are important—and I think that the Churches of Christ mainstream can meet those criteria adequately.  But the more important point is why they can meet them, and the reason is that they have shared and do share the same worldview.  And the implicit aspects of worldview are far more powerful for life—that is, pragmatically—than the articulations of doctrinal nuances.

Historically, we shared the same worldview and worldview conflicts as other American Christians.  Presently, we engage with evangelical worldview formation on both popular and academic levels.  More on this in the next post.

Here is why it matters: One, Richard Hughes has dealt very influentially with the meaning of restorationism in relation to evangelicalism.  It is now impossible to proceed responsibly toward a theological vision for Churches of Christ, if it is to be distinctively rooted in restoration as I believe it should, without addressing Hughes’s construal of the authentic restorationist worldview.  It is both helpful and problematic for reasons I will discuss subsequently.  Two, there is no way to engage missional theology without understanding the evangelicalism to which it is principally addressed—and why, being addressed to them, it makes so much sense for Churches of Christ.  Our common worldview is the reason that missional theology meets the same need among evangelicals and Churches of Christ.  Pragmatically, as missional theology addresses us, we find ourselves standing on exactly the same ground.

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