That exclamation—O Tempora! O Mores! (Oh the times, the customs!)—is one of Cicero’s few linguistic legacies extant today, propped up by those with a classical bent or aspiration to one. Perhaps Robert Harris’ page-turners have kept his flame alight, despite the fact that the old Senator could be a real bore at times (well, so my teenage self thought).
But the greatest orator of the Roman republic’s dying days was deeply shaken; his exclamation was no mere rhetorical flourish. The corruption and decay at the heart of Rome’s highest echelons genuinely shook him, giving him deep anxieties about her future (with good reason, as things turned out). The phrase comes from his prosecution case against Catiline, an aristocratic rebel conspiring with others to foment an uprising. The republic’s overthrow would come eventually, of course, the result of a different aristocratic agitator: one Gaius Octavius who ingeniously built on the thwarted precedents of his great-uncle (and then adoptive father), Gaius Julius Caesar. But Cicero couldn’t have known all that in the late 60s BC.
Now, this is all rather too niche, so I’d better stop waggling on the tee and get to the point.
Today’s Evangelical Mores
Evangelicalism is a peculiar beast. And no, it is not identical to fundamentalism, despite some aspects in common, despite ‘fundamentalist’ being a word that, as one commentator put it, gets lobbed at anybody to another’s ‘theological right’! Regardless of its external connotations, evangelicals themselves understand the label to embrace believers in the old, old story, especially as the Reformers retold it, and refers to those who mill around a generally agreed, but loosely formulated, consensus. In David Bebbington’s still useful formulation (in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain), this is built around the quadrilateral of:
- conversionism (the necessity of a personal response to Christ rather than merely corporate membership)
- activism (at its best, it means conversion results in a lifestyle of service)
- biblicism (a high view of the scriptures, which does not entail a literalistic approach), and
- crucicentrism (the centrality of Christ’s sacrificial death).
Strangely, though, evangelicalism has no officialdom, no structures, no authority figures; it is not exclusive to particular denominations nor nationalities, to political agendas nor even theological traditions. In the UK at least, you are still as likely to find evangelicals within historic denominations as within the free, independent or newer groupings. Despite the insistence of some acolytes of the USA’s Republican Party, beyond the States, there is nothing pre-determined about an evangelical’s political allegiance. In fact, as several have noted, the British ‘Left’ (and especially that of the Labour Party) owes as much, if not more, to the legacy of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, as to Marx and Engels.
Yet quite naturally, under this loose banner, thinkers and influencers gain prominence, as do streams and movements, with varying and even divergent emphases. We would expect that over time, not least because even strongly hierarchical traditions, like Roman Catholicism, feature such variety.
This wider picture is needed because without it, the rest of these vague thoughts will make little sense. If adherents do have concerns, it is hard to know where to take them, other than merely to articulate them. What I will write comes not out of hostility or a spirit of opposition, but is motivated by little more than just a feeling of unease currently. It may develop into something else over time, but since I know I’m not alone in feeling it, it needs articulating.
I’m referring to a growing malaise within evangelicalism, an anxiety that the house is not in order. The feeling goes deeper than a generation’s habitual frustration with its predecessors. Furthermore, it can’t easily be dismissed as a nervousness derived from unsettling cultural forces without. No. It’s more serious. It’s the disconcerting sense that we’ve been sold a bill of goods (as our North American cousins put it). We are detecting, all too often, flaws and facades, not just in individuals (as if that was news) but rather in the very reality of evangelical community-life. Or to be even more specific, in the nature of its leadership cultures. And, before anyone points it out, I am, of course, entirely aware of my own leadership role, as a teacher and trainer. I am hardly immune to criticism or challenge.
The press unsurprisingly picks up on the most extreme scandals of abuse and hypocrisy. However, I am thankful that they are few and far between, since there certainly are individuals and fellowships that are refreshingly counter-cultural and safe for others. But still… this unease persists. We fear that the media knows not even the half of it, that they’ve just grasped the tip of a proverbial iceberg. We fear there’s more dirt—much more—where that came from…
So for a while, the need has been growing in me (for my own sanity’s and faith’s sake, as anything else) to identify some of the (many?) roots of this malaise, in the hope of rooting them out and realigning (dare I even say, renewing and re-focusing) ourselves with all the good and healthy aspects of this inheritance. I’ve no idea whether this will evolve into a longer series, or what it might lead to. But for the time being, I’ve got at least 3 concerns to get off my chest. A post on each, perhaps. This first one will seem tangential, at best. But if you’ve got this far, hopefully, you trust me enough to show why it’s crucial! For this post brings us uncomfortably close to a genuine issue in some of the circles that I know well. If this has no relevance to contexts you know, then thank goodness for that!
The Five Evangelical Mores
I’m not talking here about the evangelical message but its outworking in everyday life. The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians with this profound encouragement:
His point is basic.
“Look, folks! It’s not about me but HIM! It’s never to impress me but to live out your gratitude to Him. Knowing and living for Christ is the only thing that matters.”
Notice the parallel ‘work’ here; it’s actually there in the original Greek. The only difference comes from the way the verb for working relates to its contexts. God works IN us; we work OUT (an unavoidable English paraphrase). It certainly doesn’t say work FOR your salvation; and ‘work out’ doesn’t mean work it out intellectually, as one might solve a tricky equation. Instead, it is a matter of working it through and living it out, with all the myriad variables that result from the circumstances of each unique life. I suppose another way of putting it is that this involves mind and heart and soul and strength—all of which are essential to loving God, apparently. (See Mark 12:30). You think that comes naturally? Of course not. It takes everything we’ve got for all the time we’ve got. It’s about the discipleship of a life for a lifetime. The best analogy, to my mind, is working yeast into a lump of dough to make bread. It needs to be kneaded thoroughly and laboriously. It requires hard graft and sweat. No dollop of dough can remain untouched. As with the yeast, so with the gospel. No corner unworked…
So far so good.
But this is where one of my bigger frustrations with one subculture kicks in. Because the way the Christian good news is applied in preaching, it seems far removed from this bread-making principle. There is a reductionism, an over-simplification. The result of which looks perilously close to legalism. All too often, an exposition’s application can be summed up in what I call the 5 MORES:
Any variety, such as it is, then derives from the ever-so-unpredictable combination of several of the above.
Now don’t get me wrong – none of these is wrong! They all have their place and they certainly form elements of the salvation we must ‘work out’. No doubt about it. But… I’ll never forget the moment, years ago, when I started to worry on these lines… It was at a large well-known UK church (not one I’ve worked at, I hasten to add – it will remain nameless) and I was looking forward to hearing a particular preacher (who too will remain nameless). The passage was from John’s Upper Room chapters – some of scripture’s richest and most spell-binding. Great, I thought. This’ll be good.
I left sooo disappointed. The sum-total (literally) of his application was that we should read the bible more deeply. I mean, seriously? Is that all?! The bible is given to encourage us to read the bible more?! Now, I know, if he was questioned, he would be very clear – that’s all so that we can spend time with the Lord, learn at his feet, revel in his gospel and his presence, be thrilled etc etc etc. But that’s not what came across in the talk. Which is pretty much my point. For communication is not what we might intend to communicate but what actually gets communicated.
If the 5 MORES become a person’s spiritual staple diet, then it’s going to be very hard to avoid several consequences:
- the Christian life becomes weirdly insular and circular: it’s just about sustaining personal and sociological habits and rituals. It has no need to engage with the world around, to grapple with the impact of the surrounding culture on us.
- the Christian life becomes quantifiable: it’s possible to keep my personal tally of minutes/chapters/services/gifts/conversations. There’s ALWAYS more to do, naturally (that’s why there’ll never be an end to the 5 mores), but we’re doing something at least. And a modernist mindset always needs that.
- the Christian life becomes manageable: by which I mean both doable by us (despite the sense that we can never save ourselves) and manageable by a leader. It is a means of control because a leader (whether well-meaning or malevolent) can easily keep tabs on the tally too.
An exaggeration or unfair caricature? Well, of course. But only just. And the result, amongst other things, is a desiccating dearth of wonder, of worship, and of love. Above all, it leaves one thinking that for all the talk of grace, it’s all just one big slog. In which case, it’s not hard to identify this as one of the factors in the prevailing malaise…
As I said, there are others who sense this malaise, which is half the battle. And many are seeking to deal with its root causes. The situation is not hopeless. There is a growing evangelical counter-culture that will no longer tolerate such arid reductionism (and rightly so) which will result in communities that face up to the broadest possible implications of the grace of God. That is how we begin to ensure we ‘don’t receive it in vain’ (as Paul put it in 2 Cor 6:1-2). So for me, oases like English L’Abri have been a lifesaver along the way. They show that there is no end to the wonder and richness of exploring this ‘working out’. That the whole of life matters to the one who created us, and so there is no end to what concerns him. It is a task that demands imagination and creativity, as well as courage and perseverance. It is unpredictable but captivating, challenging but rewarding.
Now THAT is something that can get the blood pumping and heart racing. That is an adventure I’m up for! And I know I’m not alone.