I was raised fundamentalist. I was nurtured on the writings of John R. Rice and was significantly influenced by Jack Hyles, Carl McIntire, Lester Roloff, and Oliver Greene. Other than the Bible, The Sword of the Lord was my primary reading material. But I became Evangelical in 1970. There were many similarities between the two, of course, but there were important differences as well.
Part of my experience in fundamentalism was feeling at odds with the world—and even other Christians. Though I liked the kids at public school, and they accepted me, somehow I felt I didn’t quite fit. I was sure most of my teachers were hostile to Christianity, especially my science teacher–just because he taught science which was against God.
More broadly I felt, ‘This world is not my home; I’m just a passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.’ As a fundamentalist I felt isolated from the ‘world’ and the people around me.
The evangelical environment was similar but not as isolated; among some evangelicals there was dialog with others and less rigid judgmentalism. And as I learned more about evangelicalism I grew even more excited about it.
The Great Heritage of 19th Century Evangelicalism
The rich, dynamic evangelical movement of the late 19th century was born of the two great awakenings in America. The last third of 1800s was a time of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. It was the time of Dwight Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. It was a time of taking Jesus seriously, following him personally, and engagement with the Bible. It was a time of personal commitment to spirituality, helping the needy, and sharing the good news of Jesus.
It was a time of openness to new ideas like divine healing, the Keswick movement, the Wesleyan Holiness movement—and even dispensationalism. Some elements of these new ideas turned out not to be very helpful, but they were all part of the embrace of the evangelical spirit.
However, toward the end of the century much of evangelicalism became calcified. They lost a good bit of their positive momentum as they increased their focus on what they considered attacks on the Bible from Europe—specifically evolution and critical biblical scholarship. As the furor intensified, many evangelicals coalesced around a number of doctrines they called ‘fundamentals’ and finally produced five (though not always the same five) that they considered absolutely fundamental to Christian faith.
In the 1920s, after failing to have these fundamentals adopted in their denominations, fundamentalist began to withdraw and form their own denominations rather than compromise with ‘liberal’ Christians. Not all evangelicals agreed; most remained in their old denominations, but the vibrant evangelical movement lost its identity.
The separated evangelicals became the fundamentalists—narrow, negative, and isolated. They refused to dialog with outsiders or to coöperate with them in any way; they were antagonistic, judgmental, and preached against the ‘liberals’ and ‘compromisers’ instead.
This is the movement in which I was raised.
A Resurgence of Evangelicalism
A few decades later, a large number of fundamentalists became dissatisfied with this negative, isolated, and aggressive position, and a new evangelical movement was born. It was a time of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. It was the time of Billy Graham, Harold Ockenja. Christianity Today, and Fuller University. Breaking the pattern of negativity and separation, it was a time of being positive, dialoging, working together, and being open to new insights.
This was the movement I joined in 1970.
But once more evangelicals became narrow, judgmental, and calcified. It was the time of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Bill Gothard, John Piper, and Rousas Rushdoony. It was a time to give up dialog in favor of preserving doctrinal purity and gaining political power. Much of evangelicalism became a new fundamentalism.
Other evangelicals were exploring fresh ideas in understanding evangelical beliefs, but they began to be increasingly questioned and harassed regarding their doctrinal purity. Academics were relieved of their posts at colleges and universities, pastors had their churches taken from them, and local church leaders were stripped of their positions.
These progressive evangelicals sought dialog, new ways of thinking, and interaction with other Christians, but their denominations, schools, and local churches judged them unacceptable to represent the increasingly narrow and hostile evangelicalism.
This is the situation today, but I am no longer a member of an evangelical denomination. There are many of us evangelicals in non-evangelical denominations; there always have been.
Why do I Continue to Consider Myself an Evangelical?
As a progressive evangelical in a mainline denomination, in order to define who I am I considered a number of labels other people use, but none of them fit me. So I now wear the label of ‘theologically progressive evangelical’. Some evangelicals would deny that I am evangelical at all, but they cannot rob me of my heritage by restricting the definition of evangelical.
My roots are in evangelicalism, I stand in solidarity with progressive evangelicals leaders who still call themselves evangelical though many have been rejected by their institutions, and I embrace the spirit of evangelicalism in:
- Following Jesus seriously
- Being enthusiastic in sharing the good news of Jesus
- Diligently exploring new insights
- Interacting with other people
Evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, have created many burdens by teaching, and insisting upon, a range of harmful doctrines and practices. In the past four years, the focus of my blog has been on helping those who are working though the baggage they were taught.
I don’t agree with everything evangelicals represented in the past 200 years, just as I don’t agree with everything progressives represent. However, I still respect and internalize the best in evangelicalism.
I AM evangelical. Though I am theologically progressive, I am evangelical in heart as well as in heritage.