The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 1: Biblical Authority

evangelicalism-2017Rapid change is the norm for now. This includes politics, economics, social standards, and ways of communicating. Irony abounds. Distrust of the “mainstream media” is countered by the proliferation and acceptance of “fake news.” Social media is hated and loved by the same audience.

What about the evangelical Christian world? Where does it stand as we begin 2017? Is it in a period of rapid change?

The modern evangelical movement came out of post-WWII reactions to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early part of the 20th century, battles somewhat suspended during the Great Depression and the second world war. One of its enduring post-war expressions is the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), founded in 1949 to define and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and to do biblical and theological research among a community of scholars who accepted this doctrine.

I have been member of the ETS for over twenty years and have attended a dozen of the annual meetings. As a Ph.D., I am a full voting member of the Society, one of about 4,000. Since I joined, I have been fascinated by the social aspects of the ETS: the influence of certain members, the uneasy alliances, the method of dealing with those seen as threats, the integration of new generations of scholars, and the growing influence of publishing houses (among other things). My analysis of the current state of evangelicalism is based on the shifting tides of the ETS as well as other personal observations. Here are five things I believe define evangelicalism in 2017.

1. Biblical authority is an increasingly empty claim for evangelicals.

The ETS stream of evangelicalism was based on two presuppositions concerning the Bible. First, the Bible spoke with God’s authority and was therefore the final word in all matters for humans. Second, the Bible was without mistakes in any and all matters (inerrant). Therefore, churches, families, and society itself should be ordered around teachings of the Bible.

Of course, the rub is that the Bible must be interpreted in order to be used. This has always been a weakness in evangelical scholars (see #3 in two weeks), for proof-texting and systematizing were widely used. The problem with proof-texting in particular was that it allowed the choice of some texts and the ignoring of other texts when one wanted to use the Bible as an authoritative guide.

On the congregational level, this picking and choosing is more evident than ever. Some large churches avoid teaching on the prohibitions and expectations of Scripture so as not to alienate congregants and (especially) visitors. God is love, not justice or judgment. Even when biblical standards are taught, they are widely ignored by members. Example: there is little difference in rates of divorce or premarital sex between evangelicals and the general population.

A few years ago, I was “working” at a Starbucks and overheard an interesting conversation between two young mothers who had just dropped off their children at school. One said, “I hear you and your family have been attending _____ Church. Do you believe all that stuff they teach? They are radicals in so many social issues, so out of step with modern society!” Answer, “Well, we don’t believe any of that stuff, but they have good programs for our kids.”

This is certainly no endorsement of biblical authority in the lives of members of a very large and well-know evangelical church.

Next week: 2. Separation of politics and faith is increasingly difficult.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and in no way are intended to speak for his employer.

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