Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Evangelical Manifesto

A group of American Christian leaders trying to rescue the term "Evangelical" from various misunderstandings have issued a document entitled "The Evangelical Manifesto (for those with short attention spans, the summary is here)." While such publications rarely have much impact once the initial hype has passed, this one deserves wide reading.

The authors of the manifesto group their statements around three key ideas. They argue that Evangelicals must reaffirm their identity, reform their behavior, and rethink their place in public life. The first of these points is foundational to the other two. The document declares that Evangelicalism "should be defined theologically, not politically, socially, or culturally." Thus, they declare evangelical identity at its foundation to be rooted in the early church creeds (Nicaea and Chalcedon) and the Reformation principle of justification by faith alone. It is fundamentally Christ centered and cross centered in its orientation. The Gospel, literally "Good News," is the message of salvation through Christ.

The section on reforming behavior begins with this self-critical statement:

All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.

Much of the reaction to the document will likely center around the final section on rethinking the Evangelical place in the public square. The manifesto warns both other evangelicals and outsiders against the errors of either privatizing faith on the one hand (so that it has no public relevance) or politicizing it on the other. They also make the point that "it would be no improvement" for a weakening religious right to give way to a strengthened religious left. The statement declares that "a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church." The document proceeds to argue for religious liberty for people of all persuasions.

Some on the religious right seem ready to argue that this is really an attempt by liberals to peel voters away from Republicans. The inclusion of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider among the charter signatories will encourage that view, which also finds proof from the fact that those who put it together did not approach James Dobson on bended knee to beg for his signature. However, there is really very little here that any Evangelical should disagree with, and many of us who are conservative both theologically and politically nonetheless agree that Evangelicalism, or any other version of Christianity, should not be first and foremost a political movement. Marvin Olasky, the conservative editor of World Magazine, says that the declaration "is likely to do some good."

If The Oracle were a church leader -- and at present he is not -- he would use the document as a teaching tool. There is much here that is important.

Update. Joe Carter also has posted regarding the document. He makes the valid point that much of the press will misconstrue it as a political document because that is the only rubric they understand. Thinking of it theologically would be completely foreign to them.

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