'Time for rethink of how evangelicalism presents itself' says Evangelical supremo
"Evangelicalism has become a synonym, in popular understanding, for moralising bigotry, fundamentalism and reactivity," according to the Revd Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA).
He made the comments in a hard-hitting piece for the Allianceís Idea magazine, where he appealed for internal evangelical unity and urged a rethinking of how evangelicalism presents itself to the wider world.
He is damning about how evangelicals are perceived generally, saying, "We come across as judgmental and obnoxious. There are plenty of caricatures and misrepresentations out there, but too often we perpetuate them by our actions."
The EA itself claims to represent a million evangelicals in the UK, and as well as having a large individual membership is the umbrella body for many congregations and para-church organisations.
Mr Edwards stresses the EAís commitment to ëcore theological absolutes,í but calls for greater compassion in doctrinal debates, saying, "Truth cannot be the exclusive province of conservative evangelicals married to modernity any more than it belongs to the pilgrim culture of the emergent church."
Describing unity as ëa biblical truthí, he says, "There are huge numbers of open doors Ö which demand that we avoid the tendency to go our separate ways."
Referring to the Archbishop of Canterburyís suggestion that terrorism is a form of blasphemy because it suggests God is too weak to look after His own honour, he says, "I think that sometimes we have engaged in a form of verbal terror that has the same roots."
He speaks of the need to "resist the knee-jerk tendency to protest everythingÖ our role is not to monitor mischief but to proclaim this good news that brings spiritual and social transformation to society."
Controversies in which the Alliance itself has recently been involved include the furore over the book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, which criticised the penal subsitutionary theory of the Atonement seen by many evangelicals as a core article of faith, and widely-reported remarks by its head of public affairs Don Horrocks appearing to compare gay couples wanting to enter into civil partnerships with ëpeople wanting to marry their horseí.
The EA was involved with other evangelical groups in protesting about the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera on the grounds of blasphemy and obscenity.
Speaking to The Baptist Times, Mr Edwards said that he wrote out of a belief that evangelicalism ñ not just the EA ñ needed to ërepositioní itself, and the piece came from ëthe heart and the headí.
On the issue of unity, he said that there was no "irreconcilable distinction between grace and truth". Of the Atonement, he referred to the "family identity" of the EA, saying, "We are for penal substitutionary atonement, but we do not say that we have the final definition on what orthodoxy is."
However, he would wish to challenge those with divergent views as to how well their theology fitted within the Alliance, he said.
He argued that evangelicals were perceived negatively largely because of the way they presented themselves. He instanced the controversy over Jerry Springer, saying "I am not necessarily convinced that we handled this in the most astute way."
He called for a more positive emphasis, saying he wanted to portray "more of a passion for people, rather than for what people do wrong."
Mr Edwardsí comments were welcomed by Jonathan Bartley, director of the theological think-tank Ekklesia, who has written critically of trends in modern evangelicalism.
"This represents a huge step forward," he said. "The next step is to say that we have not just appeared judgemental, but we actually have been. We cannot afford to engage in spin."
This article first appeared in the Baptist Times and is reproduced with kind permission