This is the 5th post in a short series trying to grapple with today’s sense of malaise in British evangelicalism.

We’re all aware of body language, now. It’s part of the vocabulary of daily life. Some are perhaps more conversant with it than others, but it would be hard to deny how much trickier relationships have become with lockdown’s drive towards the virtual. When ‘reading’ others, non-verbal cues are much more imperceptible. In the normal run of things, we can tell a great deal from someone’s posture, especially when it betrays feelings truer than those suggested by their spoken words. As ever, the medium is as significant for communication as the message itself. And that includes the medium of embodied people.

So naturally, we should be concerned with posture.  If we seek integrity–in other words, to have every aspect of our humanity integrated and whole–then, we will want to work at matching our verbal and corporal communication. The problem is, once identified, it becomes easier to fake.

Which is why phrases like ‘adopting a posture of…’ make me nervous. A niggle in the back of my mind wriggles (if that’s what niggles do) when someone says “we need a posture of listening” because you want to retort, “don’t have a posture of listening, just listen!” Or, from a slightly different context (that of Chuck de Groat’s superlative analysis of extreme narcissistic pathologies in Christian leaders, When Narcissism Comes To Church), don’t conceal manipulative agendas behind what de Groat terms ‘fauxnerability’, work hard genuinely ‘to be vulnerable’.

All of which brings me to another concern that I have with my tribe and subculture; but not just that, it’s also with myself. I’m referring to confusion about, and in some quarters an almost apparent lack of, humility. This gets concealed by postures of humility but when things get pressured, such postures get exposed as fake. George Burns, that master quipster of a previous generation, once said this:

The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

I can’t help feeling that many contemporary evangelicals have adopted a parallel habit. With the exception that instead of sincerity, it’s humility they’re faking. Whereas for integrity’s sake, instead of adopting “a posture of humility” why not actually try to “be humble!

Confidence and Humility should go hand in hand...

Now, this is where my previous digressions about Friederich Nietzsche will begin to make sense (hopefully). As I mentioned, I was very struck by the strength, and even the vehemence, of Nietzsche’s confidence in his opinions. And yet the subject of his confidence–namely, his epistemology, or philosophy of knowledge–was his consistent willingness to allow his convictions to be provisional and open. Any human statement must always be accompanied by a whacking great ‘perhaps’. How much more true should this be of the Christian?

Of course, this sets off all kinds of warning flares for some. What about ‘the full assurance of faith’? (Heb 10:22) Or the promise that knowing ‘the truth will set us free’? (John 8:32) Or that we are to know we have eternal life and thus ‘confidence … in approaching God.’ (1 John 5:14)? What indeed?

Well, here’s one of the issues. As I said last time, there are ways to hold to the reality of objective truth without claiming to have an absolute grasp on it. Two particular schools of thought that have drawn cleverer folks than this here bloggist are that of Critical Realism and Common Sense Realism. I tend towards the former probably (with N. T. Wright, D. A. Carson, Alister McGrath and others, to name just a few).  Here are Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse (quoted in D. A. Carson’s paper Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a postmodern world)

We are critical realists, which means that we believe that there is a real world out there where it is possible to know and know truly (hence, 'realism'), but we also believe that our theories and hypotheses about that world, and our religious presuppositions and beliefs about reality, color and shape our capacity to know the world (hence, 'critical realism').

Put most simply, this means that we have no alternative but to accept the possibility that we have been, can be, and indeed will be, wrong about stuff. To deny this is both folly and absurdity. The radical postmodern may well throw babies out with the bathwater, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to. Yet nor should that excuse any reactionary and stubborn splashing about with our rubber ducks in the modernist bathwaters that are seriously past their sell-by (or should that be smell-by?) date. The flaws in so-called enlightened frameworks are simply too profound and catastrophic. Yet the residue of such thinking persists in all kinds of places, and especially in churches.

The postmodernist will claim that any personal confidence in knowledge is inherently arrogant. Which is a bit dumb really, because they seem pretty confident about insisting on their rectitude. Just consider how such folks might respond to negative reviews of their books, or the crusading moralism of cancel culture if you don’t believe me; not that  Alt-Right will-to-power can claim any humility high ground). Surely the issue is more a matter of both what you have confidence in and how you express such confidence.

Thus, if one considers a classic expression of Christian confidence like Toplady’s Rock of Ages, it is clear that it bears few hallmarks normally associated with arrogance. Let me highlight just the odd line from it (though we could profitably have analysed all, line by line:

1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

2. Not the labours of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

4. While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

Is it arrogant to reach the end of onself and thus throw oneself entirely onto the mercy of another? And having done so, found immense relief in doing so and thus keen to express that relief? Surely that is humility, albeit an exuberant humility? By way of contrast, reliance on ‘the labours of my hands’ or even ‘forever flowing tears’ is to suggest that an end has not been reached; to imply that we still have some resources within ourselves on which to lean? That strikes me as arrogance, in the face of usually overwhelming evidence.

So we can see that humility and confidence are perfectly compatible. Confidence is not the problem; misplacing confidence is. As ever, Chesterton got there before most of us, way back in 1908! He quickly grasped the corrosive effect of Nietzsche’s undermining of knowledge by coating everything with a varnish of suspicion. He sensed that had gone too far since all but the most paranoid can function without fearing everything and everyone. 

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (p27, Hendrickson 2006) Tweet

‘But what has this to do with evangelicalism?’ I hear you cry. Well, rather too much. After all, to be an evangelical at its heart is about being someone who flies the flag of good news. If it’s not that, it’s literally worthless.

Yet the error still made by far too many is to ignore the difference between confidence in a divine grace that stoops to our level and confidence in our own opinions, manners and abilities. I don’t know Chesterton’s writing well enough to imagine how he might have responded (and indeed some readers might be able to point to places where he did). Yet I hope it might have gone something like this…

... but gospel confidence cannot guarantee confident authority

I’ve struggled to nail this thought down (hence the clunky header!). But I sometimes fear that evangelicals who have drunk deeply from gospel confidence wells have somehow presumed to believe that the full assurance of faith simultaneously grants the full assurance of their perspectives. Thus, they can speak with often legitimate conviction one moment (perhaps in explaining a text studied at length, say) only in the next minute assert something very different with identical conviction (about the rightness or wrongness of this or that political position, for example). Where, at the very least, is the great ‘perhaps’?

Nine years on the preaching team at All Souls were both a great privilege and a terrifying challenge. I’ve talked about this on here before. I can honestly say that it wasn’t caused by the history or heritage of the pulpit, or to be more precise, not once I’d got over the early weeks at any rate. The challenge was due to the demands of speaking to a congregation that not only represents reservoirs of biblical understanding but also expertise (in at least a handful of individuals) in pretty much anything. Mention gaffs made by a sports commentator and, sure enough, someone who does that for a living, will tap you on the shoulder after the service to explain how hard the job is. Throw in a comment about nuclear waste and your comments will be corrected by someone who has studied uranium for 50 years. Take an explicit or definitive position on some political controversy, sure as eggs is eggs there will be someone working full-time on the issue for the other side.

This is perhaps the nature of things in a capital-city-centre-gathered-church, and if an issue is not represented within the regulars, there is bound to be a visitor with 3 PhDs in the field. With perhaps a couple of hundred visitors every week, you never knew who was out there. Definitely occasions for achy knees. Talk about humbling. It certainly provoked not a little reticence, and rightly so.

What quickly became clear to me is that regardless of whether we admit it, there’s a considerable amount of Ego at stake in leadership and preaching. Standing up in front of hundreds in the knowledge that they will take your words seriously brings an awesome responsibility. It is true power. And like all power, it can be used for good or ill. But the one thing we should never do is deny the presence of such power.

Unfortunately, because Ego is involved, a preacher’s statements can never be reduced solely to matters of truth or falsehood. You and I are hardly mere data-processing microchips; we are human beings with vested interests, insecurities and flaws (as well as gifts, compassion and love). Publicly challenge or prove me wrong, my authority/status/influence/pride/public image/fragile security (delete as appropriate) will be seriously undermined. I won’t tolerate that. I can’t accept that. I can’t handle that.

So no wonder that hostility to questions is a tell-tale indicator of insecure and controlling leadership, even if those questions lie at the innocent end of the enquiry spectrum (lying from the genuine and truth-seeking to the awkward and intentionally subversive). This phenomenon is in part what lies at the root of the Nietzschean culture of suspicion of our age. We simply don’t trust the motives of the powerful, and we are right not to. It’s a matter of avoiding naivety and being real. Now again, it doesn’t mean we should never trust as if a leader is never an honest or genuine broker. But trust takes time to build up. We can be critical realists.

So what am I appealing for?

... but gospel confidence must deepen humility (leaders included)

It is not revolutionary. Or shouldn’t be. The gospel humbles us (as we’ve seen). We come to the end of ourselves and cast ourselves on Him. Nothing in the hand I bring… So how come when we get given tastes of responsibility, we suddenly discover that we weren’t at the end of ourselves after all!? There’s some residual capacity for self-sufficiency that suddenly equips us to be impressive, decisive, and above all, CORRECT! Absurd!

Now, I know what it’s like. We have a few years under the belt, perhaps. We’ve started to believe our own spin doctors. We find ourselves in situations that are familiar; ah yes, we’ve been here before.
I can handle this.

I’ll never forget something John Stott said in one of his last talks before his full retirement from public ministry. I’m afraid I’m just paraphrasing because I stupidly didn’t write it down at the time (doh).

Don't underestimate pride. The constant temptation for both young and old is to be unteachable. The young are unteachable because of an arrogant naivety. Unlike their seniors, they know how to do things properly. The old are unteachable because of an arrogant cynicism. Unlike their juniors, they've seen it all before.

Is there ever a time when I can avoid affixing that little ‘perhaps’ to my statements? Or have I nothing left to learn now?

I’ve burbled on long enough in this one. Let me conclude again (at last!) with a few more questions.

How much do we blur distinctions between what has been divinely revealed and our own understanding of that revelation?
How much do we distinguish between our convictions (theological or otherwise) and our opinions? How often do we make assertions about cultural trends or political events with the same rhetorical force as we might use for basic gospel truths? Is there the not-so-subtle implication that preachers are pundits; and so need social media platforms and PR campaigns to widen their ‘impact’?
I suppose this follows directly, but too often preachers and pastors assume the role of what I can only describe as a kind of oracular guru. By which I mean the ability, authority and imperative to ‘speak into’ lives, sharing mere advice or wisdom, but perfect insight and instruction. The same goes for an uncanny ability to discern the motives of ‘their disciples’.
Then even with so-called gospel truths, is there safety for doubting, a place to discuss and wrestle with difficult things, or is there a welcome only for those with things tied up or (more likely) willing to take the leaders’ line on stuff?
When was the last time we heard leaders apologise publicly for something (it doesn’t particularly matter what it’s for)? Or change their mind publicly about something? Or read a book they knew they would disagree with and still find things to learn?
How often do we use phrases like ‘as I currently see things…’, ‘it seems to me…’, ‘can you help me understand…?’, ‘I’m not sure I understand this passage…’ etc etc. In short, where is the humble PERHAPS of those who see only in part (and must wait patiently for the time when seeing in full is even conceivable – 1 Cor 13:12)

Even these apparently insignificant linguistic tweaks would make a big difference to many people. It would certainly demonstrate a change in posture, which is sadly lacking in too many evangelical circles. And by demonstrating a posture of humility, I do, of course, mean actually being humble.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Christopher Catherwood

    Wonderful – total agreement! Thank you!

  2. Tim Vickers

    Thanks Mark for pouring your heart into this series of clear and challenging articles. I wonder if part of the problem is that our religious institutions and churches can easily drift into a mode of self-sustainability rather than a focus on purpose. If we are not careful the eventually all our discussions and decisions may reflect an internal narrative in place of an engagement with the world. Similarly our judgements of ‘effectiveness’ in ministry can be based on internal comparisons which inevitably leads to the double-sided coin of insecurity and pride. I haven’t articulated this with your clarity – work in progress…

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