Vincent Bacote is associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News: In Search of a Better of a Evangelical Theology (2020).
What is the path forward for a “good news” movement when the bad news has the impact of a torpedo? “Good news” is the translation of euangelion, which for Christians means the news that has come with Christ’s messianic mission. This good news is central to the identity of evangelicalism, which I regard as a term that identifies an intersection of Christians from different denominations and traditions, particularly with shared commitments to the authority of scripture, a personal saving encounter with Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and some commitment to sharing this faith. To a large degree, this movement developed amid white denominations and institutions, even as racial and ethnic minorities over time have become involved. There are Christians who share similar commitments but do not use the term evangelical, and there are some who use the term but with a less clear or deep connection to these commitments.
What is the path forward for a “good news” movement when the bad news has the impact of a torpedo?
What is clear is that in the United States, the term and movement are in crisis. This forum focuses on this crisis in view of a number of events that emerge from the Southern Baptist Convention. This denominational aspect itself is interesting; while evangelical commitments resonate with Southern Baptist identity, one could argue that until recent decades the scope or scale of denominational identity was most prominent (similar to what could still be said of denominations such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans). For certain, these current events of politics, gender, and race and culture are not unique to the denomination and have been present within evangelical spaces for a very long time, but the prominence of Southern Baptist flashpoints is worthy of note.
Is there a way forward for this movement? I believe there is, for the very reason of the euangelion itself. For me, the emphasis on the good news must start with a perspective that takes seriously the bad news that requires the Gospel. The saving work of Christ addresses the problem of sin, the human brokenness and estrangement with God that is expressed in ways subtle and explicit, internal and external, individual and corporate or structural. These expressions of sin are not completely vanquished within anyone upon their conversion, which means that in any Christian movement one should not be surprised that the disappointments and horrors of sin appear. The history of the church has many positive moments but also many negatives, some quite egregious. The negative moments are not only in the past but also the present, and while very distressing it should not be surprising. This does not excuse anything but names the truth that any Christian movement is bound to have failures, some so great that people head for the exits.
For me, the emphasis on the good news must start with a perspective that takes seriously the bad news that requires the Gospel.
Where is the good news in this? The good news is that the horror does not have the last word, not only in the sense that Christ will one day bring eternal shalom but also in the sense that among God’s people there have been—and still can be—deeds performed by Christians that provide gestures of the better future that awaits. This can happen in and among evangelical communities and institutions, and actually happens even at this moment.
One example: An older Christian reminded me that while there is great division and tension around questions of race, there are many more white Christians who are actively engaged in the pursuit of holistic justice than in the past. It is easy to look at the debates around critical race theory (CRT) and think it means the great majority of white evangelicals are retrenching and pining for a mythic past, but a gaze that looks for positive developments will discover that change is occurring (not that a beginning is to be confused with arrival; the long path remains). It is just as important to look for signs of life as signs of decay and regression. Even among the evangelicals the Holy Spirit is at work. The good news of the Gospel is active in evangelical spaces; while surely the good news still needs to penetrate to dormant or resistant spaces within persons, places, and institutions, the situation is not beyond hope.
While there is great division and tension around questions of race, there are many more white Christians who are actively engaged in the pursuit of holistic justice than in the past.
How can this good news movement move further down the path of hope? The question of race is of paramount importance and remains a great challenge. The critical race theory debates present an opportunity to consider a question besides that of the use or harm. This is the prior question asking “What failures have occurred in the evangelical movement in its teaching and practice that people needed to turn to a secular discipline to describe and address systemic racism?” It is important to evaluate the tools from CRT, but when scripture indicates that humans create forms of human antagonism and that God’s people are called to pursue justice and love all neighbors, we see there is an underutilized or underemphasized understanding of theology and ethics (or it is resisted or intentionally ignored).
The evangelical commitment to the truthfulness of scripture remains to be fully embraced when it comes to the practice of a faith that continually seeks to know and respond to God with greater fidelity. In my recent Reckoning with Race volume, I encourage a disposition of humility where there is always the possibility of being disturbed by God, where we are open to being shown what we need to learn and how we may need what I call “conversions of sanctification” where we discover new paths of faithfulness, particularly on matters of race. If such conversions were to occur, there would be an evangelical public witness that would be good news in practice. We still await this, but it remains a possibility for those evangelicals who really wish to take the Bible at full strength and come to it with humility.
The evangelical commitment to the truthfulness of scripture remains to be fully embraced when it comes to the practice of a faith that continually seeks to know and respond to God with greater fidelity.
Another opportunity comes in the face of concerns about the Biden administration. Here a dose of healthy realism is needed. No Christian should ever be surprised that political leaders pose challenges, just as they should never be surprised that a candidate who offers to be “on their side” fails to deliver. There are no messiahs besides Jesus, and even the best politicians will at least disappoint and at most antagonize us (even those who are Christians are imperfect people who may do their best, but their feet of clay will be revealed).
What to do? One thing is to learn from Christians like those in the Black Church who have much to teach us about negotiating a hostile environment. This is an opportunity to learn how to be wise with the political agency provided by our republic while also learning how to better put ultimate trust in God than political power, as even the best “wins” will be penultimate and in need of refinement. Last, there is this to consider: If evangelicals believe Jesus is risen, should their concerns ever become the kind of fear that suggests God is unable to handle the shifting winds of history? If we believe in a God who raises the dead, he can not only handle the circumstances “out there” but also bring to life the dead parts of our tradition and change us into people known for a hopeful public witness. We wait, but it could even happen among evangelicals.