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Evangelicalism’s Radical Diversity 1

posted by Scot McKnight

Choir.jpgSo just how do you define an evangelical? Do you go with David Bebbington’s four-fold breakdown: Bible, Cross, Conversion and Active Christian living? 

Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, both profs at Azusa Pacific, have a new book that takes on misperceptions of evangelicals. I like the title: Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities
While appreciating Bebbington’s focus on the central beliefs, including belief in being behavioral, Wilkens and Thorsen propose a slight variation that is working its way into my own understanding. They see evangelicalism as committed to three things:
Orthodoxy (right belief), 
Orthopraxy (right behavior), and 
Orthopathy (right experience). 
Overall, if these are the three characteristics, which is the most important to the evangelicals you know and what would be your ordering of the three?

Here’s my own ordering: 

1. Orthopathy
2. Orthodoxy
3. Orthopraxy
That is, I believe the single-most important dimension of evangelicals, the single-most important element that grants credibility to a person’s genuineness, is a born-again experience or a testimony to a conversion experience.  Evangelicals can talk all they want about what they believe, and they talk and write about this a good deal — and I count myself in that group, but when it comes down to it, you’re “in” if you’ve had the experience and you’re under suspicion (and “out”) if you haven’t, no matter what you believe. And how a practice behaves is the least important. And I won’t tread now into what evangelicals believe and how they think… that’s for another day.
That’s where I stand. What do you think?
As you know, I post on books that I’m either sent or that I buy. (I was sent this one; well, I blurbed the thing so I should have received a copy.) The reason the blog is focusing right now on evangelicalism is because that’s the books that are on my desk of late.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:23 am

You need to change what is in the parentheses after Orthopraxy. It currently says (right belief).
To answer the question, most churches that I have been involved with would order them
1. Orthopathy
2. Orthodoxy
3. Orthopraxy

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posted July 14, 2010 at 4:29 am

There seems to be a strong moralistic side to evangelicalism (thinking of Christian Smith’s research here) that might elevate orthopraxy, especially in regards to teenagers. The beliefs and faith of teenagers is often judged based on behaviors such as language or style of dress (often considered immodest). These behaviors are seen in passing (for most people don’t spend significant time with teenagers, even their parents) and a judgment is made which fails to take many other important factors into consideration.
This may not be orthopraxy in it’s truest form, but it is a focus on behavior and living nonetheless, and it is found strongly throughout evangelicalism.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 6:54 am

Interesting to consider.
When I was younger I would have agreed that orthopathy was first. But that has been emphasized less in my experience of late. Conversion and commitment are important – but a ‘blinding light’ speaking engagement worthy conversion type experience is less important. It may be a function of the local church emphasis.
Orthodoxy (but not as dogmatic in detailed statements)
Orthopathy (with more latitude in expression than in the past)
Orthopraxy (but the focus is changing from personal to corporate focus)

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posted July 14, 2010 at 6:58 am

And note to any publishers or editors reading …
Send some good biblical studies books Scot’s way. I’d like to see some more discussion here.

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Scott Morizot

posted July 14, 2010 at 7:51 am

I really can’t judge the order of hierarchy for evangelicalism as a whole. My personal experience is too limited. But I have a sense you’re probably right. However, it’s my observation that the emphasis not just on your experience of God (which I believe is the right direction to go – you can’t truly grow in love with someone without experiencing them), but on a specific “conversion” moment of experience is problematic.
As your own study has shown, Scot, a lot of people don’t really experience that. My own journey (which didn’t exactly fit either of the three categories you used) had a lot of moments along the way where I experienced Jesus in a personal way. Some I consciously recognized at the time. With others it was less clear to me at the time what God it was I was encountering. While every experience was “authentic” there is no one experience or moment to which I can point and say that before that moment I was not a Christian and after it I was. That doesn’t bother me personally. My journey included walks down many spiritual paths rather than the more typical experience. But it doesn’t fit the standard evangelical framework, and I’ve seen the damage that can be done to those who also don’t fit the framework but who grew up in the faith.
That’s particularly true now that our youngest is a teen (and the only one of my children to be raised entirely within the context of “church”). She experiences and loves God in a more or less constant and ongoing way that, frankly, amazes me. She has friends who belong to a number of different religions (part of the diversity of our area — a fair number of Asian and Middle Eastern families) and none at all. So she is hardly the cloistered sort of evangelical. Yet she was disturbed and in tears when she came home from middle school one day after one of her friends told her that she used to be a Christian but now was an atheist. She said she couldn’t imagine going a day without praying and the experience of God is so much a part of the fabric of her life that she can’t imagine deciding to live as if their were no God at all. I talked through the experience with her and helped her put words to it and talk through it. But I was struck by the depth of her experience of God. It’s a quiet sort of faith.
But she can’t think of any time in her life when she hasn’t experienced and loved God. Oh, there was the time when she was baptized, but there wasn’t really a time before that when she didn’t know and love God and a time after it when she did. (And she was young enough that the baptism itself is a hazy memory.)
I think about her and I’m concerned. For all it’s emphasis on one conversion experience, I’m not sure I see enough experiential depth in evangelicalism to sustain over the course of my daughter’s life the experience and love of God that she has now and has had her entire life, much less enrich and enlarge it. So there is concern over one specific conversion experience and a lot of effort to create “mountain-top” experiences, but I’m not sure that the steady, personal, ongoing, and growing direct experience of God is truly the top item on the evangelical list. I have the sense that once you have that all-important experience, the emphasis shifts to learning the “right” things about God (studying his dossier instead of embracing him) and behaving in the “right” ways with “experience” becoming a distant third.
But, as I said, my personal experience is limited. I don’t think our SBC church is particularly unusual, but it may be. That’s a hard thing to judge.

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Rick in TX

posted July 14, 2010 at 7:55 am

I guess it depends on what “experience” you mean in talking about orthopathy. If it is a “narrated conversion experience” I am not sure I agree. I wonder if I could substitute “orthopassion” – (if it catches on, you read it here first) – not an experience but a passion, a fire in the heart for Jesus – but then I am a pietist Covenanter.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 8:30 am

Isn’t evangelicalism a bit to broad to describe in the way you’re asking? For example, the defining element for Willow Creek churches might be very different than say MacArthur’s Grace community. Both, I think could be called evangelical.

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Travis Greene

posted July 14, 2010 at 9:18 am

That sounds about right to me. Evangelicalism’s emphasis is on stepping over that line, making that decision, crossing that bridge, making that transaction. Now in a way that is not a bad thing. Conversion, total reorientation to Jesus and his way, is an essential part of the gospel. But evangelicals tend to narrow that down to one particular type of experience as normative, disregarding the myriad ways God has worked and the simple fact of diverse human experience.
Scott M @ 5,
I don’t think your experience at your church is at all atypical. I sincerely hope your daughter does not ever have to face suspicion from those who would demand a Damascus Road experience to accept faith as genuine.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 9:31 am

The best definition I’ve ever heard: “An evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.”
Think about it… there’ a bit of truth in it.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 10:46 am

I’m surprised you would say that, Scot. By declaring what you just did regarding evangelicalism (“the single-most important element that grants credibility to a person’s genuineness, is a born-again experience or a testimony to a conversion experience”) you just threw a bunch of people I’ve known (including my wife) completely under the disingenuous bus. I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve met over the last several years who can’t tell you the day, time, event, feeling, moment, experience, or change that for them defines their sincere faith. Further, to so embrace a conversion moment negates the importance of constantly being converted (being made into the likeness…being saved).
I must be missing something in what you’re saying. Maybe I’m not understanding what YOU mean by a born-again experience or testimony.
I know genuine and faithful followers of Christ (evangelical in near every way you might want to define that word) that if you asked them to tell you about their born-again/conversion/testimony experience what have you…the answer would be…I don’t really have one…I grew up in the family of faith…I’ve always loved God…I’ve never really stopped…and although I can’t explain how or why or even for what purpose…I know God loves me, has saved me, is saving me, and will save me for the glory of his name. (This is in fact an actual ‘testimony’ that I’ve heard. Does that qualify?)

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Lu Gronseth

posted July 14, 2010 at 10:58 am

I’m not sure you can put them into a hierarchy. It seems more like three legs of a stool. Take one away and the stool tips over. A genuine experience will be rooted in right belief (or the right story) which will produce right behavior. Take away one and you’re a lopsided Christian.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2010 at 11:00 am

Thanks for your comment as it helps me clarify.
I am saying Evangelicalism’s top trait is the conversion experience. That is my description of how I see evangelicalism working. You may know I have a book on conversion (Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels
) and in that book I contend that some have precisely the same story you tell above. Yes, and I agree such a story can be a conversion story, but by and large that story has not defined evangelicalism.
That help?

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posted July 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

Thank you so much, Scot. That is not a book I’ve read but it totally passes the ‘smell Scot’ test…LOL. I knew I was reading you wrong.

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 14, 2010 at 12:13 pm

To be honest, I was afraid Scot was throwing me under the bus too. I have no single conversion experience event to look back on. Yes, I believe there was a day and time where I agreed to follow Jesus (though I suspect now I didn’t quite fully know at that moment what it meant).
What I think you’re saying is that this is a “heart” thing first? If that’s the case, then I totally agree with your ordering:
1. Orthopathy (Can I just call this right heart instead?)
2. Orthodoxy
3. Orthopraxy
Captcha: submitting nehemiah

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Orthodoxy seems by far the most important to the evangelicals I know.
I’m not sure you can order them, but I’d probably say…
1. Orthopraxy
2. Orthodoxy
3. Orthopathy
Like Dan, I know too many godly believers who became such at very early ages to put much stock in conversion experiences. Several can’t even remember a conversion experience. Now Rick’s “orthopassion” I can get on board with. If that is what is meant by orthopathy, then it would go to the top of my list. It could then be synonymous with faith. Which ties directly into practice though. Passion produces practice. Faith produces fruit. Biblical principle guide the process. It’s tough to order them.
The New Testament appears to put emphasis on practice of our faith as much as anything else. At least to my reading. Unfortunately my personal church tradition (Southern Baptist) often puts little stock in orthopraxy. “Works” are something to which we baptists often appear allergic…

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John W Frye

posted July 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

In view of your order, Scot, I think of Paul’s argument in Galatians. He begins with his own conversion experience (orthopathy) and early experiences with the Jerusalem apostles (chapters 1 – 2) and only until chapters 3 and 4 do we get orthodoxy (doctrine) and then he ends (5-6) with orthopraxy.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:42 pm

My own impressions on this:
Formally, Orthodoxy is first.
Functionally, Orthopraxy is preeminent.
And depending on the community/stream/denomination, etc. for the details that orthopraxy is narrowly defined, and usually in negative terms. (i.e. behaviors we avoid vis-a-vis behaviors we enact)

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Nathan C

posted July 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm

I suspect the real core is that evangelicals understand faith principally in emotive terms. So, I agree that orthopathy is the core of evangelicalism, but in practice I think that’s broader than just the conversion experience. To be sure, if you can have that conversion experience you should, but I’ve found a lot of evangelicals will give you a pass on it if you have all the other right feelings.
I should note that this is a view from the outside. I’ve spent a lot of time with evangelicals and have participated in a lot of evangelical Bible studies, but I speak evangelical as a second language.
Now, none of my evangelical friends would put it this way explicitly, but evangelicals seem to have some common baseline assumptions about how the religious life is supposed to look: First, you become a Christian through a highly emotional conversion experience. Thereafter, worship serves to reiterate that initial, emotional experience. If you don’t have the conversion experience, though, sufficient feeling might still get you through. (cf. comments #6, #14)
I find this perspective explains a lot about evangelical worship. Music is very good at evoking emotions – hence praise music. (It’s fascinating that the subject of a lot of praise music is one’s feelings about God. i.e. “We love you Lord” and not “God is love.”) Prayers must have the appearance of spontaneity, because authentic emotion is supposed to be spontaneous. I’ve also heard more than one evangelical friend confess that they couldn’t really worship some Sunday because of a bad week at work.
Likewise, it’s not always apparent to evangelicals how emotional their religious vocabulary can seem to outsiders. Just consider all the “heart” language. To become a Christian is to “ask Jesus into your heart,” to be concerned about something is to “have a heart for” it, etc. Similarly, if you mention faith, someone is sure to quickly note that faith isn’t so much cognitive as it is about love, trust, and having your heart oriented right.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Scot, I’d say that most Evangelicals seem to focus more on right belief than on the conversion experience, especially within Reformed and Wesleyan circles where infant Baptism is practiced. I think your ordering would be indicative of a Baptist/Charismatic evangelical approach, but I’m thinking of all the PCA, Methodist, Lutheran and Anglican Evangelicals (and particularly the theological watchdog bloggers!) who care more about what a person believes than what their conversion experience was like…or, sadly, what their behavior looks like (after all, if Luther and Calvin were right and we’re nothing more than “Justified Sinners”, then behavior becomes by default the LEAST important indicator of a person’s Evangelical street cred!).
For the record, I think Luther and Calvin were wrong. ;)

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

After re-reading the question and Scot’s response, I realize he’s asking now what I think is the correct ordering, but what “Evangelicalism” thinks is the correct ordering.
In that case, I may want to re-order…
It might be Orthopraxy, Orthodoxy, Orthopathy. In circles I’ve been around, right practice (especially not doing things the other church member disapprove of) would be #1, then you’d better believe the right things… and then, maybe.. tell us your story. :)
I’m sure more charismatic churches value the conversion experience much higher, but I’d say it’s never really been a big emphasis of churches I’ve been in. At least if we’re talking about some historic event in someone’s life.

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

should say, “he’s asking not what I think. . .”

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posted July 14, 2010 at 2:31 pm

I think the effective priority depends very much on what corner of evangelicalism you are looking at.
Among the more conservative Reformed, say those who would be at a John Piper conference, orthodoxy is far and away #1.
I think the “conversion experience” part is generally less emphasized in Calvinist traditions where we are loathe to connect salvation to anything we have done. And orthopathy becomes more important in pietistic and/or charismatic traditions.
Of course “orthopraxy” can mean very different things in different parts of the church — from not smoking or drinking to serving the poor and working for social justice.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Based on Scot’s observations, I have to acknowledge that the conversion experience, that “born-again” event/hurdle is a major deal in evangelical circles, whether the blinding light of Damascus Road (seems to be the more common form) or otherwise, in my little part of this journey. I am not sure how to consider the other 2, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as necessarily distinguishing marks for evangelicals, as I tend to see right belief and right practice as key bright lines for the various denominations. I tend to see Bebbington as having achieved a sort of recognized status, but I like to add the John Stackhouse modifications.
captcha and kamikaze (how did it know I am 2nd generation Japanese?)

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posted July 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm

The large biblical pattern I see is rescue-response, indicative-imperative, loved people-love people, blessed people-bless people, fed people-feed people… To me this is “evangelical” in the Augsburg Confession sense, avoiding Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.
Captcha= torahs men
Meaning of the sign= torah as revelation of God for all

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posted July 14, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Hmmm….my experience is that orthopraxy is number one and orthopathy is a close second followed by orthodoxy. Of course, there’s an awful lot of emphasis in some circles on what one believes. It’s just that unfortunately, those beliefs often are not orthodoxy but rather just the acceptable “right” beliefs to have in a particular circle. However, I would agree with your ordering, Scot.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 4:42 pm

This thread makes my brain hurt. The problem with all of it is that the ortho part is not ortho. I could be fine in talking about it as community norms, but my brain can’t get past the ortho label despite that being how they think about it. Perhaps it is ortho=community norms and it is just me, but I think of striving for ortho to be ortho should be the pursuit, not the conforming of others….

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posted July 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm

…but I forgot to answer the question. The most important thing to the evangelicals I know is that you do/think/act/believe and most importantly fund things that they like. Not that there is anything right about it.

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Jim Martin

posted July 14, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I’m glad you posted this. I had to think through each of these in order to decide an order. (I agree with you on the order after some reflection.) I like the way you put this in your later comment: “I am saying Evangelicalism’s top trait is the conversion experience.” I agree completely.
(Also like what John Frye did in his comment regarding Galatians.)

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posted July 14, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Nathan C — I found your comment thought provoking, and there is a ring of truth to it, in my experience. And the emphasis on emotion is somewhat dangerous, because when the feeling isn’t there sometimes people wonder what is wrong, when in reality nothing is wrong.

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