In the New Evangelicalism, Pragmatism Prevails over Principle

Paul Edwards | "The Paul Edwards Program," WLQV Detroit | Monday, August 13, 2007

In the New Evangelicalism, Pragmatism Prevails over Principle

August 10, 2007

Pragmatism has overtaken principle in defining the positions evangelicals will take on the important political/moral issues this election cycle. Last week, writing in an op/ed for USA Today, Mark Pinsky, the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, observed:

The emerging face and voice of American evangelicalism is that of a pragmatic, politically sophisticated, pastor of a middle class megachurch. A younger generation of ministers such as Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life;” Bill Hybels, of the pioneering Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago; T.D. Jakes, the African-American pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas, as well as a music and movie producer; and Frank Page, the re-elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Pinsky is a Jew who has spent time examining evangelicalism and breaking down some of the stereotypes. He writes extensively about this subject in his recent book, “A Jew Among the Evangelicals.” Given his research there is certainly reason to take his perspective seriously. I hope he is wrong, but there is every reason to believe he may be right.

While the old guard evangelicals (the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, et al.) have their blemishes, they are men of principle, unwilling to compromise truth to facilitate a conversation with those committed to error.

Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, T. D. Jakes, Frank Page and Joel Hunter have taken positions on social issues which are often light on theology, more interested in achieving pragmatic outcomes by compromising on issues important to conservative followers of Jesus Christ than they are in standing on theologically-informed principle. Pinsky observes,

Pastors like Hunter, Warren, Hybels, Jakes and Page have a shared vision. They want to change the tone of the national political debate, making it less confrontational, and to open the movement to tactical coalitions with mainline Christian denominations, other faiths and even liberal secularists on a broad spectrum of issues … the younger pastors want to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond what Hunter calls “below the belt” issues linked to sexuality. For them, people of faith should engage issues such as AIDS, Darfur, economic justice, war and peace, prison reform and human trafficking. For Dobson and Robertson, this represents an unacceptable dilution of focus and a squandering of political capital.

If Mark Pinksy is correct in his assessment of this new, progressive breed of evangelical leaders, their agenda eerily resembles the social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which killed the mainline denominations—a death from which those denominations still have not resurrected. Warren, Hybels and company are poised to lead evangelicals down the same path. This new generation of evangelical leaders see the source of human misery (poverty, AIDS/HIV, etc.) as partially attributable to evangelical indifference to the plight of the suffering, which could, in their view, be cured with substantial (monetary) involvement in political/charitable organizations like the global poverty and AIDS-focused One Campaign.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in practical ways to relieve suffering. There is no question that conservative evangelicals must do more in practical ways to touch the poor and suffering as Jesus did. But this new generation of evangelicals is shifting our priorities, ranking social programs ahead of gospel preaching and evangelism.

Relieving suffering is a vital part of the gospel, but it is not the priority of the gospel. Relief from suffering follows from repentance from sin. Jesus connected physical suffering with sin (Matthew 9:1-8). So did James (James 5:15,16), as did the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

The first priority of evangelicals is to be evangelists, boldly proclaiming an unpopular gospel that calls men to account for their sin and to repent. Clean water wells in Africa will do nothing to stop the spread of AIDS/HIV so long as the behavior associated with the disease continues. The gospel addresses the behavior with a real cure: making men and women new creations in Christ.

Yet the more hip, relevant, and progressive leaders-in-waiting characterize as “fundamentalists” those who want to put the gospel and evangelism ahead of socialism. Pinsky again,

This is how rough and tumble the public conversation has become: Hunter and others have even revived the term “fundamentalist” —a word more often used by liberals—as an epithet for their more conservative adversaries. He refers to Dobson as “the 800-pound gorilla” among evangelical leaders….

Only a reformation can save us from ourselves and our leaders. May God give us an evangelical Martin Luther to stand against those within the evangelical church who would water down its message in order to make bed-fellows with the world, committed more to pragmatic outcomes than theologically-informed spiritual principles. Such is this new generation of evangelical leaders. 

Paul Edwards is the host of “The Paul Edwards Program” and a pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on Contact him at [email protected]