How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative

PDF-file by Roger E. Olson

How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative PDF ebook download How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative
By Roger E. Olson

(A review/synopsis by Jonathan W. Lee, March 2009)

The title of the book cries out for two words to be defined – evangelical and conservative. Dr. Olson defines “evangelicals” as Protestant Christians who display five characteristics: 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), and respect for the great tradition of Christian doctrine. He is not as clear when defining “conservative” because it is such a contextual term. But he equates it most often to “traditional” (defensive of the past and the status quo).

This book raised several of the same issues as the book Unchristian. Unchristian is in many respects a “don’t shoot the messenger” report on young people’s views of Christianity that seeks to interpret survey data. Dr. Olson addresses many of the same issues, but offers a bit more subjective opinion on how the church should rethink and broaden their views.

The book is divided into twelve chapters that deal with separate issues. Each chapter is organized in the style of “Let’s retain the baby of evangelicalism, but throw out the bathwater of conservatism.” I’m not sure why the author didn’t order the chapters in a more coherent fashion. They basically fit into three categories – discovering truth, living truth in community, and proclaiming truth to the world.

Discovering Truth:
Chapter 4: Seeking Truth without Certainty
Chapter 1: Being Biblical Without Orthodoxy
Chapter 5: Taking the Bible Seriously without Literalism
Chapter 9: Relativizing without Rejecting Theology

Living Truth in Community:
Chapter 6: Being Religionless without Secularism
Chapter 10: Updating without Trivializing Worship
Chapter 11: Accepting without Affirming Flawed People
Chapter 12: Practicing Equality without Sacrificing Difference

Proclaiming Truth to the World:
Chapter 2: Building Character without Moralism
Chapter 3: Celebrating America without Nationalism
Chapter 7: Transforming Culture without Domination
Chapter 8: Redistributing Wealth without Socialism


I wouldn’t call this a scholarly book. (The absence of footnotes probably indicates that it wasn’t intended to be.) Most topics deserved deeper discussion than what could be accomplished in one chapter.

The book comes across as a manifesto for progressive evangelicals. It contains lots of opinions that will probably encourage those like-minded individuals who read the book. But the opinions were quite subjective with only a smattering of Biblical evidence for them. I doubt that there is enough persuasive evidence to change the opinions of those who disagree with him. Nevertheless, I agreed more than disagreed with the author’s conclusions.

I agree with Dr. Olson’s call for broadening the spectrum of evangelicals to include non-conservatives; although at times, he seemed more interested in moving a narrow spectrum from the right to the left. I thought that at times he was dismissive of conservatives, especially to complementarians in chapter 12. His arguments for egalitarianism were largely sociological opinions without addressing the related Biblical passages. I also didn’t find chapter 8 on redistributing wealth to be very convincing in economic theory, although all evangelicals would agree that we are to treat the poor with dignity and concern.

This was a book worth reading, but not what I hoped for when I bought it. Each chapter is merely a starting point for more in-depth reading.

For those who are interested, a synopsis of each chapter is given below.

Chapter 4: Seeking Truth without Certainty

Roger Olson asserts that conservative Christians “have long treated doubt as a sign of lack of faith and held up certainty as the signal of mature Christianity.” But absolute proof of the truth of Christianity and its doctrines is not available to us because of our finiteness and fallenness. The author (with Kierkegaard) advocates “certitude over certainty in matters of Christian faith and belief.” Certitude is based on the transforming power of God and resulting faith, unlike certainty which requires incontrovertible evidence and rational arguments. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that doubt is an essential aspect of faith. We can learn to live with “mystery, ambiguity, and uncertainty without wallowing in chronic skepticism.” We must say “I believe; help, Thou my unbelief.”

Chapter 1: Being Biblical Without Orthodoxy

After showing that the word orthodoxy has different meanings in different contexts, Dr. Olson limits his discussion to orthodoxy in the sense of “enforced adherence to a written doctrinal system under threat of punishment for daring to question it.” He says that orthodoxy and tradition are not bad in and of themselves. But all orthodoxies need fresh and faithful reexamination in light of God’s Word. It needs to be “reformed and always reforming.”

Chapter 5: Taking the Bible Seriously without Literalism

Conservatives believe that the Bible should be taken as literally as possible or its truthfulness and authority will be diminished. Dr. Olson points out that it is not easy to discern what part of the Bible is to be taken literally and what part is to be taken figuratively. We should first ask “What kind of literature is the passage or entire book?” Then we should ask “Is anything crucial to the biblical drama and its theological message lost if the passage is interpreted nonliterally?” (The author argues that the historicity of Abraham, Moses, and David is crucial while the historicity of Jonah is not.) We take the Bible seriously when we “struggle to hear and obey its message as one that comes genuinely from God.”

Chapter 9: Relativizing without Rejecting Theology

Conservative theologians believe that all-important questions about God have been answered and they are suspicious of any new discoveries. Their task is to defend the received tradition and restate it in modern language so contemporary people can understand and receive it. The author sees another model for theology that he calls the pilgrimage model (or narrative theology). In this model stories that cannot be reduced to information bring transformation to people. The Bible is an unfinished drama and we are the actors. Theology is not our primary language. That’s God’s speech to us and our response in worship and devotion.

One example of a pilgrimage theology is “open theism” which questions the traditional view of God’s relationship with time and the future. Dr. Olson does not claim to be an open theist, but argues that they deserve the opportunity to take a fresh look at the Scriptures without being branded heretics. He argues that open theists are within the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” that says that Scripture and tradition are the two sources and norms of theology and reason and experience are interpretive tools to help us sort out and understand Scripture and tradition. Conservatives oppose them at the peril of elevating tradition above Scripture.

Chapter 6: Being Religionless without Secularism

The author defines religion as “a fairly formalized, institutionalized, tradition-bound worship and spirituality (churchiness).” He defines secularism as functional atheism – God is privatized and not central to life. “Too often religion is an information delivery system whereas authentic evangelical Christianity is about personal and communal transformation by God’s Spirit, bringing people to Jesus Christ with repentance and the resulting miracle of regeneration – the new life that loves God and the things of God and people.” Religionless evangelicalism is focused on being missional more than informational. It is unlike secularism because placing God at the center is necessary.


Chapter 10: Updating without Trivializing Worship

“One of the great ironies of contemporary evangelicalism in America is that theologically conservative churches are often the first ones to update worship while more liberal churches tend to hold onto traditional liturgies or even return to older forms of worship. An entire spectrum of evangelical worship styles exists. My hunch is that many conservative churches risk trivializing worship because they are so passionate about reaching the younger generation with the gospel. Much contemporary worship is trivial because it aims more at entertainment than real worship. What is necessary is careful thought and reflection on how all the elements of worship come together to magnify and glorify God and lift up the worshipping community into His presence.”

Chapter 11: Accepting without Affirming Flawed People

How does the church maintain holy standards without expelling everyone in the church? The author gives two wrong solutions – ignore it (“It’s between them and God.”) and denounce sinners (especially those outside the church). He then gives three prescriptions:
First, don’t enforce traditional standards of moral and ethical standards from a different era. Second, admit that nobody is free from some besetting sin in the form of a bad habit. (Raising moral and ethical standards means including among the list of sins those with which evangelicals have become comfortable: gluttony, gossip, greed, racism, sexism, uncontrolled anger, and bitterness.) Third, focus less on people’s behavior and more on their attitudes toward sin. The problem is not being a sinner, which we all are; the problem is calling evil good.

Dr. Olson suggests that churches too often put belonging after believing and behaving. But because nobody believes or behaves perfectly, he says that belonging should come first. However, he does not advocate belonging without restrictions. He proposes that anyone who wishes to belong should confess that he or she is a forgiven sinner who wants to change,then confess “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”, and promise to embark on a journey of faith and discipleship toward holiness together with all the other sinners.

Chapter 12: Practicing Equality without Sacrificing Difference

Dr. Olson gives a brief overview of the two competing camps in gender roles – complementarianism (espoused by the Biblical Council on Manhood and Womanhood) and egalitarianism (espoused by Christians for Biblical Equality). He is firmly in the egalitarian camp in both viewpoint and practice (attending a church where women are in the majority in leadership positions including the elder board and pastorate). He states that egalitarianism is a necessary step toward healthy Christian organizational life. (“Power must not be concentrated in the hands of any one gender, race, class, or age group.”)


Chapter 2: Building Character without Moralism

The author defines moralism as the habit of the heart and mind that elevates right behavior, judged by a set of absolute standards, to extreme importance and determines the extent to which people are acceptable to God or society by their conformity to the rules of conduct. In contrast, character is about inward goodness through transformation of the heart. He notes that conservative evangelicals emphasize moralism toward society outside the church, but largely neglect discipleship and church discipline to develop character inside the church. “Our approach to ethics should focus on God’s power to change people’s lives.”

Dr. Olson briefly addresses the issue of legislating morality in society “to make the world a better place.” He seems to favor political action that is based on rational, secular arguments but does not favor political action based solely on Christian faith because “we cannot change the world into the church by law.” He acknowledges that many Christians would disagree with him, but doesn’t go any farther. Other people like Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey have dealt more deeply with this issue.

Chapter 3: Celebrating America without Nationalism

The author distinguishes between patriotism (“love of country and desire to see it flourish and prosper”) and nationalism (“the belief that America is especially chosen and raised up by God to be a “Christian nation” bringing the whole world to God and the American way”). He says it is ambiguous at best whether the founding fathers based the new American republic on Christian or even Judeo-Christian concepts. He goes on to give a fairly accurate explanation of what “separation of church and state” is and is not.

Chapter 7: Transforming Culture without Domination

The author gives a brief overview of the Puritan and Anabaptist views of the relationship between the church and the world. Puritans were called to transform the culture into the Kingdom of God insofar as possible. Anabaptists withdrew from society and sought to transform the world indirectly by creating communities of light that show the world outside the church a better way. They eschew use of political power to do that, as does Dr. Olson. He believes it is the Church’s job to reform itself and God’s job to manage history and society.

Chapter 8: Redistributing Wealth without Socialism

Dr. Olson quotes several Old Testament passages that condemn injustice toward the poor and especially the wealthy getting rich off the labor of the poor. He concludes that redistribution of wealth is biblical; an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is not. He is less committal on whether it should be voluntary or mandatory under the power of the state.

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