• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

American “Evangelicals” and Heresy

Christianity Today is reporting on a new poll that shows that many self-described “evangelicals” say that they believe doctrines varying, sometimes wildly, from orthodox theology.

A friend who worships in a rather high Episcopalian church wrote to me to ask, “What’s going on? Don’t evangelicals recite the Apostles Creed in each service?”

I’m on the road just now, returning from lectures at the University of Calgary. But here’s what I was able to rap out to her in the airport lounge:

The finding that many evangelicals believe a lot of unorthodox things is, at least in the American case, about as shocking as finding that many Jews or Roman Catholics believe a lot of unorthodox things. The terminological confusion that I’ve written about here and there over the years continues: “evangelical” can mean “someone who believes and practices Christianity in a way of which John Wesley and Billy Graham would approve” or it can mean “some American who likes the term ‘evangelical’ for some reason as a self-descriptor but may or may not believe or practice even basic elements of the Christian faith.” If observant evangelicals were dropping orthodox doctrines right and left, that would be alarming indeed. But I know of no evidence that that is the case.

As for reciting creeds, well, no: evangelicals normally do not recite creeds in our services. Evangelicals that are not part of liturgical traditions—and that’s most of us—instead tend to worship in “hymn sandwich” services: lots of singing, with maybe a greeting and some announcements in the interstices, then a longish sermon, then more singing—with perhaps a collection and a closing prayer. There might be Scripture read sometime before the sermon, and it might be the text for the sermon, but maybe not.

But what there generally isn’t is anything else liturgical: no call to worship, no confession and absolution of sin, no series of Scripture readings (OT, Gospel, Epistles), no congregational prayers, no “Our Father,” no Creed…and so on. It’s pretty bad—and it’s actually regressing, I think. When Robert Webber and others chided and educated evangelicals about liturgy in the 1970s and 1980s, some responded by adding (back) elements to their services, but nowadays the trend-setting churches seem to have fallen back into two halves—singing and preaching—which, among other bad consequences, has put a very heavy burden on worship leaders and preachers to perform at a high standard, since that’s pretty much all there is to the service. Much better, instead, to let Thomas Cranmer’s brilliant liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or something similar, shoulder some of the responsibility to orient and inspire the congregation in worship.

And we might start, indeed, by reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds regularly…