Guest Post by Matt Ely
Evangelicalism is a difficult word to define. It’s an even more difficult movement to stand behind. For decades now, the word has become associated with anti-intellectualism, regressive social policy, and bad music. The evangelical call to ‘pure’ faith in Jesus as savior sounds to many like a thin veneer of confidence covering a shell devoid of content.
But this has always stood in stark relief to my experience. I grew up in an unmistakably evangelical environment, and what I found there was a unique seriousness about figuring out how to follow Christ rightly. It was an exercise in faith, sure, but it was also very open to reform. Evangelicalism always seemed, to me, to have an open door: if you could find a way to defend your view Biblically, then the community would at least countenance, if not accept wholesale, the legitimacy of your view.
Well, in the tradition of college students before and after me, my absolute confidence in the evangelical system faded over time. More and more, I saw the limits of evangelical inquiry. If you wanted to talk about the nuances of natural grace, you might be leant an ear. But if you saw a Biblical case for marriage equality, anti-war activism, or any number of issues, you pretty quickly hit a brick wall. As I saw increasingly the knee-jerk defensiveness of evangelicalism in general, I decided to make a change. And while I eventually joined an Episcopal church (following another script for disaffected evangelicals before and since), I still wanted to believe evangelicalism still had something to offer, that its positive traditions of inquiry and reform could be separated from its instinctive social conservatism.
And while there are clearly positive elements to evangelicalism, the movement is, at root, inseparable from individualism and schismatism. This pattern of thinking has been inherited directly from our Protestant forebears in the Reformation. They made the simple, revolutionary claim that individual adherence to the words of Scripture was more important than fidelity to the (perceived) man-made authority of the Church. And if we fast forward to the present, we see evangelicalism taking this thought to its logical conclusion. It doesn’t seek to abandon the false teachings of one denomination in order to create a new one; it says that denominations themselves are an anachronism, that faithful, individual commitment to the plain meaning of Scripture in a single community of faith is more important than having outmoded bureaucracies to regulate religion. This is the abiding reality of evangelicalism: a smattering of divisiveness, perpetually uniting and dividing in pursuit of ideological purity. It’s the sort of ball that gets started rolling and has no reason to stop.
If that’s the case, then maybe I can’t be evangelical after all. If the navel-gazish infighting is inherent and it constantly churns vats of anti-intellectualism and anti-modernism, maybe evangelicalism is a label that we should leave behind. But then what would I be? The answer to that question seems obvious: just be Christian! To hell with labels. Jesus didn’t trademark his movement; he just called all who would listen to follow him. So that’s what I should be, right? A Christ-follower. No more, no less.
And it’s a convincing argument. It’s simple. It’s Biblical, certainly. And it helps to parry some of the slander associated with the faith. “Oh no, I’m not one of those evangelicals; I just follow Christ!” If we could just say that, then maybe we would be able to move forward.
But it’s not that simple, and I’m not the first to try. Centuries of Christian reformers saw themselves as being ‘simply Christian,’ following in the footsteps of the early church and sidestepping the apparent apostasy of the church-at-large. The foundation of that kind of movement quickly implies a hierarchy with the “mere Christ-followers” on top, standing high in virtue over those archaic denominationalists perpetually caught up in internecine theological squabbles. That kind of thinking, however, can’t help but deny the Biblical fact that we, all of us, see God through a mirror, and darkly at that. We pretend that there is a simple reading of Scripture, and we patronize anyone who disagrees as being unable or unwilling to grasp the Bible as it’s written. We conveniently forget that the church has been split since the time of the apostles: Jewish vs Gentile, Arians vs Trinitarians, Catholics vs Protestants. We ignore that we are now what the Church has always been: divided, united.
So if I’m no longer comfortable being evangelical or merely Christian, what am I supposed to be? Well there’s only one option left, really: denominationalism (one might rightly contend here that I could simply abandon religion altogether, but I guess I’d say it’s more interesting to keep asking the question than to abandon the pursuit). Having grown up evangelical, it’s hard to argue for identifying with a particular denomination. The fact, however, is that it in denominationalism Christians can learn to accept the arbitrariness of their own beliefs.
The key here is history. Evangelicalism is, at root, an amnesiac. In seeking to be constantly reforming, it also carries the subtext that it is constantly improving. As such, it seeks to constantly identify what it should be doing now, and possibly what it should be in the near future. What it’s been, however, is not a priority. The past is the past, and unless you’re going to seminary, it’s more than acceptable to let it stay there. We’ve moved on, after all.
When I sought membership in an Episcopalian church, I found something slightly different. Up front, I was instructed that the denomination was a direct descendant of the Church of England, a church formed in large part to authorize King Henry VIII’s divorce. So with that shining example of virtue as our “founding father,” I was told to take the denomination with a grain of salt.
Because denominations are blessed and cursed with a history that is often other than pure. Church histories are defined by saints, extortionists, servants, and criminals. Accepting this comes with a price; we see that the theological and ideological positions of our church are at least partly arbitrary. They are based on historical forces that may have been more political than spiritual, and the stark variances between churches reveal the ambiguity of much of Scripture. But I think when we view our own systems of thought in that light, we see them a little closer to the way God sees them: flawed, ignorant, contradictory, but well-intentioned.
The issue with evangelical amnesia, then, isn’t that we all need to know every detail of the Concordat of Worms, it’s that the absence of history can easily make us think that we are history’s conclusion, that the church today is the answer to the question of what the community of Christ should be. Now plenty of evangelical institutions would, in good conscience, disagree. Denominations, however, have a distinct, structural nature that accepts the arbitrariness of their own past with the implicit message that the church of today is incomplete, a work in progress.
Denominations give us a gift that evangelicalism has trouble with: identity. The evangelical movement preaches, rightly, that it is open to all believers, that it ministers to the whole body of Bible-believing Christians. That’s all well and good, but the problem I saw time and time again in growing up evangelical was its dearth of answers for those who no longer believed.
And so it is that I’ve seen scads of friends and family leave the church over the years due to fundamental disagreements over evangelical theology and ideology. The church wasn’t equipped to handle that because as mere Christians preaching the plain truth of Scripture, there wasn’t room for disagreement on the major (or “major”) issues. So the absence of belief in some aspect of the faith forced folks to either bottle up their doubts (a tried and true method for long-term frustration) or speak openly and be advised to repent of their error. But many of those people had been listening when we talked about the Reformation’s lesson that individual perception of the facts at hand was more powerful than established dogma. So they left. And we wondered whether they’d ever really been saved in the first place.
I think I would have done the same as them if I’d had the guts. I went through several stages of respecting the forms of Christianity while knowing in my heart that I wasn’t Christian. But I didn’t want to rock the boat or disappoint anyone, so I kept it to myself and buried the thought.
I stayed in the church for the wrong reasons, certainly, but I think it’s what ultimately saved my faith. I wasn’t willing to part with my Christian identity, even when belief was absent. And denominations, in the main, teach the same thing, but do so explicitly. You are always first and foremost a Christian. But you’re a Christian who is an Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Mennonite, Baptist, etc. You are born into the faith or you accept it later, and then that becomes a part of you, a part that stays with you through thick and thin. When you don’t believe what we’re telling you, that’s okay. You’re still welcome at the table. We believe what we believe and your doubts and disbeliefs don’t break us down, they build us up. And they build you up too, whether you believe it or not.
Denominations, at their best, are churches with their doors open. All are welcome, but the edifice of belief doesn’t shift no matter who is inside the building. You don’t believe in the resurrection anymore? Okay. We do. Now come to the Lord’s Table with us and let’s learn together. You don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a Christian? Okay. But you’re still an Episcopalian (Lutheran, Mennonite…) because that is who you are. And we’re not going to abandon you.
It’s not a universal truth, of course. Some churches do it better than others, certainly. Denominational churches are not necessarily bastions of universal generosity. Likewise, non-denominational churches are by no means pits of individualistic wish-fulfillment. But in the main, denominations have a structural authority above and beyond sola scriptura that allows the room for doubt and disagreement to stand out in the open. They allow us to say that Christian identity is stronger than lapses in faith.
Denominations give us the gift of being more than simply Christian. They give us something to stand for, something to be, when doubt and disorder have taken everything else. Because if faith is merely what we believe, it’s liable to break us down. But if it’s who we are, it picks us back up again.
Matt Ely graduated from Wheaton College (IL) in 2011 with a degree in Political Science. Upon graduation he was commission as an Army officer and is currently serving out of Fort Lewis, Washington. His personal foci include: pretending to understand baseball, speaking softly, and the carrying of big sticks.
Matt has previously appeared as a guest author with his post A Cruel Resurrection.