I’m a Calvinist, a Cessationist, and a Creationist. I hold to the five solas of the Reformation. I subscribe to the doctrines of grace. I proclaim the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. I defend the independence of local churches. I’m pro-life and pro-marriage. I’m a complementarian. By any stretch, people would define me as a conservative evangelical. Yet I don’t describe myself that way, and I don’t think you should either.
The term is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, it is too closely linked with politics. Here in the UK, one of our major political parties is named The Conservative Party. Similar parties exist in other western nations under different names. Political conservatives hold to a certain set of economic and social policies.
I’m not saying those policies are right or wrong, good or bad. I’m sure you have your own opinions about that. My point is that when most people hear the word ‘conservative’, that’s what they think about. They think about politics. And I don’t think it’s wise to link the gospel with partisan politics.
The gospel isn’t just for one section of society, or for people with one set of political opinions. We proclaim the gospel to everyone, irrespective of how they voted at the last election, or whether they are a hard-line Brexiteer or a die-in-a-ditch Remainer. But if we carelessly use the term ‘conservative’ evangelical, people may easily misunderstand and think they must change their politics before they’ll be welcome in our churches. So that’s one reason I’m uneasy with the term ‘conservative evangelical’.
But here’s another reason. Even if you put politics to one side, I’m not interested in conserving things just for the sake of it. I don’t want to conserve traditions just because ‘that’s the way it’s always been’. Nor do I want my default setting to be that I resist change, especially when change may be desperately needed.
As an evangelical, I want to be biblical. I want to be driven by the Bible’s teaching. I want to be shaped by Scripture. And sometimes that means changing so that we can be even more closely conformed to what the Bible teaches. There may be many traditions which are biblical, and therefore beneficial. But others are not. Holding to unbiblical traditions for the sake of ‘conserving’ is not what we – as evangelicals – should be about.
After all, the Reformation was the very opposite of a conservative movement. It was radical and sweeping in its desire to overturn the traditions of men and bring churches in line with the truths of the Bible. We ought to be always carrying that reforming zeal. Having a ‘conservative’ mindset can sometimes hamper that.
Moreover, as our society moves further and further away from biblical values, and as immorality increases, there are fewer and fewer aspects of society that we would wish to conserve. Almost every major institution of our society has been taken over by progressive ideologues.
So there are two reasons I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘conservative evangelical’: It can be too easily misunderstood as being linked with politics, and it can hamper the need for ongoing, necessary, biblical reformation.
But here’s the big reason why I’m unsettled by the term. I think it’s increasingly being used by theological progressives and liberals to marginalise those of us who hold to biblical truth in all manner of key areas. It is being used to cause a rift between evangelicals, to drive a wedge within the evangelical community, to divide and rule.
So, if you hold to the biblical teaching on the role of men and women, or human sexuality, or the sanctity of life from conception to the grave, or if you are suspicious of Critical Race Theory, or if you hold firm against the transgender agenda, you will be labelled a ‘conservative’ evangelical. Then you can be dismissed as misogynistic, bigoted, anti-choice, racist, and transphobic.
For many people, ‘conservative’ means stuffy and outdated. It is automatically deemed to be a bad thing. With one broad brush stroke, you can be rejected as irrelevant. More than that, you can be viewed as dangerous, crazy, and an enemy of anyone who is trying to show the love of God to ‘broken’ (not sinful) people who need to hear that Jesus can be their best friend and their social justice hero.
It looks increasingly likely that this will be the dividing line for this generation of evangelicals. It will be dressed up as division between conservative evangelicals and progressive evangelicals. But really, it will be between those who are shaped by Scripture and those who are shaped by culture. It has already begun.
For those of us who are holding firm to biblical truth on these matters, we are unlikely to be moved by mere labels, unpleasant though that labelling may be. But there are those in the comfortable middle of evangelicalism who – while they may not hold to these truths with great firmness – nevertheless want to be faithful to the Bible. Yet they are, at the same time, fearful of how they may be perceived by others.
They are the ones who are most likely to be shifted by the use of this term ‘conservative evangelical’. They are the ones who are most likely to be frightened away by it. They are the ones who are likely to abandon biblical truth in these areas. And once they have abandoned biblical truth in a few areas, the slide away from all biblical truth can become very rapid indeed.
The same goes for our young people. Many of them would also be alarmed at being branded a ‘conservative evangelical’. I doubt many CUs around our country, or the large student churches in our university towns and cities would welcome the label. And to avoid it, they may – perhaps some already have – abandon the Bible’s teaching on key ethical doctrines. Or at least, they keep quiet about those doctrines, which is almost as bad. And then the gospel itself gets lost in a haze of moral relativism.
And once the comfortable middle of evangelicalism has drifted away, those of us who remain holding to biblical truth will look like dangerous religious extremists. When a group in society has been branded a ‘danger’, it is far easier to silence them, to cancel their speakers from appearing at events, to push them out of the public square. It’s far easier to shut down their social media accounts, to stop them from taking up roles in key organisations, and to get the authorities to clamp down on them.
Already there are moves afoot by campaigners to silence biblical preaching, praying, and pastoring with a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’. That will be all the easier if they can brand us as being on the radical fringe, cut adrift from ‘mainstream’ progressive and liberal evangelicalism.
One of the key campaigners pushing for a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ is Jayne Ozanne. She is gay, yet also calls herself an ‘evangelical’. She describes those who hold to the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics as ‘conservative fundamentalists’. She says the teaching of conservative evangelicals ‘is wrong, harmful, dangerous and must be stopped.’
The authors of the report into the Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal repeatedly used the phrase ‘conservative evangelicals’, and pointed the finger at the culture of conservative evangelicals, suggesting that conservative evangelical leaders may need to step down from their posts. The word ‘conservative’ appeared eleven times throughout the report.
That broad-brush attack on ‘conservative evangelicalism’ detracted from what was otherwise an important issue. Even some survivors of Fletcher’s abuse raised objections to the way their stories had been used as a ‘convenient launching pad for its authors’ and their supporters’ real interest’. They added, ‘we feel we are being weaponised for somebody else’s agenda’.
Do you see how the moniker is being deployed? Maybe you are proud to call yourself a ‘conservative evangelical’. Maybe you wear that label as a badge of honour. But I think we must be aware of the way the term is being used – and misused – to marginalise those of us who hold to biblical truth across a range of important doctrines.
So what label should we use? I’m not ready to abandon plain old ‘evangelical’ just yet. Yes, I’m fully aware that ‘evangelical’ is a very elastic word which appears to stretch wider and wider with each passing year. Maybe the time will soon come when it has lost all meaning. But even so, I won’t be calling myself a ‘conservative’ evangelical. I don’t want to fall into that trap. And nor should you.