Writings by Cole Huffman

Front and Center

In one of his books, Gregory Thornbury says he once told a European audience that evangelicalism is a suicide death cult. We criticize ourselves to death, he meant. It’s an off-the-wall way of putting it, but Thornbury was attempting to emphasize a recurring crisis in evangelical identity.

While many in evangelical churches are saying they don’t know who we are anymore, most don’t know who we were to begin with. Evangelicalism, interdenominational in makeup, began as a reform movement, emphasizing spiritual renewal leading to cultural renewal.

Some feel the term evangelical is now past its shelf life. It should be put out to pasture, or put down like an old incontinent dog. For those who feel this way, the term no longer has spiritual credibility or intellectual respectability. It has been too commandeered by civil religion and culture warring.

Classically considered, an evangelical is someone who magnifies the gospel of Jesus Christ (evangel = gospel) in four ways, primarily: by identifying the Bible as the highest religious authority, by owning the necessity of the new birth through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, by cultivating spiritual formation through prayer and Bible study (spiritual disciplines) in discipleship, and by evangelizing through missions.

We can quibble over details, but those four components are at the core of evangelical identity. The movement exists on a continuum, however. In the center are the four key components. At each end of the continuum is progressivism (moving left) and fundamentalism (moving right). Evangelicalism has always allowed some latitude for progressive and fundamentalist leanings, but the further one goes left or right from center, the less evangelical he is.

If I take Jesus’ friendship with sinners to mean sin can be reinterpreted, for instance, that’s a progressive impulse. I may persuade myself I’m just trying to love people alienated from Jesus by His church. But I’m moving left, away from center, on the continuum if I forsake biblical authority. I will sail off the continuum eventually. Here be dragons.

The right end of the continuum tends to draw those always on guard against leftward drift. Historian George Marsden once defined a fundamentalist as an evangelical who is angry about something. The further right one goes into fundamentalism, the more reactionary and separatist the impulse, and the more isolating the results. “Fightin’ Fundies” often take a remnant mentality, canonize some scruple, shibboleth it (see Judges 12), and become almost impossible to fellowship with peaceably.

Proverbs 4:27 lays down a median evangelical principle: “Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” Ethics, in this consideration, is not about turning wooden or engaging in your-evil-is-worse-than-mine one-upmanship. It’s about becoming center-lane wise. At its best, evangelicalism gives its adherents a doctrinal, ethical, and relational skill-set by which to navigate a complicated world.

Some think a centrist—or any appeal to the center—inhabits a mushy middle ground where convictions go to die. But evangelicals have traditionally appreciated those who unashamedly proclaim the gospel from the center. We don’t believe we reach people by secession or accommodation.

Warren Wiersbe wrote something in his autobiography that has helped me navigate the complicatedness of being evangelical: “I see my convictions, not as walls to isolate me from others, but as bridges to help me reach out to others. It’s not the strong but the weak who draw back in fear and refuse to love people with whom they disagree.”

Wiersbe went on to write that God had evidently blessed people he disagreed with. He said he never knowingly shared a conference platform with anyone who denied Jesus’ atoning work on the cross (due to evangelical core conviction), but he learned to apply Augustine’s dictum about unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, and love in all things.

That feels like a hill to climb now. Evangelicals are polarized and at times self-defeating. We’ve made our way in the world—the world knows who we are—but the world has made its way in us too.

Our movement could use renewal. Evangelicals have always been self-correcting. The introspection that requires can turn morbid and egocentric (the suicide death cult). But it can also display a softness to God that drives us to center ourselves again by the Word, the cross, prayer, and mission, with humility.

When the center holds, evangelical is still a good and useful name to go by. I don’t want to lose it. I want to see it redeemed.

It’s my understanding John Calvin said somewhere that as long as Scripture was read at Catholic mass, the Holy Spirit could promote the Lord and His grace among them. I’m heartened to think on that as an evangelical who preaches every Sunday in the Christ-haunted South. The church needs the gospel as much as the world.

Even after evangelicalism’s pallbearers have filed into the room, there is reason to be hopeful. If something dies in Christ, it doesn’t get rehabilitation. It gets to practice resurrection.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 2:35 PM
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