Jim Hinch has a rather ambitious analysis of evangelical piety at Politico titled, “Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage: And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.” The title reveals the fundamental flaw in this article. The flaw also appears in the fact that Hinch treats members of the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ as bellwethers of evangelical opinion. Hinch appears to be a little fuzzy as to what an evangelical is. These are very strange evangelicals indeed—those who give little heed to the authority of scripture and who are members of liberal mainline churches.
To be sure, Hinch mentions some bona fide evangelicals like Rick Warren. But even then, these evangelicals have not in fact changed their views on gay marriage. Many of the profiled “evangelicals” who have accepted gay marriage—like Matthew Vines—have left their churches for more liberal congregations. I daresay that very few would recognize such outliers as representative of evangelical opinion. And that of course begs the question: What is an evangelical?
We can all agree that defining an evangelical is controversial, but many observers still look to David Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a helpful outline of the defining characteristics of evangelicals.
According to Bebbington, evangelicals have four leading characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Biblicism refers to the fact that evangelicals look to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority and measure of all truth. From the 1820’s onward, a growing body of evangelicals also insisted on inerrancy, verbal inspiration, and the need for literal interpretation of the Bible (Bebbington, 13-14). Crucicentrism focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the necessity of his substitutionary atonement for sinners (Bebbington, 15). Conversionism is the conviction that sinners need to be born again through the spirit and to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Activism refers to the fact that evangelicals are doers. They believe that their faith should be worked out in good works.
Whatever its shortcomings, Bebbington’s quadrilateral has been widely received as summing up some of evangelicalism’s most important emphases. That is why it is so surprising to see what Hinch labels as “evangelical.” Rick Warren makes sense. United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA? Not so much. It is very difficult to talk meaningfully about evangelicals while giving short shrift to confessional elements that have been pervasive in the movement.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been slippage on the marriage issue among parishioners of evangelical churches. But this isn’t an indication that evangelicalism is changing. It’s an indication that some churches are becoming less evangelical.
But being out of line with an historically responsible definition of evangelicalism is not nearly so troublesome as being out of line with what the Bible defines as true. The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3-5). It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16-17). And it requires conscious faith in Christ in order for it to become effective in a person’s life (John 3:18; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:14-15).
This same gospel not only saves sinners from the penalty of sin, it also progressively delivers them from the power of sin and transforms them into the image of Christ (1 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thes. 2:13). It requires sinners to confess their sins—including the sin of homosexuality—even as it promises to make them into new creatures in Christ (1 John 1:9; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:17). These are longstanding evangelical emphases, and that won’t change among those who are committed to the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
If you want to know what evangelicals think about marriage, look to the congregations that still treat the Bible as the ultimate authority and the gospel as the essential message. That’s where the evangelicals are.