Evangelicalism and the Village Green image

Evangelicalism and the Village Green

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Evangelicalism is the village green; churches are the homes all around it. In a brilliant brief essay in Modern Reformation, Michael Horton narrates the story of evangelical identity over the last five hundred years, showing how it oscillates between Reformed/Presbyterian/confessional and Methodist/revivalist/pietist poles. As he concludes, he presents a metaphor for evangelicalism which has become rightly famous:

I have argued that evangelicalism is like a village green, where people, leaving their homes and stores, come to mix and mingle. Or, as C. S. Lewis suggested, it is “mere Christianity”—the hallway where people meet and where non-Christians can hear Christ’s central claims. We were not meant to live on the village green or in the hallway, however, but in the homes and rooms. Evangelicalism is most useful as a meeting place, but disastrous for anyone who tries to make it a home. For a home, we need a church.

This is such a helpful remark, and has significant implications for the way evangelical Christians think about where we fit, relate to other believers, form confessional identities, and even use social media. If you think the village green is where you live, and the place of your primary identity, then you will almost inevitably seek to make it feel like your own, colonise it, fence it, and fill it with your furniture—and you will find it very troubling if other people, with incompatible fences and furniture, are trying to do the same thing at the same time. And I think that has great explanatory power for a number of evangelicalism’s most divisive debates.

Why, for instance, did so many evangelicals pour vitriol on Rob Bell for his views on hell, yet ignore or even commend Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic, despite his saying many of the same things? Why do so many who (presumably) have better things to do troll the #CBMW16 hashtag with such anger and moral superiority, but not similar gatherings of Catholic or Orthodox church leaders, whose theology of sex and gender would probably bother them more and influence more people?  Why do some evangelicals take every opportunity to sneer at Arminianism, and barely mention Arianism? Why do others find themselves unable to mention Calvin without foaming at the mouth, but read Tillich with interest? Why is it that when I mention Bethel on Twitter, the words “cult”, “brutal” and “hate” get used within a few minutes?

Anyone who asks that many rhetorical questions in a row had better have some answers, and my guess is that it is a combination of good old-fashioned tribalism (which we had an interesting Mere Fidelity discussion about recently), and, in Horton’s terms, the sense that the village green is our home. If we live on the evangelical village green, then anyone who professes to be evangelical and teaches something we don’t like (Rob Bell, John Calvin, Tom Wright, John Piper, Bill Johnson, or whoever) needs to be driven out, whereas we can leave their liberal, Catholic or Orthodox equivalents to their own devices. If, on the other hand, we live at home, and see the village green as a meeting place, then we will not feel anything like so threatened, or even surprised, when a group of ne’er-do-wells move onto the green and set up camp. The village green still has limits, of course—personally I like Bebbington’s quadrilateral, and Matthew Milliner’s statement than an evangelical is “anyone who cares what an evangelical is”—but if we don’t live there, policing them is no longer our priority.

There is a flipside to Horton’s picture, though, and it may trouble the very people who most appreciate the analogy. If the village green is a much more open place than evangelicals have often thought, then the home is a much more restricted place than evangelicals have often thought. Homes have clear boundaries, both literally (walls, floors, rooves) and metaphorically (house rules, customs, routines, eating habits, in jokes), and homeowners have a responsibility to maintain them. Carl Trueman is typically clear on this: “If we are going to return to the confessions of the sixteenth century—and I think we should—then we need to recognise that this means returning to the divisions of the sixteenth century that made those confessions necessary.” So yes, denominational distinctives matter. Confessions matter. Church statements of faith, policies, even by-laws (?), matter. As a local church elder, it is not my job to protect the boundaries of the village green. But it is my job to protect the boundaries of the home, with clubs and staffs if necessary.
Here’s how Horton concludes his article:

According to the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggert [sic], evangelicalism includes in its theological spectrum everyone from R. C. Sproul to Benny Hinn. Increasingly, I believe that the real vitality-the long-term progress-of the gospel in our time will not come from broad movements, including an evangelicalism defined more by the hegemony of its politics and sociology than by the unity of its faith and practice. Rather, I expect it to come from many churches, most of them relatively small and unheralded, which consistently confess-in preaching and sacrament, in catechesis and fellowship, in singing and liturgy, in outreach and diaconal care-that gospel that alone remains “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). After all, it was not to movements, parachurch agencies, and coalitions that Jesus pledged his support. Rather, he promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Amen.

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