On ‘Evangelical Correctness’, Joshua Harris and loving Jesus

Tug of War

Have you heard about ‘evangelical correctness’? It’s a bit like political correctness – except this is the doctrinally-sound version, of course.

Whereas ‘political correctness’ has been defined as ‘avoiding language or behaviour that any particular group of people might feel is unkind or offensive’ we might define ‘evangelical correctness’ as ‘avoiding language or behaviour that an evangelical group might feel offends the party line’.

Examples are not hard to find. In some Reformed circles in previous generations, certain forms of dancing and music were deemed beyond the pale. Some would have viewed the cinema as being a wholly degenerate art form. We could cite similar instances in relation to use of Sundays, make-up, women’s attire, and so on.

Now we could debate the merits or otherwise of the biblical basis for some of those views. But that’s not the point. The point is that any issue, once established, can easily take on a totemic identity which, whether right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant, cannot be broached. In other words, it’s a form of groupthink.

Many years ago, I once made the error (apparently) of speaking about charismatic Christians in less than suitably condemnatory terms, as one might put it, with a senior Australian bishop at a conference. It quickly was made clear to me in the response that I had transgressed his party’s Evangelical Correctness. Yikes! In fact, he and I were probably using the words with different meanings and contexts, but there was no possibility, it seemed, of exploring that.

These things came to mind when pondering the sad case of Joshua Harris, the ‘young, restless and reformed’ leader in the US who at the time of writing has recently separated from his wife and announced that he is no longer a Christian. It’s heart-breaking – but he is not the first, of course, in that particular strand of Christianity or indeed elsewhere. The path from younger evangelicalism to older liberalism is a well-worn one both in the US and the UK.

I wonder if part of the issue is that too often ‘evangelical correctness’ trumps genuine evangelicalism. To adapt some words of John Stott, the person ‘confined or caged’ by the ‘strict traditions and conventions’ of evangelical correctness is ‘not at liberty to question these, or to explore alternative, equally faithful ways of applying Scripture to the modern age, for they cannot escape their cage’. I wonder how much freedom Harris felt he had to explore his genuine questions or whether they secretly built up until the dam burst.

Chris Wright, the Anglican clergyman and former principal of All Nations College, recounts a conversation with Stott in which he (Wright) lamented two groups which, on one particular issue, seemed bound by their own particular form of what I have called evangelical correctness. ‘I find I can’t agree fully with either side or simply toe a party line,’ Wright told Stott.

He then describes how Stott advised him, ‘Preserve your independence’ – ‘by which I think he meant that I should continue to think for myself, come to my own convictions from the Bible, and not just take sides in the typical tribal allegiances of evangelicalism … For if some would lament that the church is not evangelical enough, my complaint would be that evangelicals are often not biblical enough’.

And of course defending party lines can easily become more important than the most important thing – loving Jesus. Ideological vehemence can easily replace personal devotion to Christ, it would seem. We must always return to Jesus.

David Baker is Rector of East Dean Church