Our Future: as Evangelicals?

By Mark A. Taylor

Are members of Christian churches and churches of Christ properly categorized as Evangelicals?

We addressed this topic in the first year I served as editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD*, and now as I close my tenure, I wonder if anyone is still asking the question.

The two who answered in 2003 wrote passionately and convincingly and came to completely opposite conclusions.

Alexander Campbell (left) and James DeForest Murch. Murch was the first managing editor of Christianity Today.

William R. Baker described James DeForest Murch’s decision to boldly identify himself with the growing Evangelical movement in the 1940s and afterwards. “Not since Isaac Errett, founding editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD, had anyone from the Restoration Movement thrust himself so thoroughly into a position of leadership among evangelicals,” Baker wrote. He cited Murch’s role as editor of the National Association of Evangelicals journal, as president of several prominent Evangelical organizations, and as the first managing editor of Christianity Today.

Baker also described Alexander Campbell’s careful examination and general endorsement of nine “evangelical principles” stated by the formational meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846.

“Campbell senses and expresses a deep kinship with the Evangelical Alliance,” Baker wrote. “Were Campbell alive today, I believe he would be a prominent ETS [Evangelical Theological Society] member and a consulting editor for Christianity Today.”

But Robert F. Hull urged against placing ourselves in the Evangelical camp, for two reasons:

First, “We have nothing to gain.” He wrote:

We have traditionally understood ourselves to be, not a denomination, or a sect, or church, but rather, a movement within the whole church, calling the church to continual reformation of its life and practice by means of the spiritual standards of the New Testament.

Hull urges us to stick with our historic plea to be just Christians, without limiting ourselves with any “ism” that subdivides Christianity.

Second, he says, “We have much to lose.”

If we settle down into the evangelical camp, we will surrender two critical convictions that have been characteristic of the Stone-Campbell heritage: a high view of the church and a high view of the sacraments (or ordinances). . . .

What is striking and significant is that our high view of the church and the sacraments is not something distinctive about the Stone-Campbell Movement: it is just the opposite. Our theology of the church and the sacraments has been shared with most Christian people during most of the history of the church. We are closer to the Episcopalians than the Baptists in this regard. To give up these historic emphases would be a serious loss.

But I’ve concluded we are on the verge of experiencing that loss. My thinking on this crystallized in my response to an assignment I fulfilled last week around this topic: “The Future of the Restoration Movement.”

We speak of our “tribe,” I said in my workshop. But, increasingly, we look and sound like most of the rest of the Evangelical world.

We read the same books, attend the same conferences, use the same worship music, buy Bible teaching materials from the same sources, advocate the same strategies and solutions for ministry, quote the same theologians, and send our kids to the same Christian colleges (if we send them to Christian colleges at all).

Evangelical Christians moving from town to town, or church shoppers in our own communities, choose our congregations the same way we choose our ministry sources: on the basis of features and benefits, what looks good and what seems to work—not because of a shared or vital, unique theological commitment or heritage beyond a basic allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and, probably, to the Bible as authoritative and inspired.

And those sacraments Hull mentioned, the role of baptism in salvation and the place of the Lord’s Supper at the center of worship, are widely minimalized among us.

Any discussion about the future of our movement must acknowledge that in practice, if not by intent, our movement as a distinct factor in the church today is little appreciated if not stridently avoided by many identified with our group.

Does this matter? Only history will tell. But a movement without a compelling rallying cry will soon lose its reason to exist. There’s no doubt our movement is still moving. But the question is whether that activity is in response to our unique calling or as a reflection of prompts coming largely from the Evangelical subset.

Hull challenged readers to think of our movement and its plea as larger than Evangelicalism. But the time may come when we shrink into identity as something smaller. 

*See the March 16, 2003, issue, pp. 4ff.

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6 Comments

  1. April 25, 2017 at 10:45 am

    I see both sides of the argument but find myself in agreement with Dr. Hull, my former professor. I am saddened by the lesser role given to the sacraments, and I do believe we are all too quick to embrace the Willow Creeks (Reformed) and Saddlebacks (Baptist) because of their methods leading to megachurch success. I do believe the call of our movement has been lost to societal changes of success, or even more frequently, we are catering to a consumer mentality. Mark, you are spot-on with your conclusions. Somewhere along the way we lost our way. Our movement used to have great leaders and our schools were thriving. To me, our future as a movement looks bleak.

  2. Jim Tune
    April 25, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Hi Mark – I grappled with some of this in my 2008 CS article “Five Questions for the Restoration Movement”.
    Here is the link: http://www.christianstandard.com/2008/09/cs_article-982/

  3. April 26, 2017 at 1:48 am

    “But a movement without a compelling rallying cry will soon lose its reason to exist. There’s no doubt our movement is still moving. But the question is whether that activity is in response to our unique calling or as a reflection of prompts coming largely from the Evangelical subset.”

    Profound.

    I began attending one of our universities, where I am still at, for the purpose of training to be a preacher in the Christian Churches, but later went back on a lifetime of expectations for many of the reasons listed in this article. If I wanted to be evangelical, I would have joined an evangelical church. I believed in our history and our distinctives, not to the exclusion of all others, but to the addition of all the unique things Bible-believing traditions have to bring to the table of Christian fellowship.

    Why is it when people want us to “dissolve” or “sink” it’s only in reference to the evangelicals? Why not Presbyterians or Anglicans or Brethren? Maybe because this language is simply an easy excuse to just keep doing what we’re doing in an unhindered embrace of non-distinct evangelicalism. Rick Atchley warned about this, as have many others.

    I have begun searching for a spiritual home outside the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, gravitating toward the German Brethren. However, I will always be a son of the Restoration Movement. The Restoration Movement is not only bigger than evangelicals; it is bigger than the independent Christian Churches. This gives me some solace.

    I appreciate Mark Taylor for this difficult to read but much appreciated article.

  4. Jordan
    April 26, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks for this. I am seeing a lot of conversations like this. It may be of interest to everyone that Great Lakes Christian College put together last year (and will again this) a Restoration Movement Appreciation Week. One of the speakers, Dr. John Nugent, proposed some thoughts toward a “New Wave of Restorationism”: https://www.glcc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Nugent-A-New-Wave.pdf

    This is an important conversation, especially for younger ministers like myself. I look forward to hearing more.

  5. Stephen Lawson
    April 27, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I think Taylor is absolutely correct in his description of what is happening in many of our churches. I agree with my former professor Dr. Hull that such developments are troubling.

    This whole discussion reminds me of an article I wrote in the Stone-Campbell Journal on William Robinson, the British theologian of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

    I concluded that article by writing, “In my view an unconsidered adoption of generic Evangelical practice and doctrine into Stone-Campbell churches is in many cases an abandonment of the restoration plea for unity within truth. I would suggest it is frequently a pragmatic and passive lowest-common denominator Christianity that diminishes particular ecclesial identity, often through the use of corporatized sociological practices. The significance of the Stone-Campbell plea, I believe, is not that it gives us grounds to sink into the ocean of American Evangelicalism but that it allows and even requires us to exist in the paradoxical tension that Robinson articulated and embodied in his own life, ‘catholic yet ever evangelical.'”

    For me, Robinson represents the best of what the our movement has to offer. I’m not trying to be self-promoting, but you can read the whole article by following the link below. I just want more people to know and appreciate Robinson.

    https://www.academia.edu/27504231/Free_Church_Catholic_The_Legacy_of_William_Robinson

  6. May 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Anyone else appreciate the irony of the respective schools with which Drs. Baker and Hull were associated, given their respective viewpoints?

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