Why I Won't Sign "An Evangelical Manifesto"

Protestantism has a problem; it is very hard for us to agree. For some the unifying factor is a creed (explicitly stated or not) of "no creed but the Bible". Of course we can see how using the Bible alone has worked out in Protestantism as a unifying factor.

That alone is insufficient. This is partially because this uniter hardly leads to unity since differing interpretations lead to very differing understandings of said object. This is also insufficient because some reject the premise (and this includes myself).

So how will we unite? Perhaps we shall come up with a manifesto! It is not itself a bad idea. What about "An Evangelical Manifesto"? Is it good enough?

Some Positives

There are a lot of positive things to say about this document, and I will mention a few. First, evangelicals often have as one of their top distinguishing marks a belief in inerrancy, a point that I think unnecessarily separates many who with whom evangelicals have very much in common. In this manifesto they have at least dropped the word. Here is the key statement on this. I will let you decide for yourself if it means inerrancy.

Fourth, we believe that Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.

Second, the manifesto takes a very strong stance against aligning evangelicalism with any particular political party. That is very important.

Finally, there was a very strong emphasis on the living of the Christian life. Evangelicalism is for more than just church attendance and the signing of manifestos; it has to do with a life changed by an encounter with Christ. Great stuff!

One Not Insignificant Annoyance

But not all is well in the camp. It is not enough for me to refuse to sign the manifesto, but it is bothersome nonetheless. The problem comes on the title page, fourth line.

May 7, 2008; Washington, D.C.

The date is fine; it is the place that bothers me greatly. I do find it highly unlikely that the city was chosen by coincidence (after all, the writers do call themselves "American Leaders" in the manifesto). Evangelical leaders have gathered in the capital to declare a manifesto that eschews evangelical identity with particular political parties but by virtue of the place of signing they ally evangelicalism with the country.

Evangelicalism is to be identified with no particular political party, but not because evangelicalism is to be identified with the country as a whole. Evangelicals ought to be separate because Christians are members of another kingdom; they have sworn fealty to another King. Of course they would agree, but the connotative import is there whether or not they want it to be.

If we in any way equate evangelicalism with our country, what will happen to it when our nation falls apart? And it will. I do not expect it in my lifetime, but it will. Evangelicalism, Christianty even, is not to be allied to closely to the nation in which it lives for fear that some dependence or confusion takes place.

But some will say to me, "Don’t you think that an evangelicals beliefs should affect how one votes and does politics?" Absolutely. Christian belief will have radical affect on social policy. I do not deny that one affects the other. I do very strongly deny any equation between evangelicalism and our nation, no matter how subtle. The beating heart of our nation may be Washington D.C., but the beating heart of evangelicalism ought to the heart of Christ, communicated by the Spirit to all who believe. Let us flee from any equation between or joining of evangelicalism and the United States of America.

But as much as that irks me, it would not keep me from signing. And there are various other things I would change or with which I would quibble. But there is one thing that tells me that unification around these ideals will ultimately bring little substantive long-term change.

Why I Will Not Sign - The Analogy

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over the nation of Cambodia. I have a friend, his name is Chheng, who escaped the country and avoided being one of the approximately 1.5 million who were killed during their four year reign. He came to America and lived here a number of years, was eventually converted, joined our church, and several years ago went back to Cambodia to start churches and spread the good news about a much better kingdom. You can read about the church here.

In 2006 I was fortunate enough to travel with two other members of the church on a "check-up" trip, to spend some time with him, bring him a few supplies, and to see how everything was going. I enjoyed spending time with Chheng, his wife, and the members of the church and discipleship training center. It was moving to be able to see the work first-hand.

It was a very encouraging experience, but it was not the visit to the church that changed my life. It was the killing fields.

Skulls of some killed at Choeung Ek. Most don’t have front teeth because they were knocked out by their captors with the butts of their rifles before they were killed.

Pol Pot and his regime wanted to wipe the slate clean. One of his central programs to do so involved mass murder. I am sure some of his murders were random, but not all. They targeted the educated of the country. Doctors, teachers, all threatened with death because they were more educationally advanced than the rest. But they were, of course, not alone. When you walk around the killing fields and look around you see mass graves. When you walk between them you walk on a mixture of dirt, old clothing, and human bones. Here is a picture of the path with someone’s jaw and teeth sticking up through the dirt.

It was one of two incredibly powerful images of total depravity that I learned that year. But there is another lesson to learn from this.

What happens to a country when you kill its educated? Does the next generation just grab some books and pick up where things left off? The Khmer Rouge were in control only about four years. Surely the effect of the genocide of 1/5 of their population should have been repaired by now. The reality is, of course, that this is not the case. It will take generations to repair the damage done to their people and culture because of the killings. If the Khmer Rouge had made a point of saving the educated of the country instead of killing them then the loss would still be incredibly tragic, but the recovery would not take so long and be so hard. But because their society has been beaten down so thoroughly by the death of their cultured and educated, they are hardly ready to prosper as a nation. Things are improving now, but they have a long way to go.

Why I Will Not Sign - The Problem Stated

I think that there is a very strong parallel between the plight of a lacking educated class of Cambodia and the lack of an educated populace within evangelicalism. But the Cambodians have one significant advantage over evangelicals; I think more Khmer see that there is a problem in Cambodia than there are evangelicals that realize that evangelicalism is educationally and intellectually vacuous and thus has no chance of really prospering.

I grew up Southern Baptist, a nice evangelical denomination. I grew up in a family in which a number were Christian. I attended church all of my life. I was an intern at the church for several years. I even went to a couple Southern Baptist conventions. I then went to college and got a degree in Religion from a Southern Baptist school. I was not the best student, but I did okay there. I then went on to get a Masters at one of the top evangelical institutions in the world, Dallas Theological Seminary. I tried very hard as a student there and I would hope excelled in some subjects and classes. In other words, I was under the direct guidance and influence of evangelicalism, and in one case, one of its greatest schools, for about 28 years of my life.

Yet almost every day I read something and think "you know, I should have learned this already." Maybe it is a book on Christian History. Maybe it is a biblical precept. Maybe it is a point of theology. But even now, at thirty two years of age, I know that I have to fill in so much of the basics. And even though I have a "Master of Theology", I don’t feel that I have mastered much of anything.

And unless I am missing something significant, judging from those I encountered at seminary, there were very few who were significantly farther along than I was (it is admittedly a little hard to tell). Everything since then has confirmed my thoughts on this. The education that most evangelicals have received is a joke, including my own.

This is not to say there I have never had well-educated and intelligent professors. I certainly have. This also does not mean that all of my classes were horrible; on the contrary, some of my classes were great. There are a number of my professors that I look upon with respect and was and am thankful that they do what they do.

But a few good university and seminary professors do not a good education make. A good education starts in grade school. Once someone gets out of grade school he goes to university if he needs more, and hopefully university adds to what he knows and helps him get a firmer grasp on truth and reality through critical thinking. That is the kind of education that most evangelicals should have. Yet I would imagine that few evangelicals have a coherent and cohesive worldview by the time they have finished their schooling. I know I certainly did not because I am not sure I have mine figured out yet even now. Why is this?

This is probably why going to get a "Master’s" degree often felt a whole lot like getting a easy bachelor’s degree. How could they teach mastery when very few know the basics? How can they serve steak when their students are still drinking milk? If America’s greatest seminaries are trying to catch up, why should we expect to have leaders who are prepared to lead us intellectually, ethically, and spiritually?

Why I Will Not Sign - Where The Manifesto Falls Short

The manifesto is subtitled "A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment". The center of evangelical identity must be Christ, and that is something that evangelicals agree on, if not always in practice. But what shall we do about our public commitment? What can we do to be good Christians according to this document? Well, we can refuse to align ourselves with particular political parties. Good plan. We can also live good Christian lives. Good plan. Well, that sounds good; let’s all sign up!

No. Can the leaders who created this manifesto not see that this is a problem? Are they blind to it? Did they even think to address it? From my reading, no. But I will be more optimistic. Maybe it is because some did see the issue but they could not come to an agreement and so it was left out.

Either way, how in the world (double meaning intended) do we expect evangelicals to live righteous lives if they are not equipped with the knowledge they need to make the right decisions? How are they to enact good civil policy if they are not much more than an uneducated mob?

As evangelicals, indeed, as Christians, we have no excuse. I would hope that we would all believe that all truth is God’s truth, and since we know the God who is the sovereign of the universe, we of all people should have the strongest understand of all that is. We should be the best scientists. We should be the best political leaders. We should be the best professors. We should be the best doctors. We should be the best teachers. But we are not.

You can quarrel about how to define evangelicalism all you want. You can try to encourage people to not associate themselves with particular political parties. But until evangelicalism gets its head out of the sand, it has little hope. As is Evangelicalism has a faint chance of being rich in things that get you to heaven upon death, but without the reform of the mind Evangelicalism will only be a pauper in its knowledge of how to live godly upon the earth. And so I will sign no statement that claims to offer a way forward for evangelicals when it fails to address this very fundamental problem within the heart (and mind) of evangelicalism.