August 3, 2013

What’s So ‘Evangelical’ About Rachel Held Evans?

The short answer: nothing. Here’s the moral of the RHE story: the best way to read her is through the lens of Mainline Protestantism. Nothing she writes is anything we haven’t heard from Carter Heyward. Nothing.

Rachel Held Evans’ follow-up to her recent CNN post about Millennials should finally settle the issue of where she stands along the Protestant Evangelical/Protestant Mainline spectrum. When reading “Why Millennials Need The Church” if there is something we should all be on it is that the fact Rachel Held Evans should not be considered an evangelical or even “post-evangelical.” Perhaps simply a “no evangelical.” This is perfectly fine, by the way. You don’t have to be an evangelical in order to be a Christian but, as I mentioned before, the media and many of her followers wrongly believe that she embraces the worldview of the broad evangelical tribe in the United States or the United Kingdom.

I have just a few short, unassorted, random observations from Evans’ latest:

(1) RHE seems extremely confused and unknowledgeable about the what makes the church “the” church:

For example, the Lutherans (a.k.a., the original evangelicals) describe the what the church is as an institution that administers the “means of grace.”

These means of grace are the Word of the Gospel, in every form in which it is brought to man, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper. The Word of the gospel promises and applies the grace of God, works faith and thus regenerates man, and gives the Holy Ghost, Acts 20:24; Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23; Gal. 3:2. Baptism, too, is applied for the remission of sins and is therefore a washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, Acts 2:38; 22:16; Titus 3:5. Likewise the object of the Lord’s Supper, that is, of the ministration of the body and blood of Christ, is none other than the communication and sealing of the forgiveness of sins, as the words declare: “Given for you,” and: “Shed for you for the remission of sins,” Luke 22:19, 20; Matt. 26:28, and “This cup is the New Testament in My blood,” 1 Cor. 11:23; Jer. 31:31-34 (“New Covenant”).

Evans makes no mention of the need for the Gospel when describing why Millennials need the church, which is really odd.

(2) The World Council of Churches describes Baptism this way: “baptism Christians, men, women or children, become part of the church, i.e. of the people of God.”

Evans: “baptism drags us – sometimes kicking and screaming as infants – into the large, dysfunctional and beautiful family of the church.”

Evangelical Wesleyans describe Baptism this way: “We believe that water baptism is a sacrament of the church, commanded by our Lord and administered to believers. It is a symbol of the new covenant of grace and signifies acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ. By means of this sacrament, believers declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.”

(3) Confession

In the tradition of Protestant evangelicalism confession is not mentioned without an emphasis on repentance.

Evans relates confession to accountability which is one aspect but it is also, historically speaking, distinct from repentance. Again, the Lutherans (the original evangelicals) introduce us to the distinction between confession and repentance, and the relationship between the two, in two separate articles of the Augsburg Confession.

The call to repentance is how Jesus framea one of the central reasons why he came.

(4) Communion

Evans defines communion (the Lord’s Supper) as: “the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine.” While the Zwinglian understanding is still alive in many circles, for many evangelicals communion is more than mere remembrance. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 97, connects the Lord’s Supper to repentance:

“Q. 97. What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper? A. It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves

These are types of themes that have classically been a part of Protestant Evangelicalism but you will not hear emphasized in Protestant mainline churches nor, by extension, in Evans. There are good reasons for that. Her comments about healing, leadership, etc. are parts of various denominational distinctives in terms of emphasis but she fails to give a vision for what it’s all for. Now, I understand that it’s just a short blog post on CNN but my guess is that an evangelical Lutheran or Wesleyan would have written it much differently.

If you think I’m going too far, read the doctrinal beliefs of the United Church of Christ(UCC), one of the oldest mainline denominations in America, and then go back an read what Rachel Held Evans writes over at CNN.

Perhaps the most painful part of Evans (very non-evangelical) way of thinking about why Millennials need the church is the call to glorify God. Evans’ list of why Millennials “need” the church remains, at the end of the day, individualistic and consumeristic. It seems to be more about the needs of Millennials and the benefits of Christ’s church rather than the ancient call to live a life to glorify the Triune God.

Again, it’s ok for Evans to critique conservative evangelicals. It’s no biggie. I do it all the time. Lots of those outside of the evangelical world do so. It just seems that it’s time for Evans, and others, to be honest about their mainline Protestant 1970s theological ethos that has no real interest in aligning herself with the promotion of the beliefs of classical evangelical churches. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why anyone finds her credible. Carter Heyward already showed us what this looks like I’m not sure what Evan’s neo-Heywardism is particularly adding.

One response to “What’s So ‘Evangelical’ About Rachel Held Evans?”

  1. Thanks, Anthony. This and your post asking why RHE doesn’t simply align with the UMC are helpful and spot on. The one carry over I suspect she has from being an evangelical is a low ecclesiology. Say what you will about mainliners, they are church people.

    I clicked the link on the UCC and saw the phrase, “In essentials–unity, in nonessentials–diversity, in all things–charity.” Turns out, that is almost word for word, the mantra in the EPC, too. Those denominations are not even close to sharing ethos, theology, etc. Funny they both have that as their “banner” on their respective websites.