Someone recently posted a link an article by Nathaniel Manderson: So who are "evangelicals"? And how did they become such massive hypocrites? in a Facebook Group on Progressive Orthodox Christianity. According to that article,
What are these evangelicals? Currently and historically, they are nothing more than a political action committee. They have nothing to do with the foundations of the Christian faith. Their political agenda is based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness.
Now to me it seems that that article embodied what is commonly called "hate speech" -- it was calculated to stir up prejudice, bigotry, and hatred, and to judge from the comments it elicited in the Facebook group, it succeeded.
Let's start with "historically".
Historically, those who call themselves "evangelicals" sprang from the evangelical revival of the 18th century, led by people like John and Charles Wesley, the early leaders of the Methodist movement. Evangelicalism had some roots in earlier Protestant Christian movements, like Puritanism in the UK and Pietism in Central Europe, but was essentially about responses to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
People like the Wesley brothers (both of them Anglican priests) were concerned that many of the people who attended their church services did not appear to respond to the Gospel, the Evangel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It did not seem to make any difference to their lives.
The evangelical movement then spread, emphasising the need for a personal response to the gospel, and a changed life. This, and not "a political agenda based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness," is the core of historical evangelicalism. And it is right there in Orthodoxy too. The Gospel, the "Good News", the "Evangelismos" of Jesus Christ is proclaimed on the Holy Doors of Orthodox temples throughout the world, showing the Archangel Gabriel announcing the good news to Mary, the Mother of God, and the four Evangelists who wrote it down afterwards, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
And the core of evangelicalism is right there in the Orthodox baptism service, where the priest asks the candidate not once, but three times, "Do you unite yourself to Christ?" and the candidate answers "I do unite myself to Christ?” And just to make sure, the priest then asks three more times "Have you united yourself to Christ?" and the candidate again answers three times "I have united myself to Christ".
And the priest asks "Do you believe in him?" and the candidate answers "I believe in him as King and God."
And that is the core of evangelicalism, which in Protestant Evangelicalism has been ritualised as the "altar call".
In Protestant Evangelicalism the person who does that is said to have been "born again", but in Orthodox theology the person is not actually born again until they have been through the baptism that follows. In Orthodox theology everyone who is baptised in an Orthodox Church is a "born-again Christian" and this is known as "baptismal regeneration" (John 3:5; Titus 3:5 -- "regeneration" is just a fancy Latin word that means "born again").
The difference between Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelicalism does not lie in uniting oneself to Christ and believing in him as King and God, but rather in what follows. One could say that the Orthodox Church often appears like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. The way baptisms are often performed rushes through these questions and answers without explanation, and often in a language not understood by anyone present, so that their significance is obscured. Protestant Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to emphasise these beginning steps almost to the exclusion of anything else. The ritual of the "altar call", in some Evangelical churches, is repeated every Sunday, so that Protest6ant Evangelicalism often looks like a ladder with only the bottom four rungs and nothing above. They substitute decisional regeneration for baptismal regeneration, and regard "decisions for Christ" as the measure of success in evangelising.
So for Protestant Evangelicals "evangelism" meant preaching for a verdict, the aim was to get a person to make a decision for Christ. But Jesus didn't say "collect decisions", he didn’t say “make converts”; he said "make disciples".
The early Methodists recognised this, and tried to make disciples with their class system. They recognised that conversion needed to be followed by "sanctification", which is not all that different from the Orthodox notion of theosis. But eventually the Methodists abandoned that, and many of the other evangelicals never adopted it in the first place.
For this reason Anglican Evangelicals were called "Low Church" -- they thought that the church was not so important. What was important was "decisions for Christ". What came after the decision did not matter so much.
The problem was what one sociologist described as "the routinisation of charisma". A new generation grows up with something that was new and fresh to the previous generation, and so there is a need for revival, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries travelling evangelists would go round preaching revival, and setting up tents in various towns where they preached.
One branch of such revival movements found that something that was neglected in the eagerness for "decisions for Christ" was that the first followers of Jesus did not really begin preaching until they had been filled with the Holy Spirit, and so the Pentecostal movement started at the beginning of the 20th century, as an offshoot of the Evangelical movement, emphasising the need for being filled with or baptised in the Holy Spirit. And they developed a new doctrine, that the "initial evidence" that a person was filled with the Holy Spirit was "speaking in tongues". Many traditional Evangelicals disagreed, and so "Evangelicals" came to be distinguished from "Pentecostals". Many of the Pentecostals were kicked out of Evangelical and other denominations, and so a number of new Pentecostal denominations started and spread their message.
At about the same time, there was also the rise of Fundamentalism. which was quite different. Some 19th-century German Protestant theologians began, as a result of historical and linguistic studies, to question some of the events recorded in the written gospels, and some of the doctrines based on them. Fundamentalists opposed this doctrinal revisionism, and demanded a return to traditional doctrine, to the doctrines they saw as fundamental, like the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Holy Scripture and so on. Some Evangelicals were drawn into that, but they were different movements. Evangelicals thought Fundamentalists were so concerned about doctrine that they neglected the importance of commitment to Christ. Fundamentalists thought that Evangelicals were so concerned about emotional conversions that they were vague and woolly about the importance of right doctrine.
Fifty years after the appearance of the Pentecostal movement, a new version of it began to appear among non-Pentecostal denominations, which came to be called the charismatic renewal or charismatic movement. Like the early Pentecostals, they became aware of the downplaying of the Holy Spirit. Like the Pentecostals, they had a renewed awareness of the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Pentecostals, however, they believed that any of the spiritual gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12:8-10 could be evidence of being baptised in or filled with the Holy Spirit, and not speaking in tongues only. In some cases, these spiritual gifts appeared spontaneously among groups of non-Pentecostal Christians and they had to find a way of dealing with them. It appeared in many Western Christian groups, including Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists and even among explicitly Evangelical denominations. Many charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations sought advice from Pentecostals, and some of them simply took over Pentecostal pneumatology uncritically. This also happened with some Orthodox who were involved in the charismatic renewal, and they were regarded with suspicion by other Orthodox mainly because of their attempts to import Pentecostal pneumatology into Orthodoxy, whole and undigested.
I met one such person from the USA, who visited South Africa as a self-invited evangelist. He objected to singing Orthodox hymns in any language other than Greek, but was keen on teaching Orthodox Christians to sing Protestant Evangelical hymns in English. In his mind there was a complete separation between the two. For him, Orthodoxy was Greek, and no English or Zulu was allowed to touch it. But for him the Holy Spirit was English, and had nothing to do with Orthodoxy.
The charismatic movement flourished from about 1950 to 1980, and then began to split up. Some charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations, unhappy that their denomination did not accept everything they said, went off and formed or joined one of the many Neopentecostal denominations that were springing up around that time. The 1970s were also the age of the cassette tape, and many spiritual loose cannons appeared, announcing that they had new revelations of the Holy Spirit, which were not tested by the Church because of the fissiparousness of Protestantism, but spread all over the world by means of cassette tapes, both audio and video.
Such were Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, who came up with the “prosperity gospel”, which was adopted and adapted by many (though not all) of the Neopentecostal denominations (which often, somewhat misleadingly, called themselves “nondenominationaal).
Traditional Evangelicals often initially opposed the charismatic movement, believing that spiritual gifts had ended after the time of the first apostles. Many Evangelicals had been influenced by another Protestant movement, Dispensationalism, which believed that different parts of the Holy Scriptures were written for different periods of time, called “dispensations”, and so were not applicable to others. They tended to become especially concerned with one of these “dispensations”, which they called the “End Times”, about which various theories were developed, with names like premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial (Orthodoxy, by the way, is amillenial, regarding millennialism, also known as chiliasm, as a heresy).
Along with the rise od the “prosperity gospel”, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the “moral majority” movement in the USA, which attracted some evangelicals. and developed into “religious right”, and which the US media now, misleadingly and inaccurately, call “Evangelicals”. And the article by Nathaniel Manderson uncritically adopts their terminology and the spin they put on it.
I had some acquaintance with one of these former evangelicals who became an enthusiastic supporter of the religious right. This was James D. Kennedy, who, as an evangelical Presbyterian minister, developed a method of training lay people in evangelism, called “Evangelism Explosion” or EE III. When he became part of the religious right, however, he had little to say about evangelism, and nearly all his publis statements were moralistic and political. And it is in this that we can see that the people that Nathaniel Manderson writes about are not Evangelicals, but pseudo-Evangelicals. Because James D. Kennedy appears to have undergone a transformation.
Evangelicals take that epithet from the Gospel. True Evangelicals tend to see Gospel and Law, Evangelism and Moralism, as essentially opposed to each other. But James D. Kennedy clearly shows a change of focus, from being evangelistically minded to being moralistically minded. He appears to have undergone a kind of conversion. He seemed to stop evangelising and start moralising.
Before 1980 many Evangelicals tended to be a-political. They regarded political involvement as a distraction from the main task of preaching the Gospel. At the time I thought their attitude was counter-productive. How can you preach good news to the poor and oppressed while removing the “good” from the news? But during the 1980s in South Africa, many Evangelicals were becoming woke -- that is, aware of social injustice, and the irrelevance of their manner of preaching the gospel to the poor and oppressed, and many sought ways to remedy that. But at the same time the message of the US religious right, made up of ex-Evangelicals and others, was spreading around the world.
So I believe that the article by Nathaniel Manderson is dangerously simplistic, and promotes prejudice and bigotry that feeds hatred.
Orthodox Christians do have theological differences with Protestant Evangelicals, but should not get their information about Evangelicals from such simplistic caricatures. It would be better to meet real Evangelicals, and not the fake ones of the US religious right, who have abandoned their evangelical faith for the political pottage of this sinful world, and have failed to realise, as one Evangelical pastor put it, when writing about the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, that “what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us”.
This article was written primarily for Orthodox Christians, who often know little about non-Orthodox Christians, including Evangelicals, and are often unaware of the differences between Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalist, Dispensationalists and the Religious Right. Though there are some overlaps, those are all distinct groups. Not all Evangelicals are members of the Religious Right, and vice versa. I am aware that some deprecate the use of phrases like "not all". But I believe that though not all those who deprecate the phrase are bigots, many of those who do deprecate it are bigots, and do it in order to promote bigotry.
Dr Stephen Hayes is an Orthodox deacon living in Tshwane, South Africa.
He has degrees and diplomas in church history, history, theology and missiology from the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Durham and South Africa.