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The Evangelical Center After Billy Graham

March 6th, 2018 | 15 min read

By Jake Meador

It’s a fairly banal observation, at this point, to note that the success of Billy Graham and other mid-century evangelicals, like Carl F. H. Henry and Harold Ockenga, came from their ability to formulate a centrist vision of American Protestantism. To their right stood the fundamentalists and on their left was the mainline. Like the fundamentalists, evangelicals held to a high view of Scripture—many of the leaders of this centrist, mid-century evangelicalism would be involved in drafting the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy—as well as the centrality of the cross and the necessity of personal repentance. Like the mainline, they valued the life of the mind and were concerned with the social applications of the Gospel. Out of this attempt to balance the perceived poles of American Protestantism came the most successful branch of the movement in 20th century America.

The success of this movement is not hard to see: It’s there in a purely numerical analysis if you look at the sheer volume of people Graham reached in his life. The later attractional model of church growth has nothing on Graham if we’re using a purely quantitative analysis. It’s there institutionally too—these mid-century evangelicals helped launch or relaunch two major seminaries, Fuller and Gordon-Conwell, a major missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity called Urbana, and the flagship publication of the movement, Christianity Today.

Further, through the ministry of InterVarsity Fellowship and InterVarsity Press as well as Graham’s crusades in the UK, these mid-century evangelicals helped bring British voices to the American church, John Stott and J. I. Packer both published with IVP and, of course, another slightly later mid-century evangelical great, Chuck Colson, would be a key player in helping bring C. S. Lewis to the masses of American Christians. Through these British voices and particularly through Stott, the mid-century evangelicals were able to validate their professed interest in the life of the mind and introduced their audience to works like The Cross of Christ, Mere Christianity, and Knowing God, both of which would become landmark books in American evangelicalism. Moreover, Stott, with his obvious concern for the social implications of the Gospel and Lewis, with his pipe and unapologetic love for good beer, both helped to further highlight the distinctiveness of this movement relative to American fundamentalism.

The Fragility of a Politically Defined Center

That said, it may well be the case that American evangelicalism of this more properly theological sort—rather than the nakedly identitarian thing it has lapsed into today—existed only during the prime years of Graham’s (and Stott’s) ministry. This is why: For this sort of Graham-style mid-century evangelicalism to exist, there needs to be a right and a left for them to position themselves in between.

Unfortunately, neither of those wings seems to exist today. Both the heirs to the fundamentalists and to the mainline have become parodies of themselves. The more right-wing Protestants spent the better part of 40 years talking about the importance of Christian character, America as a Christian nation, and so on, only to discredit all of it by endorsing a thrice married philanderer and abuser who once claimed, sincerely, that he did not ask God for forgiveness. The result is that “evangelical” today functions more as a bizarre identity label for people who claim to be evangelical despite the fact that they probably don’t attend church regularly and don’t know much, if anything, about evangelical theology.

Similarly, the American mainline is now languishing as its seminaries are unable to stay open and the recent presiding bishop of one major mainline church suggested that the account of Paul and the demoniac slave girl in Acts 16 is actually a text about how Paul’s misogynistic views essentially no-platformed a young woman.

In brief, there is neither a functioning right or left for “evangelicalism” to pull from as it defines itself as a “centrist” movement of American Protestantism. The wings have vanished and so the center loses its points of reference, to say nothing of the sizable audiences to either side of them that they were once able to draw from. What, then, of the evangelical center?

To answer the question, we must note one further thing about mid-century evangelicalism: By largely defining themselves relative to the Protestant groups to their left and right, they essentially acquired their key principles from the two wings—a high view of Scripture and the cross from the right and a concern for society and the intellect from the left. Thus the problem is not simply that the old right and left wings of Protestantism provided evangelicalism with its frame of reference; they also supplied it with its key principles, which were snatched out of their context from the other schools. We should not be surprised that such a grab-bag approach would lead to eventual ideological incoherence within evangelicalism. This is not to say Graham and Stott and the rest were wrong to build their movement in the way they did. I tend to think theirs was the best possible strategy after what was a rather devastating series of defeats during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. I am simply noting that their solution was particularly addressed to a very specific historical moment and is not easily transferrable to other eras.

A New Approach to the “Center” Question

Though its critics may celebrate the passing of the center, as a failing attempt to either slowly embrace progressive theology or to make bigotry more respectable, Christians should lament this development for many reasons.

In the first place, the whole reason such a move was possible in the first place is because there really were robust fundamentalist and mainline movements in America. Say what you will about both, each is preferable to the more secular left with its disdain for religion, unborn infants, and the natural family and the secular right, with its increasingly naked white nationalism. If nothing else, the evolution of the theologically right and left into nakedly partisan right and left entities is a net loss for the American republic.

But there is a second issue as well: As Tim Keller, himself a Gordon-Conwell graduate, noted in his eulogy for John Stott, the brand of Protestantism that has been consistently the most successful both in sustaining itself in the west and growing in the majority world has been centrist evangelicalism. If you care about the viability of Christianity long-term in the west, it seems to me that you must care about evangelicalism. But how can a centrist movement that has lost the frames of reference that define it continue?

In one sense, it can’t—not as a centrist movement, in any event. That said, the Reformed author Jim Belcher, a graduate of both Gordon College and Fuller Seminary and, at the time, a pastor in the PCA, hinted at the move we can make in his book Deep Church, published by IVP, which at the time was, tellingly, hailed as the most successful critical engagement with both more fundamentalistic brands of American Protestantism and the, at that time still relevant, emerging church movement. Thus the book is something of a modern-day version of the old mid-century evangelical centrist move, drawing from both the right and left of American Protestantism. But Belcher does not approach the issue in quite the same way as his evangelical predecessors.

In the book Belcher addressed one of the perennial questions of church life in America: Which comes first, belief or belonging? Belcher argued that both more conservative forms of Protestantism and more liberal answer the question poorly. The right, he said, errs by setting up a perimeter around the church that one must pass through, which is done by articulating the “correct” theological view on a wide range of topics, in order to be part of the Christian faith. Belcher called this a bounded-set approach to church: There are a number of clearly defined boundaries and if you transgress any of them, you cannot be part of the group. For their part, the emergent crowd essentially dispensed with the boundaries altogether in favor of building and maintaining relationships. Belcher said both of these approaches are inadequate.

As an alternative, he proposed what he termed a center-set approach to the question. To explain, he used the analogy of Australian shepherds who, faced with the enormous amount of land their herds can roam, simply gave up on the possibility of fencing it all in. Instead, they simply dug wells near the center of their lands. They knew the sheep needed to drink and, therefore, couldn’t afford to wander too far from the center.

A number of critics have noted that Belcher’s formulation is somewhat misleading. It is not really a true via media between conservatism and emergent. Belcher is not taking elements of both the bounded-set and relationally set churches and forming a third way. Rather, he is essentially assuming a bounded set, but radically redefining the function of the boundaries, which also has the effect of changing the extent of the boundaries. Don’t protect all of the land with fences and boundaries; just protect the well.

So the critics are right that Belcher isn’t doing a third-way project. But this criticism largely misses the point as the point was not to actually chart out some via media between irreconcilable options, but to try and find a better, more enduring definition of “the center.”

What a center-set mentality does is two-fold:

First, it affirms that the center of the Christian community is the Gospel, the free forgiveness of sins offered to us thanks to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is this confession that calls the church into existence and which nourishes it in its life.

Second, it implicitly defines “the church” in the traditionally Protestant terms of “the sheep who hear the shepherd’s call.” (The text being alluded to here, John 10:27, was a significant text for many early reformers as they sought to define the church in explicitly Scriptural terms.)

If we look at this more closely, a picture should start to develop for us: We have a “center” that is defined by the free grace of the Gospel, mediated through Christ and offered to the world, and we have a community that is defined not by a firm perimeter running along the length of the community’s land but in terms of those who recognize their need for the water and willingly go to the well. Thus we have the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith—and the formal principle of the Reformation—the church is simply made up of those who hear the shepherd’s call and respond; the sheep who come to the well to drink.

Reformed Catholicism and Ecclesial Centrism

During the 16th century the argument made by early Protestants was not that they were breaking away from the church and founding a new one. They knew from Scripture that there was, and is, only one church. Their goal was not to start a new purer Christian movement, but to reform the one holy, catholic church.

Over time, history forced them to clarify their terms, of course. Or, more accurately, conflict and division with the body of Christ did. After all, if your goal is to reform “the church” you must have some idea of what “the church” is.

It quickly became apparent to Luther and the others that the leading authorities in the church, Leo X foremost amongst them, was not open to reform. Indeed, the church responded to Luther much the same way that it responded to other leaders it judged to be heretical during that era. One of the men dispatched to deal with Luther, Cardinal Cajetan, was the very same man who, in his younger days, had made his name by disputing with Pico Della Mirandola, an Italian humanist whose own views had already been condemned by the church and whose books had been burned.

Given the pope’s entrenched position and the similarly robust support he received from the Roman curia it became apparent to Luther and the other reformers—even more mild-mannered ones like Bucer and Melanchthon—that the church could not simply be identified as the institutions which recognized the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, given the form that office had taken at that moment in history it seemed more likely that the bishop could be identified with antichrist rather than Christ, which is precisely the move the reformers made.

That said, while the Roman curia was obviously a foe to the cause of reform, the reformers’ attitude toward members of the Roman church was more complicated. At Regensburg, Martin Bucer and Phillip Melanchthon negotiated with German members of the Roman church who were sympathetic to the reform movement. Together they arrived at a series of statements expressing broad agreement on many theological topics, including justification. The work was undone temporarily by the rejection of the proposals by both the Pope and Luther himself and would permanently fail at Trent when the Roman church anathematized those who confessed justification by faith with Melanchthon and Bucer.

But the example is telling: The reformers would dismiss the Roman curia, but their attitude toward members of Roman churches, even some bishops or cardinals, was far more ambiguous. This is not simply an historical quirk brought about largely by Bucer and Melanchthon’s widely known ecumenism or any latent feelings of fondness they have had for the Roman church. It was, rather, a principled stance they took: at its most basic level, the church was not, according to the reformers, identifiable with any human institution; it was simply the body of people who heard the shepherd’s call and responded in faith to it. And, of course, many in the Roman church have done that and continue to do that.

Today our examples of ecclesial institutions that have largely forgotten the Gospel have multiplied, but the principle remains unchanged. One’s membership in the people of God is not contingent upon one’s belonging to any human institution; it is contingent upon whether or not one hears the call of the Gospel and responds to it. Thus even in our divided day, this core principle of Reformational ecclesiology can serve as a cornerstone of a renewed evangelical center.

The Reformed Tradition and Center-Set Churches

Of course, many will hear this argument and laugh not chiefly because of objections to the central argument, but for the simple reason that the thought of the Reformed churches providing a balanced, big tent center for American evangelicalism is laughable. This reaction comes from years of witnessing Reformed leaders fight and bicker amongst each other, sometimes driving whole churches and denominations into rivalry and discord. It is, of course, not an unreasonable reaction.

That said, there are two points to make in response to this, both of which collapse down into one basic point:

First, if the Reformational principle is correct, then the presence of division in the church need not necessarily trouble us, depending on the nature of the division. Put another way, the mere fact that a variety of ecclesial institutions exist is not, in itself, sinful or a proof of sinful discord in the body of Christ. It can be those things, of course. But it does not have to be.

Second, if the reformational principle is true, then the movement is large and robust enough to handle this sort of internal strife. Indeed, the example of Jacobean England in the early years of the 17th century would suggest something very like this point, as would the broader testimony of the reformed tradition. When you scrape past the prickly exterior and take a closer look at the tradition, you’ll see that we bear the marks of that diversity: the American Reformed movement even today encompasses Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Presbyterians, some Baptists, Acts 29, Korean Presbyterians, and a host of other churches as well. Similarly, the fact that Christians from all these various groups are able to work together on narrow, selective projects through organizations like The Gospel Coalition highlight how this movement can be both principally reformed and big-tent in its approach.

Indeed, one could reasonably argue, I think, that TGC has its own trio of leaders that mirror the Graham, Henry, Stott triumverate of old evangelicalism. John Piper, a Fuller Seminary graduate, plays the role of the charismatic, fiery southern evangelist who pioneered new ways of using technology to spread the Gospel, D. A. Carson is the academic with wide-ranging interests who provides some intellectual ballast to the movement, and Tim Keller is the professorial pastor in a major global city with a unique talent for evangelizing young people and whose ability to explain both the individual and social implications of the Gospel makes him a unique and compelling voice to a large audience.

It’s not just in America where you can see the diversity of the reformed churches though: A look at the global picture tells a similar story: there are large reformed presences in Ghana, South Korea, Brazil, and Indonesia, to name only four examples. Indeed, as Philip Jenkins has pointed out, there are more Presbyterians today in Ghana than in Scotland. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil, meanwhile, has nearly three times as many congregations as the PCA, three times as many members, and, if you include evangelists and missionaries, roughly three times as many ministers.

Being reformed, in this broad, historical sense of the word, gives you a surer foundation for holding the center than any other form of western Christianity. The Anabaptists cannot do this for you. The Roman church certainly cannot, as the resurgent interest in traditionalist Catholicism in our own day makes quite clear. Even the Baptists will struggle on this point due to their insistence on a pure, politically constituted church: as soon as you start lapsing into some sort of precisionist approach to church life you will inevitably make it harder to preserve the center; this lesson is as old in America as the halfway covenant.

In this sense it is probably telling that many younger Christians in traditional strongholds of evangelicalism, such as the western suburbs of Chicago and Colorado Springs, are making their way away from the Baptist churches of their youth and toward Anglican churches which can, though they sometimes fail, credibly stake out the sort of broad center-set positioning I have described above either for coherent reasons—a basic embrace of the two principles of the reformation described above—or for oddly jumbled ones, like an odd sort of Anglo-Catholicism that seems, to me, to implicitly grant Roman ecclesiological assumptions right up until we come to the pope. In either case, the movement toward Anglicanism in Wheaton and Colorado Springs is telling.

The future of American Protestantism, then, will not be a movement toward a politically defined center set between the right and left poles of our movement. It will, rather, be a principled movement toward a “center-set” approach to church life and movement building that seeks to define the center not in terms of a grab-bag set of principles appropriated from several different groups but in terms of internally consistent theological principles.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).