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Weekend Reading: How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative

September 16, 2011

How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative (Roger E. Olson, 2008, Zondervan). Is this even possible? If it is, is this something I want to be? When I saw this title, I thought it was going to be a crafty play on words. I thought that maybe Olson would describe conservative but call it something else. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to think. By the end, I found this one of the most intellectually, theologically, and spiritually challenging books I have read in a while. It wasn’t challenging in the sense that it was lofty and difficult to understand; the challenge was to my own opinions and preconceived notions of what a real evangelical is.

The first thing Olson does in the introduction is to define his terms. This was a good move. He is not using the media’s meaning of evangelical. He is not using the popular meaning of evangelical. He is using a more historic description of evangelical. He cites historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll, as well as his own work, in this description. More importantly, he uses this description consistently throughout the book. Olson describes these evangelical hallmarks:

  • Biblicism: belief in the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and life.

  • Conversionism: belief that authentic Christianity always includes a radical conversion to Jesus Christ by personal repentance and faith that begins a lifelong personal relationship with him.

  • Crucicentrism: piety, devotional life, and worship centered around the cross of Jesus Christ.

  • Activism: concern for and involvement in social transformation through evangelism and social action.

  • Respect for the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine.

While the use of the word evangelical as a descriptor has been used by popular media to describe a certain kind of evangelical, by this definition, evangelical is much bigger than that. Olson strives to hang on to calling himself an evangelical, but not necessarily a conservative. Use of conservative as a descriptor depends very much on context. When compared to mainline church liberals, he considers himself a conservative. When compared to other evangelicals, he chooses not to use that word; to some evangelicals he is conservative and to some he is not. When compared to fundamentalists, he does not consider himself a conservative at all. He thinks that inherent in the word conservative, there is a clinging to tradition for tradition’s sake in most every area of Christianity. After thinking about the word conservative, I tend to agree. In that sense, he is not a conservative at all. Rather than being conservative, Olson thinks “evangelicalism should be an ‘edgy’ religious and spiritual attitude and habit of the heart. As an evangelical I think I should be open to risk without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t want to discard everything of the past, but being radically biblical is more important to me than being orthodox or traditional. I think many evangelicals share that vision with me.”

After defining some terms, Olson examines twelve areas or themes where we can be evangelical without being conservative by necessity. They are:

  • Being Biblical without Orthodoxy

  • Building Character without Moralism

  • Celebrating America without Nationalism

  • Seeking Truth without Certainty

  • Taking the Bible Seriously without Literalism

  • Being Religionless without Secularism

  • Transforming Culture without Domination

  • Redistributing Wealth without Socialism

  • Relativizing without Rejecting Theology

  • Updating without Trivializing Worship

  • Accepting without Affirming Flawed People

  • Practicing Equality without Sacrificing Difference

Olson does advocate some double standards in this book. In the chapter about culture, he makes a big deal that scripture does not advocate for Christians to take over the government and make law consistent with biblical standards. This is not the role of government. He makes the case that we should change moral standards by sharing the Gospel and allowing the Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. I don’t totally disagree. In the very next chapter, he does advocate that the role of government should include redistributing wealth to the poorer classes by imposing a progressive income tax, imposing an inheritance tax, and managing large welfare programs (including universal health coverage). This seems like an inconsistency to me. Less involved government on one hand, more involved on the other.

There are a number of areas where I disagree with Olson’s conclusions. However, I don’t disagree with his intent or his motives. He is only doing the same thing the great reformers did. He is examining what has been accepted as orthodox in light of the scriptures and willing to follow scripture to the best of his understanding. It is risky, but great thing usually require risk.

This book forced me to examine why I hold a number of the view I do. That is always a good thing. Overall, I would recommend this book to most church leaders. It may challenge and stretch you, but you will survive and you and your church will likely be better off for it.

Thoughts?

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