The head of Britain’s evangelicals said if Christians allow themselves to become divided over “truth,” there is something wrong with the truth they are telling.
“Evangelicalism has become a synonym, in popular understanding, for moralizing bigotry, fundamentalism and reactivity,” Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, wrote in the September-October issue of the Alliance’s Idea magazine.
Representing 1.2 million Christians in 40 denominations, the Evangelical Alliance promotes evangelical unity and represents evangelical concern to government and media. Established in 1846, it is the oldest alliance of evangelical Christians in the world.
In the first of a series of articles about how evangelicals should connect with a changing culture, Edwards, elected as the Alliance’s first black director in 1997, appealed for internal unity and urged a rethinking of how evangelicalism comes across to the wider world.
“We have somehow given the impression that truth means we have no questions to ask and nothing to learn, that vulnerability is weakness and that compromise has no place in our political philosophy,” Edwards said. “We come across as judgmental and obnoxious.”
Edwards said not all evangelicals are like that. “There are plenty of caricatures and misrepresentations out there, but too often we perpetuate them by our actions,” he said. “We need a change of mindset which recognizes that truth is safe without our anxieties about it.”
He said it is blasphemy for Christians to think that God is too weak to look after his own honor, and his followers have to do his work for him. “Evangelicals must recognize that we can be secure in our faith in God, and this security then frees us to be risky and curious at the same time,” he said. “Asking questions is a great evangelistic tool–it’s a technique Jesus used all the time.”
While some might suggest it is better for Christians to disagree and go their separate ways, Edwards said, “Unity itself is a biblical truth.”
It is important for believers to speak the truth, he said, “but it must never be divorced from grace.”
“Truth without grace is not actually truth at all,” he said. “Jesus did not merely tell the truth, He is the truth.”
Edwards said churches need “a relational evangelicalism with the confidence to resist the knee-jerk tendency to protest everything.”
“Yes, we know society is in moral confusion, but our calling is to stand alongside people, being gracious to them as fellow sinners,” he said.
The call to unity comes amid recent controversies involving British evangelicals, including furor over the book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. The book criticized the penal subsitutionary theory of the Atonement, viewed by many evangelicals as a core article of faith.
The Alliance drew criticism for offending same-sex couples after an official compared civil partnerships with “people wanting to marry their horse.” The EA was also involved, along with other groups, in protesting the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity.
In an interview with the Baptist Times, Edwards said his column applied not just the EA but to evangelicals as a whole. He said his article came from both “the heart and the head.”
On the issue of unity, he said that there was no “irreconcilable distinction between grace and truth.” Concerning the Atonement, he referred to the “family identity” of the EA. “We are for penal substitutionary atonement,” he said, “but we do not say that we have the final definition on what orthodoxy is.”
On the Jerry Springer controversy, he said, “I am not necessarily convinced that we handled this in the most astute way.”
Edwards called for a more positive emphasis, saying he wanted to portray “more of a passion for people, rather than for what people do wrong.”
Jonathan Bartley, director of the theological think-tank Ekklesia, welcomed Edwards’ comments.
“This represents a huge step forward,” said Bartley, who has written critically of trends in modern evangelicalism. “The next step is to say that we have not just appeared judgmental, but we actually have been. We cannot afford to engage in spin.”
Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times