Evangelicals are skilled at drawing lines to say who they believe is in and who’s out. But these lines are increasingly being drawn to exclude other evangelicals. Andy Peck looks at the tribes within evangelicalism and its effect upon church unity.
The banner read, ‘All One in Christ Jesus’ and was pinned to a marquee on the park at Lake on the Isle of Wight. I read it as I entered the tent, for an Isle of Wight Keswick rally, one Sunday evening. At the tender age of 12 it was my first exposure to Christian unity: it told me that although we were from different churches, we could all get on.
My second major exposure was attending College aged 18 and discovering Christians from different backgrounds, uniting for the common purpose of witness on campus. It discovered we were ‘evangelical’, that as Christians we believed the same basic things about scripture, the centrality of the cross and Jesus, the need for conversion and living according to what we believed. Denomination and theological differences were buried: we were concerned that our friends might know God, and that was our focus.
But today it is all a bit confusing. New language is increasingly being used, to define evangelicalism; adjectives such as broad, catholic, charismatic, classic, confessing, conservative, open, post, radical, traditional. In his 1987 book ‘Where Truth and Justice Meet’, Clive Calver (former Director General of the Evangelical Alliance) identified what he called the 12 tribes of evangelicalism. As one observer said, “today it sometimes feels like there are 144,000!”
This clarifying adjective may be no more dangerous than identifying the churchmanship of an evangelical, but many use the label to reflect a desire to go beyond the classic doctrines of evangelicalism. John Smith, the former UK director of The Evangelical Alliance says: “As I step back and look at today’s evangelical landscape in the UK I do not see tribes so much as fault lines which divide opinion and sometimes therefore fellowship among brothers and sisters. These fault lines are doctrinal, moral, political, and style preference.”
Some are saying: ‘if you are a ‘true’ evangelical, you will accept our interpretation of the atonement’; ‘if you are really on God’s side you will see the spiritual gifts the way we do’; ‘how can you be evangelical and not be opposed to the latest Government white paper?’
If you don’t toe the line, they won’t like you, won’t stock your books and allow you to preach at their churches and conferences.
The Right Revd Nick Baines, bishop of Croydon, has viewed evangelical tribalism first hand: “Evangelicalism has become distinctive for its defensiveness, working out who’s in and who’s out. Its gift to the world seems to have been fragmentation, and at regular intervals.”
What are the groupings that exist within evangelicalism and what impact might this have on the future of the movement?
In this article we will identify six major groupings. There are more, but hopefully you will understand that space doesn’t allow greater demarcation.