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.

What is meant by evangelical?

Many value David Bebbington’s listing in ‘Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1970s to the 1980s.’

Evangelicals hold to:

Biblicism – Through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the God who is objectively ‘there’ has revealed universal and eternal truth to humankind in such a way that all can grasp it.

Christocentrism – God’s eternal Word became human in the historical man Jesus of Nazareth, who definitively reveals God to humanity.

Crucicentrism – The good news of God’s revelation in Christ is seen supremely in the cross, where atonement was made for people of every race, tribe and tongue.

Conversionism – The truth of the eternal gospel must be appropriated in personal faith, which comes through repentance – that is, a discernible reorientation of the sinner’s mind and heart towards God.

Activism – Gospel truth must be demonstrated in evangelism and social service

Evangelical Tribes

1. Conservative evangelicals – traditional

Key question: How can we be faithful servants of the Gospel?

Distinctive beliefs

Typically Calvinistic. Sceptical of the Charismatic movement. Mostly cessationist. Passionate about the need for revival to come to the UK. Often seven-day creationist. Modern evangelical scholarship has sold out to academia and lost the simplicity of the Gospel.

Distinctive practice

Reverent church services. Chief energies are in Gospel proclamation and building up the flock, rather than social action.  Church leadership is exercised by men. Separate from compromised denominations. Traditional versions of scripture such as KJV, RSV, RV, NKJV

Scope

Some Churches within Affinity (formerly British Evangelical Council) and Evangelical Alliance (EA). Includes others from Pentecostalism, Christian Brethren and branches of Methodism.

Key influences/thinkers

Puritan writers. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one time pastor of Westminister Chapel, London.  Westminister Theological Seminary, London. Wales Evangelical School of Theology (formerly Evangelical Theological College of Wales). Dr Peter Masters.

Key publications

Banner of Truth, Christian Focus Publications, Evangelical Press, Evangelical Times, Sword & Trowel magazine.

How they see themselves

As sticking firmly to the belief and behaviour of the Scriptures in a church scene that is largely compromised by ungodly alliances and excessive trust in modernity and clever methods rather than a reliance on the Spirit of God.

How others see them

Inflexible in a world, which has moved on. Charismatics ask why their interest in revival does not mean an embracing of recent renewal. They are sometimes labelled ‘fundamentalist’ used pejoratively term to imply rigidity of belief.

2. Conservative Evangelical – Contemporary

Key Question: how can we reach the lost with the Gospel?

Distinctive beliefs

Often Calvinistic. Faithful exposition of the Bible should be central to church life. If not pro charismatic, less likely to be ‘anti’. ‘Traditional’ views on the cross, scripture, hell.

Distinctive practice

Prepared to embrace new Word centered approaches in evangelism including, in some cases seeker targeted styles of church. May engage in ‘social action’ but most favour Word based ministry. Contemporary style of worship, may include drama and dance. More likely to use Christianity Explored than Alpha. Use NIV, The English Standard Version.

Scope

Large numbers from most denominations. Has classically formed a central constituency of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) and the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA). Also found in Affinity. Pentecostals may fit here, though are typically ‘conservative Charismatics’. Anglicans may find their home in ‘Reform’.

Key influences/thinkers

John Stott, JI Packer, Keswick Convention, Proclamation Trust. Oak Hill Theological College, Church Pastoral Aid Society, Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship.

Key publications

IVP books, The Good Book Company, Evangelicals Now.

How they see themselves

Like the traditionalist, they see themselves as ‘Gospel people’ and believe that their brand of evangelicalism is the only one.

How others see them

Charismatic evangelicals are bemused that a movement that prides itself on the Bible should operate in ways that omit many dimensions of the supernatural. Open evangelicals believe the conservative interpretation of the Bible is more locked into a modernist mindset than they realise and that their ‘certainty’ about who is in and out leads to rigidity, bordering on arrogance.

3. Charismatic evangelicals – denominational

Key question: How can we see the church renewed?

Distinctive beliefs

God is looking to renew the historic denominations, and bring refreshing and gifting formerly lacking: leading to vibrancy in witness, godly living and the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit.

Distinctive practice

Expect to experience the gifts of the Spirit as seen in Scripture, including special empowering (sometimes known as ‘baptism in the Spirit’) prophecy, tongues, healing and such manifestations as the Spirit brings.

Scope

In most denominations. Forms a large constituency within EA and ACEA. Includes many Black Majority churches.

Key influences/thinkers

David Watson, David Pitches, John Wimber, Smith Wigglesworth, New Wine, CLAN, Anglican Renewal Ministries (now ceased) Mainstream (Baptist).

Key publications

Renewal magazine (now merged with Christianity) Prophecy Now, Sovereign World.

How they see themselves

As having a key part to play within God’s purposes for the UK, and for their denomination, especially as so many embrace Alpha and the Spirit dimension that is part of the course.

How other evangelicals see them

Independents believe that Charismatics wedded to a denomination, especially within Anglicanism, are compromised by a system that is not true to the Gospel.  Conservatives and open evangelicals question whether there is substance to their life. Conservatives fear they have lost their biblical moorings in favour of experience focused faith.

4. Charismatic evangelicals –  new church

(also known as ‘house church’)

Key question: How can we build the kingdom of God in our generation?

Distinctive beliefs

In the 1960s/70s believed God was restoring apostolic and prophetic ministries as a major means of bringing about the unity of the Church so that it would be ready for Christ’s return. Although this post-millennial view is less popular, they remain positive about Christ’s plans to work in and through His church in the UK.

Distinctive practice

Independent of denominations, under the oversight of gifted leaders. All the gifts of the Spirit as seen in Scripture. Some streams have separatist tendencies, with a suspicion of theological education. Other streams have been more sympathetic to denominations and engaging in society, some overlap with emerging church outlooks. Some welcome women into all areas of leadership, others see eldership as reserved for qualified males.

Scope

New Frontiers, Pioneer, Ichthus, Grapevine, Salt and Light, Ground Level, Vineyard (with links with Anglicanism). For many independent fellowships the EA (or ACEA) is their sole relationship with other churches.

Key influences/thinkers

Arthur Wallis, Bryn Jones, Terry Virgo, Gerald Coates, Roger Forster, Stoneleigh Bible Week (now ceased), Revive, Grapevine.

Key publications

Various have come and gone such as ‘Restoration’, ‘Renewal’. New Church streams have their own titles. Charisma (US) Sovereign World

How they see themselves

As a significant part of God’s plan for Britain. Seeking to be open to His plans and purposes of building a godly people who reach the world via Word, works and wonders. In some cases there is still a strong independence from other groups, but others are happy to unify across denominational boundaries locally.

How others see them

Conservatives fear the excesses of the movement, and argue that they are light on scripture prone to whatever the latest manifestation is. The ‘Toronto blessing’ strengthened scepticism. But as many denominations have embraced the Charismatic movement, there is less friction in general, though tensions still exist.

5. Open evangelicals: denominational

A self-designation of some Anglicans; The word post-evangelical and radical-evangelical is sometimes used, though definitions vary.

Key question: How can we be faithful to mission and true to scripture in a post-modern world?

Distinctive beliefs

For Anglicans in particular, a concern that the tone and stance of conservative evangelicals is not in keeping with the balance of scripture. Engagement with issues has been too harsh and judgemental. They ask whether traditional conservative views of scripture, the meaning of the cross, hell, are really biblical.

Distinctive practice

Open to God’s work in other church traditions (catholic, charismatic, or liberal), to develop an authentic spirituality for the 21st century. Most likely to opt for services in alternative venues such as café’s and pubs (though other evangelicals do this too). Concerned to have less ‘edges’ so that non-believers can feel welcome. Some have particular concerns for justice, the poor, the environment

Scope

Growing numbers within all denominations, especially younger people. Includes some evangelicals within the Faithworks movement. Anglicans are in Fulcrum.

Key influences/thinkers

Trinity College, Bristol; Ridley College, Cambridge; Fulcrum (Anglican).

Value ‘conversation’ rather than ‘key thinkers’ using web based formats such as Emergent.info, open source. Dave Tomlinson, Nigel Wright (Spurgeon’s College), Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, NT Wright, Rob Bell are valued.

Key publications

Third Way, Emergent UK.

How they see themselves

They believe their reflection on the scriptures and culture and the needs of mission, especially post Christendom, means they must re-examine classic and charismatic evangelicalism.

How others see them.

Conservatives question whether they are really ‘evangelical’ at all, fearing that they are liberal and that their experimenting is a cloak for drift from the uncomfortable truths of the Gospel and all that entails in the 21st century. Charismatics say they are quenching the Spirit.

6. Open evangelicals: non-denominational

This group is sometimes designated ‘emerging church’, or ‘fresh expressions’. Includes some ‘youth churches’. But the people involved don’t want a label at all.

Key question: What is really essential about following Jesus today?

Distinctive beliefs

Very varied. That traditional Church life is too modernistic. There needs to be a new approach for the post-modern world which really leads to change lives. Emphasis on kingdom, believes evangelicals are too congregationally focused. Concerned that people centre on Jesus rather than bound by denominational beliefs. Values the church in it’s broadest sense.

Distinctive practice

There is no distinctive practice! Unstructured. Structured. Embrace the old and new; use classic practices of the church, using art, drama and music, as well as more modern worship styles. Includes some who are post church – preferring looser gatherings, suspicious of structures, which inhibits individual mission. Sees theological quest as about conversation. Explores what might be an appropriate expression of church for post-moderns.

Scope

Unknown. Gibbs and Bolger in Emerging Church, (2006, SPCK) looked at 200 groups in USA and UK.

Key influences/thinkers

Greenbelt: Brian McLaren, Stanley Genz, Mark Driscoll, Greg Boyd, Rob Bell, Dan Miller, Leonard Sweet are all quoted on websites.

Key publications

Third Way; www.opensourcetheology.net (now closed); emerging-church

How they see themselves

As being authentic about faith today, as forging a new path to reach the millions untouched by traditional church.

How others see them

They are not evangelicals at all, but liberals or Post-evangelical (which some acknowledge) who are close to serious drift from the faith.

Evangelical Unity?

It may be that to even list these groups is to concede that evangelicalism is hopelessly fragmented. Certainly Catholic friends would snigger at any suggestion of ‘unity’. Is it all bad news?

“In missional terms, you could argue that this diversity means that the evangelical tradition as a whole can offer something that will match the needs or aspirations of many different sorts of people,” says John Drane, author of ‘The McDonaldization of Church’. “In practice, this doesn’t seem to work that way because of intense competitiveness and rivalry at a local level.”

However, Dave Roberts a pastor in Eastborne and author of ‘Following Jesus: A Guidebook for the Non-Religious’ argues that disagreement doesn’t need to be divisive: “If anything we need to think more about our theology and be prepared to stand for what we believe within our particular grouping. Too often we are encouraged to get on with other ‘evangelicals’, for a big show of unity, when we frankly don’t. Burying differences can blunt our cutting edge. What matters is that we can show grace to those who disagree with us.”

Reflecting on the tribal groupings, Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) comments: “The Evangelical Alliance has to be concerned about fragmentation as much as it is about unity. Nevertheless it is healthy and even natural that a movement concerned with absolute biblical truth and what it means in our world, should also have traditions that see the world differently. I don’t see them these groups as tribes, more as evangelical salvos – different responses to what they perceive to be the cultural and political challenges to our mission. I would estimate that 90% of our differences, in the EA, are about mission. Whatever you make of his views it seams to me this was one of the motivations for Steve Chalke’s concerns in raising the issue of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, in ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’. He was asking, how is God perceived by those outside the church?”

Of some encouragement is the way that churches and charities have worked together in town and city wide ‘projects’, in Merseyside, Gateshead, London and Belfast; with many ‘signed up for ‘Hope 2008’. Where local leaders work at unity there is a healthy respect for the tribal preferences. Projects which include a social dimension can unify groups without having to thrash out the precise theology being supported.  Some churches have people from more than one tribe happily engaged and involved and keeping one another alert and gracious.

But it would be naïve to suggest that the tribal debates will vanish any time soon. The rancour for example, over the understanding of the atonement, the style of evangelicalism within Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and the response to the appointment of Dr Rowan Williams as archbishop, does not bode will for the future.

As evangelicalism seeks to reach post Christian Britain there will be further debates on the nature of the Gospel and the style of church, which God is shaping to reach people in the UK. Gracious listening will be required as the world views of the more modernist conservatives meet the more postmodern opens. Some will conclude that the evangelical label has such negative currency in the media that they prefer to be known as simply, ‘Christian’.

But as the tribes seek to establish their version of the kingdom, we do well to remember that our neighbour is unlikely to worry about the label of the believer who tells them of the love of God. And whatever the national scene and whatever we feel about the debates, which include discussing what the Gospel is, we have a chance to unite our local area. Maybe the future will be characterised by evangelicals who so understand the grace of God that they willingly admit their weaknesses, are humble about their successes and bend over backwards to understand and love those inside evangelicalism and outside, because they know the pit from which they were rescued and have a glorious future within view.

Balancing grace and truth is never easy, true unity cannot be at the expense of truth, but before we are tempted to divide, we are wise to consider whether on the basis of small areas of disagreement, we are really concluding that God is with ‘us’ and not with ‘them’? After all, the banner I read when I was 12 was not only the aspiration of the churches, but a statement from God himself.