Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ungodly evangelicals

That good word, evangelical, has almost been taken away from us. It is time to take it back.
--James R. Crumley, formerly Bishop of the Lutheran Church in America

An evangelical is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly [Romans 4:5, 5:6]…Those who are not [evangelical] have a defective view of the sovereignty of divine grace in the saving process. Anything that allows for an element of merit or human achievement in work of salvation is, to that extent, non-evangelical.
--F. F. Bruce, distinguished New Testament scholar

The word “evangelical,” as the bishop notes, is in danger of being lost to us because of its almost daily use in the media to denote fundamentalists and others on the Christian Right who insist on “born-again” experiences as the hallmark of the true believer. These Christians are typically identified with three issues above all others—abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research—and vote Republican in overwhelming numbers.

The word is also used within the historic Protestant (mainline) denominations to identify parties within the church, usually in a political context with regard to hotly debated issues such as same-sex marriage. Rarely are the deeper theological issues addressed or even acknowledged. Part of the frustration of being evangelical in the Episcopal Church today is the near-impossibility of getting a discussion going about foundational issues—Christology, Scriptural interpretation, the doctrine of revelation, the divine agency. The last is the most important of all, as F. F. Bruce clearly outlines in the quotation above, which is taken from a 1989 interview with W. Ward Gasque, a professor at Regent College.

Bruce firmly identifies the central affirmation of the gospel: the justification of the ungodly. The radicality of this declaration of Paul in the letter to the Romans is almost entirely ignored by the leaders of the mainlines—and, frankly, by most of the so-called evangelical churches as well. One way or another—whether by singing the approved renewal music, or by correct political commitments, or by Celtic spiritual practices, or by energetic community participation, or by charismatic enthusiasm–we are determined to put our own achievements at the center. This is a subtle matter, because most Christians realize, in theory, that they should not be putting themselves in the place of God. In practice, however, it is remarkably rare to hear a religious person utter a sentence in which God is the subject of the verb.

Because of this blind spot, we are not willing to carry out the idea of the justification of the ungodly to its logical (or, rather, illogical!) conclusion. We are theoretically inclusive, but not in practice. There is no congregation anywhere that can truly call itself inclusive, in spite of the widespread practice of doing so. What “inclusive” really means at the moment is, “we favor gay marriage.” It doesn’t mean that we accept people who are radically outside our template. A recent story in the news is instructive: a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood was welcomed into an Episcopal parish as a new member, and she grew to love the congregation. Then she assisted at an actual abortion, and was shaken by the way the fetus flinched at the needle before being suctioned out. She decided that she could no longer work for Planned Parenthood. Now she is shunned at her church.

This story could be told about countless people who were made to feel unwelcome in churches, and not only because of positions on various hot-button issues. There is no congregation capable of welcoming everyone. Sooner or later there will be a person with mental illness, bad hygiene, an irritating personality, or unacceptable views, who will be made unwelcome or even asked to leave. Instead of bragging about how inclusive we are, we would be more honest in the sight of God and our fellows if we maintained a state of perpetual repentance and prayer.

There is no answer to this universal human dilemma except to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and his justification of the ungodly, for in the final analysis, that category includes, without exception, every single one of us.