Celebration of the Great Tradition (Part 3): The Evangelical Stream of the Church (Word-Centered Disciples)
Our exploration of the Great Tradition is rooted in the humanity and life of Jesus. Different streams and traditions of the church historically emphasized particular aspects of Christian faith whether it be the Bible, prayer, compassion, holiness, Holy Spirit, or incarnational living. Church traditions are multifaceted, and in some cases, paradoxically, because Jesus’ life is not one-dimensional. And no human is one sided.
In a previous article I argued for a more balanced and nuanced Christianity that has room to learn and gleam the best from these traditions. For too long we’ve been skeptical of anything that does not fit our theological mold and denominational allegiance or history. We often find it easier to cast stones than find common ground.
My desire is to see more nuanced and balanced forms of Christian discipleship in the church regardless of tradition. And to see more balanced discipleship in the life of disciples of Jesus.
The Evangelical Tradition
So with that introduction let’s launch into the waters of our first primary tradition which we’ll call Evangelical. I write these words with fear and trepidation knowing the current political and religious climate associated with the name is embraced by some and scorned by others.
The baggage the word evangelical carries of late is staggering considering the current political establishment and how far we’ve drifted for the core essence of evangelical faith. If we can put aside our wooden and generalized characteristics of what drives this movement, we can find some beautiful and powerful pieces to hold together local churches and people faithfully wanting to follow Jesus.
Evangelical was never meant to mean Trump supporter, white male, fundamentalist, or “born again” weirdo. Those who swim in the evangelical stream of the church are not people who are racist, oblivious to social and racial injustice, closed minded, sexist, bigoted, and are skeptical of science. The evangelical church and tradition at her best offers much for Christian discipleship.
Evangelicalism finds its roots in Scripture from the Greek word evangelion. A word which simply means good news. Evangelion is an announcement of what has happened in human history. Good news of a victory won.
In ancient times a King would send a herald to announce good news of a battle won. Peace had come to the land, and the people were safe. Evangelical people are good news people, who have an announcement to make regarding a King who renews, restore, and make all things new. The King being Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Jesus began his public ministry announcing the good news of God and the Kingdom:
“14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
Jesus announced the gospel, the good news, that God’s rule and reign (Kingdom of God) had broken into human history. Later, we know this good news fully accessible because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) is at hand, near, and accessible to all who repent and believe.
In other words, change your thinking (repent) about God, and turn from your little kingdoms, sin, idolatry, and faulty views of God and the universe, and enter into the Kingdom of the Son.
The Evangelical tradition is a Jesus tradition and a good news people about a God who is inviting sinners into a right relationship with their Maker and Redeemer.
What’s so good about the good news Jesus brings?
Those who swim in the evangelical stream know something about humanity and culture. We have a low view of anthropology and a high view of God and grace. The good news of the gospel is God hasn’t abandoned his creation despite their folly, sin, and rebellion. He loved it so much he was willing to send his Son into the muck and mire to redeem and restore it. People who know their sins are great and God’s grace is bigger are the first to celebrate what is truly good news of great joy.
The evangelical tradition is important because those who swim in her waters are not looking for a new morality or philosophy of life. They know morality and forced behavior will never satisfy the requirements set by a holy God. Their new life with God in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit is only made possible because of the good news of the gospel.
Good news that no one measures up. Everyone has fallen short of God’s commands and glory. The only way in is by grace and faith. The only way in is if God does something on our behalf. And he does through Jesus by his life, death, and resurrection. And not to mention, the only way of obedience to King Jesus is by faith and grace and empowerment by the Holy Spirit.
Evangelicals are good news people. Grace people. And thankful people for all that has been done for us in Christ.
Evangelicals Need New Press
For too long in our modern era evangelical meant Moral Majority, political, white, or fundamentalist. Not the good news people and word centered people announcing that Jesus’ has lived, died, risen, and his Kingdom has broke into humanity.
The evangelical tradition at its best is when it keeps the gospel the main thing (1 Cor. 15:1-9). When they announce that God is here to reconcile sinners to himself and restore the universe. Word centered people are at their best when they offer salvation to sinners that is free, by grace, and faith. Disciples of Jesus who center their lives on the good news of Jesus and live in response to him.
Richard Foster in his book Streams of Living Water summarizes the evangelical tradition well:
“Question: What is the Evangelical Tradition?
Answer: A life founded upon the living Word of God, the written Word of God, and the proclaimed Word of God.
Question: Why should we explore it?
Answer: Because through it we experience the knowledge of God that grounds our lives and enables us to give reason for the hope that is in us” (Streams of Living Water, pp. 233).
We come into the Kingdom of God through faith in the living Word, Jesus Christ, we are nourished and sustained in the Kingdom by the written and proclaimed Word. Word people are gospel people, and word people, evangelical people, are taking their cues for life and godliness from the revealed Word of God, the Bible.
Christ has ultimate authority in the evangelical church. The Word of God, the Bible, is how we understand how God works in the church and world. How we are to live with God, others, and the world. Our ultimate authority is not the fads of culture or what is politically correct. Jesus has the last word, by his word.
Potential Pitfalls in the Evangelical Tradition
Of course none of these traditions are pure and have plenty of room for abuses. Here are a couple pitfalls for consideration:
1. A focus on non-essential, secondary, and tertiary teachings and doctrine.
The word centered camp has the propensity to make secondary doctrine primary. Example: the humanity and divinity of Jesus are essential teachings of the Bible and the church. The church has fought for thousands of years to keep this central teaching free from heresy and error for obvious reasons.
A secondary issue is when and how Jesus will return. There are many churches, denominations, and Christians who differ on the manner and timeline of Jesus’ return. He said he will return, we don’t need to argue over how.
A primary doctrine of first importance is that Jesus lived, died, and rose again and anyone who believes has a saving relationship with Christ. A secondary teaching is how we organize our liturgy and if we use contemporary instruments or only sing hymns.
The evangelical camp at her best is when they preach and teach and call disciples to live into the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. When the church focuses on the primary teachings of Scripture and does not wade into the weeds of secondary matters, she will be more healthy and vibrant.
2. A tendency toward sectarianism and separation.
A second pitfall for the evangelical camp is similar to the first. We assume our church, theology, and doctrine is pure, and everyone else is wrong. We are the pure and only church and everyone else is going to hell.
Maybe a little strong, but this is just another form of legalism, and pride. No church and no movement and no denomination is perfect and pure. We are doing the best we can with the Word and help of the Spirit. When we fall into focusing on secondary teachings and doctrine it can lead to a sectarian and a separatist church. John 17 is an important text to keep in mind. Jesus cares about unity in the church.
When a church or group take on a sectarian and separatist posture they stop marveling and celebrating the grace of Jesus who came to save and restore sinners. Our proclamation and living become cold, formal, and lack joy. We are more concerned with keeping the heretics out and “staying pure,” than joyfully serving Jesus and following his ways.
Our mission becomes staying pure, right, and pointing out every false teacher under every rock. Instead of making disciples of Jesus from all tribes and nations.
The danger of Christian subcultures and separating ourselves from the broader society with hopes of staying pure and holy is a pitfall. Jesus didn’t skirt around sinners and the dredge of society. He lived with them and showed them grace and offered them forgiveness. Evangelicals should follow suit.
3. An anemic version of salvation and life with God.
Many in the evangelical tradition paint Christianity as only getting into heaven and having our sins forgiven. I am all for heaven and being forgiven, how I need it!
But this version of salvation and the mission of Jesus cuts off the depth and breadth of Christian faith. We are called into relationship and apprenticeship with Jesus to become like him, and become formed more into his likeness (Rom. 8:29, John 15). Life with God is not only a ticket to heaven. Discipleship is about becoming like our Master and King Jesus.
God cares about his world and the injustices we see every day. Christians aren’t supposed to turn a blind eye and forget about our neighbors and extending grace and compassion to those around us. We’ll talk about this later in the Justice Tradition, but a word centered people, are always declaring the gospel, and demonstrating its work in our lives with good deeds.
The danger of a punching-a-ticket-to-heaven theology is it misses the fullness of life with God here and now. It also misses the social nature of faith, where we lock arms with other believers in the church, and learn to follow Jesus together. A lot of evangelical faith is supremely individualistic and consumerist because they said a prayer for salvation when they were eight.
Evangelicals are redeemed into Christ and into his family, the church.
4. Unhealthy view of the Bible.
This one is a strength and weakness. The evangelical church typically has a high view of Scripture, wants to preach and teach sound and healthy doctrine, no problem. But often that’s the only mission of the church. The Bible becomes deified and made equal to God. As long as evangelicals aren’t heroics nothing else matters.
The Bible is not God. The Bible reveals who God is. We worship Jesus Christ, not the Bible. But in some circles the Bible becomes so prized and cherished a vibrant and warm relationship with Christ is lost. The Bible and our “quiet time” is the essence and height of life with God.
Jesus said in John 5, that it’s possible to know the Scriptures and never come to him for life. We can be Bible experts and not know Jesus. The Bible is a means to know God and hear from God, but not the end.
Practicing the Evangelical Tradition
Okay, we’ve looked at the perils and pitfalls. Let’s look at a couple practices for growing in this tradition and becoming a more word centered people.
1. Healthy doses of Bible reading.
Two ways to read Scripture. First, read for understanding and digesting large sections of Scripture. If you are new to the Bible, read big sections, not small chunks.
Second, read not only for information, read small sections, and meditate on key verses for transformation. We want to sit with texts and let them get in our hearts and minds. So read big and small portions of Scripture. Even try memorizing and meditating on portions of the Bible.
2. Read and study with others.
Get in a church with Christian friends and read and study together. The Jews saw the study of the Bible as worship. We should to.
We need competent and gifted Bible teachers to help us understand and apply the Word of God to our lives too. Also, get in a good and healthy Bible and Christ preaching/teaching church.
3. Do what it says.
Take what you are learning and share it with others. Get around people and point them to Jesus in your words and deeds. Announce the good news!
Be obedient to what Jesus is teaching you through the Word. Evangelical people are not just consumers of the word, they are not just hearers, they are doers of it (James 1:22).
Jesus is the Living Word of God. Jesus has revealed himself to us in his Word. We are in deprecate need of grounding our lives and communities in the teachings of Scripture. The word is living and active and wants to work on us. Let it.
The Evangelical tradition has much to teach us about becoming people of the book, and good news people. Evangelicals are not a perfect tribe. They have much to learn and repent of like all church traditions. But what I’ve described in broad strokes above are helpful pieces to a more vibrant and balanced discipleship with Jesus.
See you in the next post.