Evangelical affectiveness (and that’s not a typo!)

It wasn’t long after deciding on the above title that I wondered if it would be assumed to contain a ‘typo’ and that I actually meant to write ‘evangelical effectiveness’.

Certainly, there is no lack of evangelical writing on effective leadership. For example, when you search Amazon.com using the phrase ‘evangelical effective’, you will see 35 books listed in the results. In contrast, the phrase ‘evangelical affective’ only yields a single result.

Now, some might attribute that difference solely to the fact that, in modern parlance, ‘effective’ is far more prevalent than ‘affective’. Yet, when you search for both those words in the handy Google Books N-gram Viewer (which charts word frequencies in sources that were written between 1500 and 2019), you will find that the difference in usage is nowhere near as pronounced as some might imagine.

In fact, when you search for ‘affective’ by itself (defined as ‘relating to, arising from, or influencing feelings or emotions’), you will find a wealth of learned writing on that subject.

Let me be clear that I’m not implying that there is an overall reluctance among evangelicals to tackle tough emotional issues, such as bereavement, depression and suicide.

Instead, what I am saying is that, when discussing morality and ethics, we (and I include myself) can become over-reliant on what I call ‘confessional rationalism’ rather than also engaging affectively with those issues.

Here, I should emphasise two things. Firstly, I am not dismissing the value of confessional declarations per se. Indeed, down through the centuries, those statements have reflected an admirable commitment to integrity within the Reformed tradition (I think of Luther and Bonhoeffer). In situations of moral crisis, our adherence to a common confession has served the church well.

Secondly, I am not implying that subjective feelings or ‘lived experience’ should replace reason as the sole arbiter of truth.

Instead, I’m deeply concerned that over-reliance on confessional/doctrinal apologetic reasoning can and has resulted in an arid soulless rationalism, which is devoid of pastoral engagement and empathy.

For example, there have been several high-profile court cases and tribunals which have involved Christians invoking their (Article 9) human right of freedom to manifest their religion and belief (e.g. Ladele v. London Borough of Islington and the more recent Richard Page v. Lord Chancellor)

When Christians have lost their cases, it has been all too easy for evangelical commentators to join in the ‘pile-on’ and adopt an unyieldingly censorious tone without expressing a whit of sympathy for their fellow believer.

Similarly, after the Euro 2020 final, despite the heartening way in which our country rallied behind the three young black England footballers who had been deluged with racist tweets (and who also happened to be Christians), I was deeply saddened by some evangelicals, who were incapable of expressing deep sympathy towards these young victims of racism and were more intent on downplaying the gravity of the offence.

To them, the real danger was not the harm caused by such vile bigotry (which they readily attributed to Russian bots).

Instead, they expressed far more concern over the fact that English footballers were ‘taking the knee’, which they readily interpreted as incontrovertible evidence that the team had all but surrendered to a rising tide of cultural Marxism.

What they had abandoned was St Paul’s explicit exhortation to empathy: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom. 12:15).

And that tendency towards cold rationalism is neither winsome, nor is it particularly Scriptural.

For example, St Paul readily interspersed his discourse with pastoral engagement and deep empathy. Consider these affective excerpts from his letter to the Philippians, which would have been read aloud before that congregation:

• ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’

• ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’

• ‘I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel’

• ‘God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus’

• ‘You whom I love and long for, my joy and crown’

Even when Paul is warning the church about sinful behaviour or false teaching, he doesn’t just call out the culprits. He tells the church that he has wept bitterly over them (Acts 20:19; 2 Cor.2:4; Phil.3:18)

Erudite scrutiny is valuable. But for evangelicals to prize it at the expense of affective empathy is not merely wrong-headed. It’s downright unscriptural. That should be reason enough to change.

David Shepherd is an active member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley and was formerly a Deanery Synod Representative in the Diocese of Guildford.

Image: Vicki Nunn – Pixabay