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Friday, April 5, 2013

Are Evangelicals Anti-intellectual? A Response to Tom Airey (Part 1 of 3)

Steven Wall and Randy Smart

    Are Evangelicals anti-intellectual?  Are we, as Tom Airey of California recently claimed, overly susceptible to cult-hero-worship?   Are we naïve thinkers content to follow the path of least resistance in a struggle to maintain backwards, redneck theologies and opinions?

    Both raised in traditional evangelical Mennonite (EMB), or Brüderthaler, communities and churches, Rev. Randy Smart, currently of Winkler, Manitoba, and I, originally of Lustre, Montana, hardly know where to begin in answer to Airey’s very simplified world of clean cut definitions and judgments.  Clearly, Airey finds little of value within the Mennonite Evangelical tradition.

    To review, Airey criticizes Evangelicals for being:  suburban, white, anti-big government, anti-crime, anti-gay, anti-abortion, etc., etc.  He quotes Cornel West that evangelical conservatism is a back-lash against Civil Rights and Dr. King.  Seemingly, Airey, a “post-evangelical church leader,” or Emergent, has it all figured out.

    Smart and I had difficulty determining whether to address the simple historical inaccuracy of Airey’s perspective or to focus on his charges of cult-hero worship, naïve thinking, and anti-intellectualism by indicating how current practice does not easily conform to Airey’s convenient definitions against Evangelicalism.

    Problematically, when evangelicals enter into conversation with either Mennonists or Emergents, we tend to find that boundaries appearing blurred to us, are seen as clear-cut to others.  I am not alone in finding that the Goshen School of thought is very anti-Pietist.  To MC-USA, Pietistism might as well be a cult.  Yet, when one sits down and inquires after the approved Mennonist Mennonite belief system, one finds that there are actually very few differences between Evangelicals and Mennonists, and virtually no discernible differences between traditional Mennonites and Mennonite Evangelicals – especially if one is able to equate traditionalist concepts of Christian service with those of Christian witness (show me how the work of a Christian missionary really differs from that of a service worker, or how MCC is any less religious or idealistic than is Avant (formerly Gospel Missionary Union)).  By which standard is the esteemed Brunk family, having provided such clear and definitive leadership to Eastern Mennonite Seminary, not Evangelical?  

    Making things more complicated, Mennonites of all four Evangelical Mennonite traditions (modern Kleine Gemeinde, EMB, EMC and Mennonite Brethren), have all had strong traditions of both Christian Service and Christian Witness.  And according to Unruh, the EMB were historically leaders in living non-resistance as a spiritual value.  Founding Bishops Isaac Peters and Aron Wall were dedicated pacifists who chose to leave Russia in 1874 and 1878, respectively, rather than to compromise on this defining issue.  Peters worked diligently with John Funk to incorporate both Russian Mennonism and Russian Pietism into the larger society of American Mennonites.  Wall was ordained Bishop by Frank Ewert, of what is now MC-USA.  Education reformer and founding editor of Der Evangelisationsbote, Jacob C. Wall, took on an often unaccredited role in counseling the Mennonite Brüderthaler boys imprisoned for their faith at Ft Meade, KS, during WWI.  Unruh finds that proportionately more Brüderthaler (EMB) persons filed as Conscientious Objectors during WWII than any other Mennonite and Amish conference. 

    Evangelical Mennonites did not assimilate out of the faith. We are not an aberration.  We are fully Mennonite, exemplifying deeply embedded historical ethnic cultural values in our Evangelical faith.

     Are all Evangelicals, Mennonite?  No.  Are all Mennonists, Mennonite?  No.  But part of the unique Christian and world witness of the larger Mennonite identity is its ability to mix and exemplify traditional heritage values of both traditions – a unified ethnic faith that fully embodies both the Great Commission and the Sermon on the Mount, as an example and a challenge to others.  To this mix, we add a common ethnic history of persecution and unsettled lives as multi-generational refugees.   This gives our witness a peculiar urgency and a depth of empathy that might be less evidenced by other Christian groups.

    In conclusion to Part 1 of 3, I would propose two points in response to Airey’s heartfelt charge against the Evangelical faith.  First, Evangelicals are not Fundamentalists.  Both Evangelical writers and theologians and self-identified Anabaptists have made this clear.  Confusingly, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and most Mennonites would agree as to the basic spiritual Fundamentals from which Fundamentalism takes its name. 

    As Evangelical Mennonites, Smart and I would propose that at least two key beliefs separate Evangelicals from contemporary Fundamentalists.   

    A) Russian Evangelical Mennonites (KG and EMB) are Pietists, meaning that we believe that a Christian is defined by and cannot but help cultivate and develop a personal relationship with the living and personable Redeemer, Saviour.  Contrary to much of which is often found in Mennonist and Fundamentalist traditions, one does not become Christ’s child by attending church or belonging to the “in” group, or by endorsing “the correct” list of beliefs, rather, one becomes co-heirs with Christ through that personal relationship kept current by prayer, devotions, fellowshipping with believers and Christian service.  This relationship is such that it manifests outwards in Love towards our fellow humanity and is demonstrated by the presence of the fruits of the spirit (kindness, meekness, gentleness, peace, and so on).

    B) Evangelical Mennonites have tended to be more accepting of participation in government or the magistracy and of allowing the fruits of the spirit to influence one’s politics and legislative stance.  But, common to all Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonites do not believe that Salvation can be legislated, or that Christ’s church seeks to establish itself through governance or that force should ever be employed against either fellow Christians or the unsaved to lead them to Christ.  This stance is held in common with the Dutch Anabaptists who rejected spiritual fellowship with state-oriented English Baptists in the 17th Century, and with the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 (Art XIII, XIV and XV).

    In the 1980s, we voted for Reagan, but we also prayed that if it be God’s will, that we might again be a persecuted and oppressed minority to purify our spirit and our church and to give us a common witness with Christians in the Soviet Bloc and in China.  

    We are, and remain, traditionally Mennonite.


  1. Steven and Randy,
    I really appreciate your comments here. I sense that there are definitely some cultural gaps that cause us to talk past each other quite a bit in this dialogue. I'm particularly commenting on non-denominational white Evangelicals of middle-class North America. I would argue that the actual doctrine/beliefs of these Evangelicals are really no different than the Fundamentalists of Dallas Sem, BIOLA, John MacArthur and Jerry Falwell fame. Marcus Borg's characterization of "soft" (perhaps Rick Warren) and "hard" (perhaps John Piper) fundamentalists is helpful. Their respetive beliefs in hell (and who goes there), biblical inerrancy (with self-evident meanings), patriarchal hierarchies and apolitical nature (the exception of sexual issues) brings them together "nicely." I have tremendous respect for the passion and sincerity of these particular followers of Jesus, but I think the beliefs and mentalities trickling down from their male pastor-heroes are deeply troubling.

    As for Evangelicals Mennonites, I look forward learning more as I get to be mission with you in the years ahead. Blessings to you both.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Tom.

    These labels encompass such a large ground that it is difficult to even be on the same page. But, the point is that Evangelicals are often disparaged based on the extreme ends of that particular group and painted with an overly broad brush. We are not all Westboro Baptists.

    I can only speak for myself... but in observing both the Protestant-ish Mennonites and the Emergents... I often wonder how much of their distaste for the Evangelicals comes from experience and how much of it is derived from their own base fears and judgments towards themselves -- a bit like they describe homophobia as often being normally exhibited by straight men who fear they too might be gay, or those who are unsure of their own sense of belonging often choosing to pick on those who are most different from the norm of the group.

    Amongst the EMB, some of the most progressive leaders in the area of civil rights were graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary... and the EMB have a long tradition of ordaining women for service. In fact, the champions of EMB missions have generally been women.

    In working with others to attempt to examine many of the points that you raised in your article, as representative of a general genre, it seems to clear to me, at least, that what we need is less agreement on definitions perhaps, as more attempts at respectful, inclusive dialogue.

    Perhaps we shall see.

    Steve Wall

  3. P.S. Let me add...

    I am not sure that dialogue needs to the be the end goal. To claim dialogue as the end goal hints at a certain level of self-absorption. A greater, more participatory dialogue should be aimed at allowing for greater communal diversity, enabling more persons and congregations to unite towards common ministries. That would be the lesson of the early Mennonite Central Committee organization (MCC) and part of a shared Mennonite identity.

    S Wall

  4. Growing up I was educated in a Lutheran school. "Religion" consisted of Bible memorization as well as doctrine/catechetical teachings. I was confirmed in the "Liberal" Lutheran church having been taught church history as well as catechism.
    Having switched from Lutheran to Christian & Missionary Alliance I gave myself to the Lord in a personal way. The C&MA stressed supporting missionaries by the local churches. I attended the St. Paul Bible College and took the required Bible courses: Old & New Testament History, Hermeneutics 1&2, General Epistles, and New Testament Prophecy/Revelation. The Bible College was certainly "Evangelical" in faith matters. My professors were Baptist seminary educated and my Missions professor received a Doctorate from Fuller Seminary in Pasedena, CA.
    But the Bible College seemed to be too "parochial" in it's thinking. Unless a student was studying to become a missionary a student was a 2nd class Christian. (I'm observing this in the Mennonite world with regard to Scriptural interpretation.)
    I've become a Mennonite because I've experienced Christians who think/reflect on what they read rather than just "rotely reading" and then teaching in an "authoritarian" style. My Biblical Theology instructor had a Masters in English, but taught the class in that style. Nothing wrong with that, but there were students who attempted to ask question and he was very "adamant" about his answers. The other teachers were seminary educated and had the respect of the students who were intellectually inquisitive because they respected the human intellect.
    I like that about my church. They are "educated" professionals, know their Bibles, and are socially active "liberal" Christians. I like the fact that they are NOT "dogmatic" about matters of faith. Faith that has all the answers to justify believing isn't real faith. Hebrews 11:1 "Now FAITH is the 'substance' of things HOPED for; the 'evidence' of thing not seen". Our Creator is so "vast" that He cannot be understood completely. He wants it that way. This "understanding" is what makes Him "HOLY". The word "holy" in the Greek is 'hagiozos' and means: I separate. This implies distinction/uniqueness/individuality/living in a "self-accepting" manner. We're the creatures and we DO NOT have to have all the answers. I am learning this from my interaction with my wonderful fellow Mennonite/Anabaptist members I associate with on Sundays.


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