Introduction: The Post-Evangelical
The Post-Evangelical, by Dave Tomlinson. Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2003.
Dave Tomlinson addresses a group of serious contemporary problems for the Christian Way, involving issues that are much deeper and broader than the title suggests. But they are problems that have a very special significance for where what is now called “Evangelicalism” is in its historical day in the sun.
To correctly appreciate this, you have to start with the realization that what he calls post Evangelicalism is not ex Evangelicalism. There are, of course ex-Evangelicals, and even anti-Evangelicals, but the Post-Evangelical is one who is an Evangelical, and perhaps tenaciously so. But they have been driven to the margins by some aspects of Evangelical church culture as they have experienced it, and with which they cannot honestly identify.
Usually the conflict takes on a simple but devastating form, long recognized by the prophetic tradition in the Bible: the form of social acceptance (the details of what is “only right and proper”) within the Evangelical group increasingly focusses upon things that have little to do with the heart of Evangelical faith, or even run counter to it—but are still treated as basic (or highly desirable) in being an acceptable Evangelical Christian.
Thus, in Jesus’ day, you had people who painstakingly gave a tithe of one seed in ten from their herb garden, and yet disregarded justice and the love of God. It is this kind of incongruity that drives people who will never be anything but Evangelical in their deepest beliefs to the margins or out the door of Evangelical church culture in the various specific forms it now takes. It makes it easy to replace the genuine commandments of God with the traditions of human beings, without noticing it.
The surrounding secular culture may have some influence on the move toward a Post-Evangelical posture, but the motivation in that direction, as I have observed it through the years, is basically from within Evangelical teaching and experience. There is an inherent tension within the Evangelical tradition as far back as it goes. On the one hand, it emphasizes as essential a personal, life-transforming experience of God. The one thing that has always been distinctive to it is the rejection of secondhand faith, mediated through institutions of which one is a member. On the other hand, the Evangelical tradition takes the Bible, or certain biblical texts, as ultimate authority on what is to be believed and practiced. These two elements of Evangelical Christianity are in constant tension. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther are fascinating case studies of how the tension between experience and authority worked itself out in their own lifetimes.
Authority won in their cases. And anytime a significant social group develops around a teaching or an individual, that will most likely be the case. For then the question becomes not, Where are you before God? but, Are you a member of our group? Are you really? And those who are responsible for the integrity of the group will see to it that the marks of group membership are endorsed by the authority source: in our case the Bible. So for example, whether you believe that women should be allowed to teach, or that Christ will return before the Millennium, may be used as a test of whether or not you believe the Bible, and that as a test of whether you are Evangelical—or was that Christian? Etc., etc. The vital relationship to Christ is smothered in heaps of trivialities.
And what, at that point, has become of the other wing of the Evangelical tension: the rejection of secondhand faith—even Evangelical faith—mediated through institutions of which one is a member. What has become of the ongoing walk with Jesus Christ and the integrity of soul which permits one to worship the Father in Spirit and in truth? The sad truth is that you can be an Evangelical in excellent standing without it. Certainly the folks who fit the term “Post-Evangelical” are not right about everything, but they are onto something of extreme importance to anyone concerned about the cause of Christ and the welfare of human beings today.
Those of us to whom the Evangelical form of Christian faith is dear must come to grips with these issues. We shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the failures of other forms of religion, Christian or not. We must accept that the house of God where judgment begins is our house. The truth of the matter is that in North America, especially, the Evangelical form of Christian faith has achieved remarkable acceptance and prominence in recent decades. But we have not done well in four absolutely crucial areas:
The “Post-Evangelicals” among us—and they are among us, in large numbers—are for the most part those who, because of their Evangelical insights or suspicions, cannot accept a form of “Evangelical” religious culture that makes the heart of Evangelical faith and of the prophetic biblical tradition irrelevant, or even subversive. We need to listen to them openly and carefully as we continue to study our Bibles and seek to hear from God.
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