Is 'Conservative Evangelicalism' a contradiction in terms?

Tom Frame

When Anglicans talk about the theological parties, factions, tribes and movements that inhabit the global Communion, there is frequent mention of 'conservative evangelicalism' as though conservatism and evangelicalism belong naturally together. After all, it is widely thought, Evangelicals are usually conservative while Evangelicalism usually attracts conservatives. In parts of the Anglican Communion (and I am thinking here predominantly of affluent First World nations with large liberal constituencies like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) the fact that someone owns up to being an Evangelical is bad enough; that most apparently exhibit the attitudes and actions of social and political conservatism makes them doubly reprehensible. Am I exaggerating? No, I don't think so.

There are senior Anglican leaders in Australia who fear that the rise of the Religious Right in America might be replicated in this country if all forms of religiously inspired or expressed forms of conservatism are not denounced. This leads them into outright opposition to all complexions of Evangelicalism because, they would contend, it leads to an ideological and ecclesiological agenda that is anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-libertarian and anti-modern. This is a very serious allegation. But what of the evidence cited in support of the charge? In my view it is very thin and inadequate to sustain a conviction.


There are, of course, Evangelicals who are content to refer to themselves as conservatives. They are not extremists, fundamentalists or fanatics nor do they belong to any religious lobby group or secular political party. They are people who generally hold to the view that things should not change unless or until there are good and compelling reasons for thinking or acting differently. They are people: who are innately wary of fads and fashions; who have more faith in the past than hope for the future; who always want a little more time to assess the case for change. But it is not these people that I want to defend although they do not deserve to be excoriated by liberals and progressives who become impatient when they don't get their way. Can I simply say this: I do not think that social, economic, political or religious conservatism is bad per se or that conservative Christians necessarily misrepresent or obscure what I believe is the essence of Evangelicalism.

Rather, my concern is to examine the common assertion that Evangelicalism is always and everywhere conformist, traditionalist and reactionary rather than being creative, imaginative and renewing, and that in being true or faithful to their theological heritage Evangelicals must stand among social and religious conservatives. Let me outline briefly some historic expressions of Evangelicalism before explaining why I believe that radicalism rather than conservatism is the defining characteristic of Evangelicalism.

Evangelical Expressions

The term 'evangelical' is a contrived adjective based on the Greek word for 'gospel'. Luther popularised the term after 1524 when he wrote that Christian believers were 'evangelical as long as they hope that the message of the Gospel will pasture and enrich them'. The 'Evangelical Movement' that gathered momentum in the Church of England from the 1740s marked a return to a Scriptural understanding of sanctification and a renewed sense of urgency in the conduct of mission and in the provision of spiritual care. The Movement's leaders were prompted by disgust at the worldliness and nominalism that was evident among the clergy and their despair at the general disinterest of the laity in pursuing personal holiness. There were frequent complaints in the 1700s that Anglican worship was cold, austere and cerebral. Few of England's burgeoning working classes ever attended divine service. They felt neither welcomed by the clergy nor adequately prepared for participation in the liturgy. The Christian message needed, the early Evangelicals insisted, to speak to the heart as well as to renew the mind. Among the renowned Evangelical preachers of this period, Charles Simeon (1759-1836) and Henry Venn (1796-1873) proclaimed a strong message of repentance and salvation. But the Evangelicals were not merely concerned with the spiritual state of individuals.

Leading Evangelical laymen, such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Lord (Anthony Ashley Cooper) Shaftesbury (1801-85), were provoked to concerted action by deep pastoral concern for the plight of the urban poor. They were determined to tackle pressing social problems with serious moral consequences which were the root of much crime and misery. While the Church Missionary Society (CMS) founded in 1799 gave the Evangelical Movement an international focus, the Simeon Trustees (instituted by Charles Simeon) and the Church Pastoral Aid Society (established in 1836) supported and extended evangelical ministry in England. Their leaders were impatient with Government inactivity and were determined to take the slums out of men and women, and to take men and women out of the slums. These English Evangelical organisations had a lasting influence on mission and ministry in the Australian colonies. Two centuries on, CMS continues as a leading missionary organisation while the various Anglicare branches, with active Evangelical employees at all levels, reflects the refusal of Evangelicals to tolerate poverty, injustice and addiction. Let me now explain why I believe genuine Evangelicals are radicals.

Why Evangelicals are radicals

First, a few definitions. Whereas reformers want rapid social change and dissenters embrace polemical causes, radicals are concerned with the very structures that underpin entire communities and sustain their corporate cultures. While reformers and dissenters might be militant in their motives and even extreme in their actions, it is the revolutionary content of the radical agenda that sets them apart. They are not interested in attending to individual symptoms or personal woes. Radicals want to deal with the origins of ill-health. If the solution involves the creation of a new environment, the radical will not shy away from the enormity of the task.

Properly understood, Christianity is a radical religion concerned about the well-being of the individual and the health of the communities in which they live and hopefully flourish. Christianity calls for nothing less than the complete inner transformation of the individual through repentance and faith and a comprehensive renewal of society based on love and compassion. Jesus Christ lived and died to free individuals from slavery to sin and a destiny of death, and commanded his followers to fashion a new community in which the promises of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) were physically realised and the blessings of Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) took concrete form. These sanctified individuals and the heavenly community of which they are a part would stand as a powerful witness to the power and purpose of God, and speak prophetically against a world gripped by selfishness and material greed. The Gospel message was never intended to be therapy for dispirited individuals but an invitation for sinners to embrace holiness in their private and public lives. The Church's mission was not to enhance popular culture or improve the quality of political discourse but to destroy existing exploitative power structures and to replace them with relationships shaped by humility and service.

In many parts of the world, Anglicanism has become synonymous with moderation and prudence, caution and restraint. Evolution rather than revolution is the typically Anglican approach to any problem or possibility. This is, in part, a function of the Church's institutional mindset, bureaucratic character and lingering English temperament. Admittedly, there are times when the Church must be slow to promote change and quick to resist innovation. But there are many more moments when the Church must open itself to thorough going renewal, perhaps even hosting a revolution, and take risks and forego security for the sake of its mission and ministry. The present time is such a moment because there is an array of factors conspiring to prevent the whole Communion from undergoing renewal just as there are many impediments to a single diocese embracing a holistic program of change. But this does not, of course, stop parish communities and convinced individuals from making an immediate, uncompromising and comprehensive response to the Gospel's radical demands within the community or their own lives.

Let me be clear on this point: the weight of institutional inertia should never prevent a group of energetic Evangelicals from challenging unrestrained consumption, defying governmental oppression, overturning entrenched injustice, and celebrating human freedom. Evangelical radicalism can take the form of creative experiments in new forms of community life, daring parish welfare initiatives that offer alternatives to sterile state-run programs and the trial of confronting local liturgies that sharpen the parish's prophetic witness to the world. Properly understood, a genuinely Evangelical witness should encouraged its hearers to examine the use of their time and talents as a venue for deeper self-sacrifice, to rethink decisions about their professional career and personal comfort to embrace the divine call to sacred vocation, and to divest themselves of positions and possessions as a form of defiant renunciation of the world's vanities.

These actions should not be delayed while all their consequences are explored and evaluated in temporal or worldly terms. In terms of conventional wisdom, these actions will almost certainly be deemed dangerous, disruptive and costly. But remember the call of Jesus to the disciples recorded in the Gospels. Having met Jesus, they left everything and followed him without delay. Not surprisingly, the conservative Christian would be concerned that such actions potentially threatened the Church's present prosperity and could undermine its future security. Individuals might lose promotion prospects or the chance of a higher salary. But the Evangelical would insist that the tangible benefits of radical discipleship are often uncertain and usually unknown. It was into a life of radical self-offering that Jesus called his disciples. And it was in living radically that he promised the world would be transformed.

The call to take up your cross and follow Jesus and to live as though the Kingdom of God has already come remains undiminished in its urgency and priority. It is a call that comes to us here and now. It requires a response, a radical response that has life-changing and world transforming consequences. Anything less is either inadvertent misunderstanding or wilful disobedience.

The association of Evangelicalism with conservatism is often intended to be a smear. But it fails to stick when the radicalism of the Evangelical imperative shows such an association is absurd. This leads me to include that the label 'conservative Evangelical' is indeed a contradiction of terms.

 

This is the revised text of an address delivered by Associate Professor Tom Frame, Director of St Mark's National Theological Centre, to the EFAC (Canberra & Goulburn) Annual Dinner in August 2007.