By Mark A. Taylor
Are members of Christian churches and churches of Christ properly categorized as Evangelicals?
We addressed this topic in the first year I served as editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD*, and now as I close my tenure, I wonder if anyone is still asking the question.
The two who answered in 2003 wrote passionately and convincingly and came to completely opposite conclusions.
William R. Baker described James DeForest Murch’s decision to boldly identify himself with the growing Evangelical movement in the 1940s and afterwards. “Not since Isaac Errett, founding editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD, had anyone from the Restoration Movement thrust himself so thoroughly into a position of leadership among evangelicals,” Baker wrote. He cited Murch’s role as editor of the National Association of Evangelicals journal, as president of several prominent Evangelical organizations, and as the first managing editor of Christianity Today.
Baker also described Alexander Campbell’s careful examination and general endorsement of nine “evangelical principles” stated by the formational meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846.
“Campbell senses and expresses a deep kinship with the Evangelical Alliance,” Baker wrote. “Were Campbell alive today, I believe he would be a prominent ETS [Evangelical Theological Society] member and a consulting editor for Christianity Today.”
But Robert F. Hull urged against placing ourselves in the Evangelical camp, for two reasons:
First, “We have nothing to gain.” He wrote:
We have traditionally understood ourselves to be, not a denomination, or a sect, or church, but rather, a movement within the whole church, calling the church to continual reformation of its life and practice by means of the spiritual standards of the New Testament.
Hull urges us to stick with our historic plea to be just Christians, without limiting ourselves with any “ism” that subdivides Christianity.
Second, he says, “We have much to lose.”
If we settle down into the evangelical camp, we will surrender two critical convictions that have been characteristic of the Stone-Campbell heritage: a high view of the church and a high view of the sacraments (or ordinances). . . .
What is striking and significant is that our high view of the church and the sacraments is not something distinctive about the Stone-Campbell Movement: it is just the opposite. Our theology of the church and the sacraments has been shared with most Christian people during most of the history of the church. We are closer to the Episcopalians than the Baptists in this regard. To give up these historic emphases would be a serious loss.
But I’ve concluded we are on the verge of experiencing that loss. My thinking on this crystallized in my response to an assignment I fulfilled last week around this topic: “The Future of the Restoration Movement.”
We speak of our “tribe,” I said in my workshop. But, increasingly, we look and sound like most of the rest of the Evangelical world.
We read the same books, attend the same conferences, use the same worship music, buy Bible teaching materials from the same sources, advocate the same strategies and solutions for ministry, quote the same theologians, and send our kids to the same Christian colleges (if we send them to Christian colleges at all).
Evangelical Christians moving from town to town, or church shoppers in our own communities, choose our congregations the same way we choose our ministry sources: on the basis of features and benefits, what looks good and what seems to work—not because of a shared or vital, unique theological commitment or heritage beyond a basic allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and, probably, to the Bible as authoritative and inspired.
And those sacraments Hull mentioned, the role of baptism in salvation and the place of the Lord’s Supper at the center of worship, are widely minimalized among us.
Any discussion about the future of our movement must acknowledge that in practice, if not by intent, our movement as a distinct factor in the church today is little appreciated if not stridently avoided by many identified with our group.
Does this matter? Only history will tell. But a movement without a compelling rallying cry will soon lose its reason to exist. There’s no doubt our movement is still moving. But the question is whether that activity is in response to our unique calling or as a reflection of prompts coming largely from the Evangelical subset.
Hull challenged readers to think of our movement and its plea as larger than Evangelicalism. But the time may come when we shrink into identity as something smaller.
*See the March 16, 2003, issue, pp. 4ff.