Rebuilding the Fallen Walls of Evangelicalism—Further Reflections on Evangelical Identity

Nehemiah Views the Ruins of Jerusalem's Walls

In my last post, I suggested that the time may have come for American Christians to abandon ‘evangelicalism’ (see Alan Jacobs’ thoughtful response). Within this post, I want to take a step back and offer a framework for thinking about the problem that we face, and the sort of solution that we need.

In any situation, the primary battle that we face—the battle that always precedes and takes priority over all other battles—is the battle for our own souls, the struggle for self-possession. When we face bitter persecution and see our Jerusalems surrounded by armies, we must patiently fight to possess our own souls (Luke 21:19). The framing of this in terms of possession recalls earlier contrasts between the soul and possessions in the gospel: what does it profit us if we gain the whole world and forfeit our souls (9:25)? Our soul itself is to be pursued as a possession, one that is only possessed through an ongoing struggle. This doesn’t just apply to individuals, but also to churches, organizations, communities, and other bodies of people.

In my last post, I discussed the weaknesses of evangelicalism. If I were to characterize the fundamental problem with evangelicalism, it is that it was always unprepared to fight the battle for its own soul. Unable to secure its own soul, it either capitulated to prevailing cultural forces, or sought to possess its soul through external battles against them.

Proverbs 25:28 speaks of the desolation of the man who has lost the battle for himself, describing him as akin to a city whose walls are broken through. This illustration is an illuminating one. The walls of the self are those things that enable us to create an internal environment that is distinct and protected from the hostile forces of an external environment. The walls of the self are those things that enable us to be differentiated from those around us (as Edwin Friedman discusses), making it possible for us to maintain a healthy homeostasis, even in wildly fluctuating environmental conditions.

Evangelicalism has failed in large measure because it could not establish a robust walled self. Its amorphous and porous boundaries meant that it was consistently either assimilating or locked into an antagonistic immune response mode. Its character as a mass movement meant that it was already partially complicit with the de-differentiating forces of modern life. It wasn’t able to be a strong and clear presence in compromised situations without either compromising itself or being engaged in a cultural total war. As it has never been able to develop a clearly distinguished identity of its own over against American society, its identity has always been radically at stake in the culture wars. Unable effectively to develop distinctness from its surrounding environment, it has a desperate need to win the culture wars for that external cultural environment. In this struggle, it has increasingly surrendered its own soul.

To explore a different metaphor, evangelicalism is a movement without a ‘skin’. As such, its vulnerability to its environment is fairly extreme: if it is to avoid assimilating to its environment it must control the environment, maintain an extreme and antagonistic immune response to the environment, or cut itself off from the environment. Of course, with a skin, one can be present in non-sterile environments without being infected by them. A skin is that which clearly marks and maintains the division of the self from the environment in such a manner that the self is enabled to be present without being compromised by or experiencing an extreme immune response to the environment. Evangelicalism as a mass movement profoundly exposed to and invested in the dynamics of American consumerist and political society has never been able to provide that.

A great many Christians recognize the toxicity of the wider cultural environment. However, it has been far too typical to adopt approaches that amount either to disengagement and withdrawal from the environment or ramped-up immune response to it. What I am suggesting is that the most important battle must be for the differentiation of our self and that, where we are victorious in this battle we can remain engaged in the society without assimilating to it.

‘Differentiation’ sounds like psychological jargon, perhaps because it is. However, in essence it refers to what could be compared to the walls or skin of the ‘self’ (of the individual or the group), those ways in which we are shielded from our external environment while being present within it, and thereby enabled to retain internal balance and equilibrium in volatile external contexts. It refers to the ways that we establish a clear distinction and firewall between ourselves and others, making it possible for us to regulate our internal state without needing to master or defeat any other parties. When we cannot do this, we will inevitably get caught up in reactive conflicts with them.

I’ve addressed the importance of ‘differentiation’ in the context of the Internet in the past, exploring the ways in which the walls of our selves have been broken down, so that we are increasingly vulnerable to the pressures of our social environments online. I have argued for the importance of erecting and preserving differentiating structures and practices that protect us from simply ‘reacting’ to environmental or social forces and enable us to ‘respond’ as self-controlled agents.

The walls of the self that we can construct in these situations can take many forms. Sometimes they may involve ensuring the intermission of time between stimulus and response, providing the room within which deliberation and reflection can occur. Sometimes they will involve the creation of distinct communities. Sometimes they will require us temporarily yet frequently to withdraw from socially saturated environments, preserving realms of privacy and solitude within which self-knowledge and healthy meditation can take place. Sometimes it will be a matter of praying for people with whom we differ sharply, breaking the reaction-spawning immediacy of our engagement with them by ensuring that we mediate our relationship with them through our relationship with God.

Where we do not develop robust walls for ourselves, external conflicts can become all-consuming. They can suck us in and destroy us. However, with such robust walls, we can maintain calm and clear heads in highly conflictual environments. This all begins with the recognition that the battle for the self is the most important one and that this battle is won through the establishment of effective differentiation.

Without robust walls—or a thick skin—evangelicals cannot maintain their own identity and balance in a hostile environment. A mass movement that is individualistic and de-institutionalized—a movement that has an ideology, but only a fluid and porous sociological form—cannot provide this and will always have a problematic relationship with an environment from which it cannot effectively distinguish itself. This development of thick skin is also the necessary condition for meaningful social and political presence and effective engagement.

What we need is to interrupt the processes whereby we fairly thoughtlessly default to and identify with the culture that surrounds us. Rather than simply fighting against the effects of lack of differentiation from the culture, we must address the underlying issue. When we fail to do this, we will become a movement that survives only by means of regular doses of heavy ideological medication, rather than living on a rich and balanced diet of truth.

The solution here won’t primarily be a more thoroughgoing ‘worldview’ or spreading a deeper theological awareness. The walls of the self are generally far more practical and concrete than that in character. They are developed out of the habits, practices, institutions, norms, rituals, prohibitions, identifications, loves, symbols, bonds, ways of life, and places of persons and communities. These are primarily sociological rather than ideological realities. They are the things that maintain a clear distinction between one body of people and another.

The sacraments, for instance, are an important part of the walls of the self of the Church. They mark us out as a people, distinguishing us from the society that surrounds us. This isn’t about teaching us an idea, but about, among other things, making it second nature for us to think of ourselves as a distinct people, with a distinct manner of life. It is primarily a body-forming action, rather than an occasion for theological instruction and reflection. The fact that Christ commanded us to ‘do’ it, rather than to ‘meditate’ upon it is significant for this and so many other reasons. We should celebrate the Supper, for instance, as regularly as possible.

In this and many other ways, we must unplug people from the surrounding culture and connect them to a new body of people, while keeping them present within the world. Christians and the Church must become more pronounced in their sociological distinctness (which is not the same thing as cultural disengagement), perhaps even to the point of risking being perceived as weird in various respects. What is ‘normal’ for Christians in a host of areas of life should be markedly different from what is normal for the surrounding culture. This is so much easier when we have established and maintained robust differentiating structures and practices and where groups of Christians shoulder the burden of self-differentiation together, rather than relying upon a heroic individualism. A poorly self-defined evangelicalism may have been somewhat sustainable in the broadly Christianized American society that once existed in certain locations: it is no longer a viable option in a post-Christian age.

Christians that are well differentiated from the surrounding society can more easily maintain a powerful and effective presence within it, without succumbing to its lures. We can stand firm in our witness on issues of social morality without needing to win culture wars at any cost. We can engage and cooperate more widely and irenically, judiciously pursuing the common good, even while retaining importance differences from those around us.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Politics, Society, The Church, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Rebuilding the Fallen Walls of Evangelicalism—Further Reflections on Evangelical Identity

  1. A Pilgrim says:

    In what way is what you’re proposing different than Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option? I listened to the Mere Fidelity episode that y’all devoted to the BenOpt, and I thought then that at least Derek and Matt misunderstood what Rod was after. (It’s been a while, so I don’t remember specifically what was said or who said what.) This post sounds like you’re advocating for the same thing, though.

    • I wasn’t on the Benedict Option episode. Even if it isn’t the quietist detachment that some think it is, the Benedict Option has more of a withdrawal flavour than my position. My argument is for differentiation for the sake of presence and engagement.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    This may be a big question – or it may be a dumb question – but I am wondering how your outline here of Christians as being sociologically distinct relates to (or is different from) the “church-as-alternative-polis” view that has in recent years provoked much controversy in Reformed circles. I don’t disagree with what you’ve said here. I am wanting clarification and further development, because one thing I am presently grappling with is a deep sense of agnosticism (derived from my study of Augustine’s City of God) about the value of the very concept of “Christian culture.”

    • cal says:

      I’m curious for Alastair’s response to this, but here’s a rejoinder:

      Isn’t the sense/ethos of pilgrimage a kind of alternate-polis stance, though one with a certain sense of agnosticism, detachment, and acknowledgement of the penultimate (or eschatological-orientation)? My opinion of City of God is this sort of ecclesial-minded and distinguished sense of unknowing and a qualified and cautious confidence in ecclesial identity. I think this has been taken by Protestants to erase ecclesiology, which inadvertently makes us/them easy victims to other social bodies, whether the nation, the state, the tribe/ethnos/race, the party, the club, the union etc etc.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tim.

      Before I answer your question, I want to reiterate that the point of my post was not to articulate a concrete vision for American Christian identity in the twenty-first century, just to offer a conceptual framework within which we can better understand the shape of the task before us. While I will give a few thoughts on how this may play out, it is important to stress that this post is not about a specific agenda, but only really about the conditions for a successful agenda.

      I am not advocating for a ‘church-as-alternative-polis’ position (and we should resist the conflation of Christians and their communities with the Church). Our goal is not to create an alternative ‘Christian culture’, but to keep our spiritual integrity in a decadent and evil society. This is not to deny that the Church and churches will have distinguishing elements and characteristics that could be spoken of as ‘cultural’. However, such elements and characteristics never rise to the level of a larger alternative culture. I’m more or less agreed with the Epistle of Diognetus here. Besides, what is generally referred to as ‘Christian culture’ is largely anti-cultural in character, fairly thoroughly expressive of the fundamental logic of consumer culture. Its supposed distinctiveness merely reinforces the very anti-cultural logic that we should be guarding against.

      My previous post was about the failure of evangelicalism as a movement with the centre of its gravity in the parachurch to retain its inner integrity. The needed ‘walls’ in such case are those provided by such things as a renewed emphasis upon ecclesial identity, confessional definition, and the continuation of traditions. These walls enable us to cooperate with other Christians of various backgrounds—I’m not arguing for retreat into the shell of particular churches and denominations—without locating our identity so fully in that realm of cooperation and shared religious consumption, and being vulnerable to the spread of error among them.

      What we probably do need is a shift from the idea-dominated form of Christian faith that we currently have, to a form of Christian faith that is more effective at forming faithful moral communities of people. As I’ve argued, the sort of distinctiveness that we require generally operates at a deeper level. A greater emphasis upon the practical dimensions of discipleship and the more concrete and practical features of community identity is essential.

      The church must be a body of mutual service and common practice if it is to have a differentiated identity. Merely teaching people good theology from the pulpit won’t cut it. We need a renewed emphasis upon the sacraments (peeling away the obfuscating film of ideology that so often disguises their practical character), the works of mercy, corporate singing, the public reading and encounter with Scripture (as something that is about forming our common identity, not just informing us about ideas), the practical dimensions of mentorship and discipleship, the creation of place (moving beyond merely functional church architecture, for instance), celebration of fast and feast and the Church calendar more generally (and much more eating together), an appropriate restoration of gender as a constitutive structure of the Church’s ministries and life (not just treating men and women as client groups the Church serves with targeted ministries, or simply restricting women from the pastorate), more emphasis upon our provision of welfare for each other as the Church, etc., etc. All of these things (and the many broader realities that will arise out of them and draw upon them—schools, businesses, neighbourhood groups, etc.) will help to create a differentiated identity, making churches and their members more able to resist surrounding cultural forces.

      • cal says:

        It might help to discuss how what you’ve described is not a culture, or define how you use the word culture more specifically, or perhaps not use the word at all (a more radical position I’d argue for). And this also sounds like the rudimentaries of a distinct ‘society’, which I’d take as the root of what the “Church as alternatve polis” are trying to say. And I’m also curious on how you connect the local congregation to the Church (unless that’s not what you meant by “local communities”).

        I’m on board with the Epistle to Diognetes approach, but he speaks of the creation of Christians a a new ‘ethnos’, a tribe, a people group. But of course, lest we fall for silly triumphalism, we recognize a penultimate state of things. Detachment, though not disengagement, is the appropriate term, because nothing now is carrying so much burden of the direction of the cosmos. I don’t need to grasp and protect/shore up power, as most forms of politicized Christianity have done.

      • By ‘local communities’ I was referring to something broader than just the church. Schools, businesses, groups of families, etc. can all be aspects of these ‘local communities’.

        The word ‘culture’ is definitely a slippery one. A number of the things I have mentioned could be described as ‘cultural’, without amounting in their aggregate to a culture or alternative polis. Rather, they are a different way of inhabiting the same society and polis as others around us.

      • cal says:

        I’m on board with the Epistle to Diognetes approach, but he speaks of the creation of Christians a a new ‘ethnos’, a tribe, a people group. But of course, lest we fall for silly triumphalism, we recognize a penultimate state of things. Detachment, though not disengagement, is the appropriate term, using it in the way the Desert Fathers did. This is so because nothing now is carrying so much burden of the direction of the cosmos. I don’t need to grasp and protect/shore up power, as most forms of politicized Christianity have done.

        Also, when you say “Christians and their communities” are not the Church, you were referring to something else besides the local/localized congregation?

        And also, what do you think “Church as alternative polis” is saying in contradistinction to your position? What theorists would you point to that you’re interacting with/against?

      • Tim Enloe says:

        Thanks very much, Alastair. That is exactly what I was looking for. I especially appreciate your remark about Christian culture as a consumer product. I was raised with the paradigm (to borrow from a book I recently read) “White Christian America,” and the entirety of my undergraduate training in the liberal arts was aimed at restoring the “Christian culture” that had been lost in previous decades. Since my graduate study of Augustine’s City of God some eight years ago, I’ve been floundering about in a sort of uneasy pessimism / agnosticism about the whole project of “Christian culture” as a supposedly necessary out working of the Gospel, which, as the package was mediated to me for a long time, was heavily dependent on the church-as-alternative-polis idea. Having spent seven years working in Christian secondary schools equally committed to that whole paradigm, I’ve had quite a bit of difficulty working through the issues. Hence my question to you, which you answered very marvelously and very helpful. Thanks again!

  3. I think both you and Alan Jacobs are right. Historically, evangelicalism was a renewal movement born to exist within existing church structures. I’m comfortable with Bebbington’s quadrilateral as areas where reform was sought, though when I came along, social justice had been ceded to the “Liberals”.

    Where those structures were well defined, “evangelicalism” became an adjective (e.g. an evangelical Presbyterian or Anglican); where those structures were looser, “evangelicalism” became the main identifier (e.g. a Baptist or non-denominational – even charismatic – Church or Christian is an evangelical, unless otherwise clarified).

    In this second group, evangelicalism broke the bounds of Church structure, but remained within Christian culture for some time. Then, with the advent of the Religious Right, it broke the bounds of Christian culture and, in the US in particular, emerged into the broader culture. This new environment, I believe, produced a thickening of skin – callouses even – in the areas where they were most at odds with the world, and those callouses are how those outside evangelicalism define it. It is also how those within well-defined church structures began to see evangelicalism, which is why many have jettisoned the phrase. However, I believe it would be wrong to identify evangelicalism as those outside it identify it. As you say, Alastair, the definition of evangelicalism needs to come from inside.

    I believe most of those inside the evangelical Church identify evangelicalism as largely a good thing. But, in terms of the Church, I believe they see it as “the way things are”. Inside the church, it is no longer a renewal movement, it is a movement that has renewed. Instead, then, of abandoning evangelicalism or giving it skin (I’m still a little confused which you are advocating, Alastair), or try to get it “renewing” again, as Alan Jacob suggests, why not acknowledge it’s success, accept it as part of many of our Churches, and move on to another renewal?

    Why do we need to reject or renew evangelicalism to move on? Let’s take what is good and move on.

    • Yes, as I’ve remarked, the difference between ‘evangelical’ as a qualifier and as a substantive is significant. It functions more as the former in the UK, while seeming to function more as the latter in the US. This is one reason why I am uncertain of how much use the term now is in the US. People could fight to get the term back, but is the struggle really worth it? As I’ve remarked on various occasions in the past here, significant changes have occurred when evangelicals have ceased to function as a reform movement within existing ecclesial bodies and have functioned in a more independent fashion.

  4. mnpetersen37 says:

    How would you accomplish differentiation in practice? One of the strengths of Christian practice is that it isn’t specific: Christian ways of life can be improvised by any people, Europeans need not become Chinese, nor Chinese European. But this, it seems, also seems to make differentiation of the sort you mention here difficult: There is no Halakhah or Hadith to which we submit, and which, in that submission, creates a skin differentiating us from our neighbors. If we are to seem weird, it seems this oddity would consist precisely in keeping the natural law, but in that, we are not, in principle, differentiated from anyone; and so the skin is no skin.

    Perhaps in theory this differentiation could occur around something like Advent/Crissmas/Lent/Easter (though, that those are secular holidays makes it hard), but without a Christian magistrate to legislate them, even their external observance is merely voluntary. But in the absence of an authority, we’re left collectively deciding to coordinate our wills and actions, without the ability to legislate, and so give ourselves the ability to submit ourselves to the legislation.

    So I’m left wondering how something like this (which I agree would be good) could in practice be worked out. What authority would legislate a form of life, or, in the absence of an authority, how would we collectively agree on a differentiating skin, without the skin being a matter of individual will (and so, it seems, no skin), which allows any individual Christian to be free to live “outside” the skin (since the Christian is free)?

  5. Yes, we are ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it and it is good not to be ‘conformed to this world’ but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is also good to search our own hearts and to pray that God, who desires truth in our ‘inward parts’, will give us wisdom in our ‘hidden parts’. We do need to protect our ‘skin’, but skin, even ‘thick skin’, is vulnerable and susceptible to some environmental factors and I believe that it is also good to pray that our spiritual armour will be strengthened – Ephesians 6 is a regular focus of prayer for me.

  6. No. 6 says:

    My understanding of the proposal is for Christians ought to have more corporate outward expressions of their faith via the Church, hence the Lord’s Supper reference. I think the intention is to create a stronger conception of an in-group which is not just based on theology but by doing things together. The policing of the walls then in the Church context is to be done by the leadership thereby not creating an unjustified purism in the laity with whom they consider on their side whilst still retaining a strong group identity. It is a way of definitely being in the world not out of it nor of it.

    I think this is an interesting model although to work at its strongest it would require a more Anglican/Catholic church structure as the greater number of churches with which you share allegiance the stronger the group identity. That said it could still work with independent congregations with interchurch affiliations.

    In regards mnpetersen37 comment, I think to create a particularly English Christian practice a general engagement with her history and especially the English church could feed such practices.

  7. Alastair, I think this topic would make a really great “Mere Fidelity” podcast. You should definitely consider doing it as one. Perhaps “the nature and future of evangelicalism”, or something like that?

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