Are Churches of Christ Evangelical?: A Semantic Question (Part 5)

What Does “Evangelical” Mean?

I’m going to begin with Scott Moreau’s understanding of evangelical in Contextualization in World Missions, because it is both concise and missiologically attuned.  Moreau begins with David Bebbington’s well known “quadrilateral”: conversion, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism (Moreau, 19).  To this he adds “the common theological frame that characterizes evangelicals,” borrowing from John Stott.  A helpful table results (Moreau, 55):


Finally, Moreau states that “if there is one defining characteristic of evangelical models [of contextualization], it is the normative nature of the Bible (Lausanne 1978) in the contextualizing process” (Moreau, 57).  Though biblicism is already listed among the chief characteristics of evangelicals and reiterated in Stott’s description of the gospel, it is only right to state clearly and directly that the normativeness of the Bible is the most important issue when evangelicals work out how to be evangelical cross-culturally—that is, in contextualization.

Roger Olson, in dialogue with whom I began this series, adds an interesting dimension to Bebbington’s quadrilateral: “respect for the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine” (24).  I want to give this consideration for two reasons: (1) Olson’s book How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative, as well as his leadership in postconservative theology in general, has much to contribute to Churches of Christ theology and (2) this fifth marker of evangelicalism might put Churches of Christ at significantly more technical (i.e., doctrinal) distance from evangelicalism than I have contended exists.

Interestingly, Olson expands on respect for the great tradition in his chapter “Being Biblical without Orthodoxy,” in which he desires to free evangelicalism from its tendency to creedalism:

Written creeds and statements of faith have a way of giving rise to inquisitions, and they often become authorities functionally equal with Scripture — even among Baptists and other free church Protestants who claim to be “non-creedal”! This tendency should be resisted by evangelicals, but that requires the courage to challenge and press for change (Olson, 38-39).

This is the orthodoxy that Olson believes postconservative evangelicalism can do without, and it seems highly amenable to historical Restorationism.  It is in this context that he speaks about the great tradition.  A member of traditional Churches of Christ must hear his words as nearly prophetic:

Those who ignore history or expel tradition are doomed to repeat its mistakes and reinvent the wheel. We all inherit some tradition and there is no such thing as traditionless interpretation of Scripture or worship or ethics. Every project of inquiry and investigation into truth works from within some tradition of values and beliefs. It is impossible to step out of tradition and community into some ethereal place where we take a look from nowhere. The view from nowhere does not exist (Olson, 41).

He continues:

Why not embrace tradition while critically reflecting on it from within? That’s what I recommend to young evangelicals who may be tempted to throw the baby of Christian tradition out with the bathwater of dead orthodoxy. . . . I recommend that every evangelical read a good book of church history that includes as plain and straightforward an account of the development of Christian doctrines as possible. There is no such thing as the “unvarnished truth,” but objectivity is a good ideal to strive for. Find as objective an account of historical theology — the great tradition of Christian belief and teaching — as possible and immerse yourself in it. Before questioning doctrines, make sure you understand them. People who express doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity look foolish if they have never studied it and don’t know what it really is. For example, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is not that God is “one in three and three in one.” That’s a contradiction. The classical doctrine carved out by the early church fathers over nearly a century is that God is one substance and three persons or, to put it in a more contemporary expression — one what and three whos. It’s perfectly alright to question that so long as one knows what it is. (Olson, 41–2).

This is a very apt example for my purposes because of Stone and Campbell’s profound disagreement about the nature of the Trinity.  Ultimately, Campbell acquiesced to Stone’s insistence on using only Bible words to talk about the Son’s relationship to the Father.  This was the final and most significant hurdle for the unification of the two movements, thus the Stone-Campbell movement is, in a very important sense, built on an agreement not to acknowledge, much less respect, the great tradition.  Growing up in various Churches of Christ and attending a Churches of Christ university, I’ve never heard a single sermon or Bible class on the Trinity.  Granted that others have other experiences, I believe they would be out of the norm.  I was taught from a very early age that we use “Bible words for Bible things,” and “Trinity” is one of those “unbiblical” words.  Of course, the anti-creedalism of the Restoration Movement is well known.  Yet, my point is that if it is an essential component of restoration per se, and if Olson is right about his additional characteristic of evangelicalism, then we have a fairly clear answer to the question.  While Churches of Christ meet Bebbington’s criteria quite neatly, they cannot live up to “respect for the great tradition.”  For many Churches of Christ, there is no such thing as a good tradition, much less a great tradition.

Nonetheless, I find in Olson’s treatment of the issue a clue that suggests an alternative conclusion.  His postconservative disposition is undoubtedly critical of traditions and creeds and open to questioning even the great tradition.  I find here no hint of a dogmatic confessional requirement of, say, the Nicene Creed.  Quite the contrary, he tends toward an undogmatic respect for the history of Christian teaching, which I also learned in a Churches of Christ graduate program.  Granted, I could not have learned that respect in my childhood churches.  But there is nothing inherently contrary to respect for the great tradition in most of the twenty-first century Churches of Christ with which I am familiar, and the “young” evangelicalism to which Olson refers bears nothing inherently creedal or traditionalist when it comes to the great tradition.

So, on one hand, although there are streams of evangelicalism presently looking to ancient creeds as the only ground for Christian unity, that is not a characteristic of evangelicalism.  On the other hand, one notes the difference between evangelicalism and Churches of Christ when it comes to evangelical appeals to Reformation theologians.  Part of Churches of Christ’s anti-creedalism was the tossing of “doctrines of men” to the rubbish heap, which meant rejecting out of hand references to Luther’s or Calvin’s teachings.  This did not equate to a rejection of Reformation doctrines per se.  In fact, part of the Restoration plea was to finish what the Reformers rightly began but failed to accomplish—in particular, to take sola scriptura to its logical conclusion.  And as I said before, I would expect to find affirmation of both sola fide and sola gratia in most churches of Christ, though the sticking point in the discussion is usually whether our view of baptismal generation is compatible with these doctrines.  On this point, as I’ve said before, it depends on which Churches of Christ you are talking to, because there was never only one understanding of baptism’s role in conversion and salvation.  For my part, I believe that the majority view, when clearly articulated, is not at any point contrary to salvation by faith alone or equivalent to the “works” salvation to which Reformation doctrine is so sensitive.  (I believe that is the case mostly because the biblical teaching about baptism does not have Luther’s concerns in view.  See my post on baptism for much more detail.)

In summary, I think Olson is right to add respect for the great tradition, especially because evangelical adversity to works righteousness has become an essential corollary to evangelical crucicentrism—solus Christus is inseparable from sola gratia and sola fide.  These are, of course, broadly Protestant doctrines, but it does bear saying that evangelicals are theologically centered in these doctrines, and those who undervalue them cannot be considered evangelical.  This added dimension makes the question of Churches of Christ’s relationship to evangelicalism more nuanced, but ultimately it does not establish a essential difference (given my understanding of our doctrine of baptism).  In any event, Olson’s fifth criterion is part of what I mean by evangelical.

David Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism?, collapses “Bebbington’s two emphases on conversion and the substitutionary atonement theory into one—the conversion experience based upon faith in the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross” (Fitch, Kindle loc. 682), which I find to be a very reasonable move.  I will return to Fitch’s appropriation of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy for an “evangelical political philosophy.”  For now, it is sufficient to note his thesis, “that evangelicalism has become an ’empty politic’ driven by what we are against instead of what we are for” (Fitch, Kindle loc. 189).  This is a strikingly familiar statement for a member of the Churches of Christ.  And Fitch is seeking a direction similar to mine:

My objective, however, is not to dismantle or bring an “end” to this version of evangelicalism. Rather, I seek to provide an opening for evangelicalism to be renewed and to flourish into the missional calling that lies before us in the new post-Christendom West. I do not discredit the value that lies behind these three evangelical historical commitments. Some may find these traditional evangelical beliefs archaic. I am not so sure. I suggest that the commitments to the authority of Scripture, a conversionist salvation, and an activist evangelistic stance of the church in the world, which these beliefs attest to, are essential to a vibrant Christian faith in North America (Fitch, Kindle loc. 215).

Like Olson, who seeks a postconservative rather than a postevangelical path, Fitch is able to affirm the essence of evangelicalism while radically critiquing current evangelicalism’s “life together in the world.”  Similarly, I am interested in a renewed restorationism, not a postrestorationism, more on which later.  So my understanding of evangelicalism is charitable, as I would hope evangelicals would be charitable to the Churches of Christ: I affirm Fitch’s critique, but I do not confuse the critique of what evangelicalism often is with what evangelicalism is supposed to be.

Finally, considering what evangelicalism is supposed to be, I look to Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism for vital insight.   There are a number of other characteristics that one might point out in the description of de facto evangelicalism.  Many of these characteristics are what Rah calls “Western, white cultural captivity.”  I need not list here all of Rah’s incisive observations.  Many aspects of evangelicalism have been culturally Western and white.  In describing a historical movement such as evangelicalism, it is inevitably a culturally determined description.  While evangelicals would continue to affirm their quadrilateral, as well as some other aspects of their theology, on the grounds that they are universally right—as all of us who are not despairing relativists must do—there is no doubt that even these core elements developed in Western, white culture and have been identified by Western, white scholars.  Therefore, putting aside some of the other dimensions that evangelicalism factually comprises, the question is: What aspects of the quadrilateral, the evangelical articulation of the gospel, and respect for the great tradition should be viewed as culturally relative and therefore not actually inherent in global evangelicalism?

The answer to this question brings us back to Moreau’s book on contextualization.  It is cross-cultural mission that ultimately places historically particular movements under scrutiny.  The question is not ultimately what evangelicals have been or are but what happens when evangelicals sow the euangelion in foreign soil and allow the context to shape what grows rather than imposing Western, white culture upon it.  Rah writes:

In order to break off the shackles of the Western, white captivity of the church, each culture and people group must be willing to take on the task of translating the gospel message for their own unique language and cultural context. To translate the message, therefore, becomes a reliving of the incarnation and the powerful theological work of living out the gospel message for all races and cultures. Furthermore, this translation should lead to all expressions of the gospel message being embraced by the church worldwide, recognizing that our theology and our understanding of the gospel message are incomplete until we hear from all voices (Rah, Kindle locs. 2339-2343).

The implication is that, because the gospel is presumed to be a part of the quadrilateral and the great tradition, it is impossible for Western, white Christianity to have said definitively what evangelicalism is.  And global evangelicalism has already made evident at least one revision to evangelical identity.  It is the deletion of the phrase “especially evangelism and missionary work” under Activism.  Or, better yet, it is the addition of “holistic” to “The Gospel is Christological, biblical, historical, theological, apostolic and personal”—a redefinition of the gospel that consequently redefines evangelism and precludes the spiritualistic understanding of “evangelism and missionary work” that has long been dominant in Western, white evangelicalism (Rah, ch. 8).

The discussion of cultural captivity is of utmost importance for the present discussion of Churches of Christ’s relationship to evangelicalism, because I’m contending the sameness of the two groups is ultimately to be understood on the level of worldview and because I’m contending that the direction for both groups on the basis of their sameness is a missional one, which leads us to cross-cultural encounters and, in regard to a common theological direction, contextualization.

To conclude this post about what I mean by evangelicalism, I synthesize the various points I’ve mentioned in this way:


Fitch, David E. The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Toward an Evangelical Political Theology. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

Moreau, A. Scott. Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012.

Olson, Roger E. How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Rah, Soong-Chan. The Next Evangelicalism: Releasing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Kindle edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

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