In a prior post, I explained how the Boston Declaration—a document challenging “the corruption of U.S. Christianity” issued by a group of highly respected Christian theologians earlier this week—does a poor job of speaking to evangelical Christians. I explained by describing things present in the Boston Declaration sarcastically as strategies to appeal to an evangelical Christian.
I return to the topic in this post while attempting to be more direct and productive by outlining five problems with the Boston Declaration and how to fix them in future declarations (or in possible follow-up to the Boston Declaration).
My assumption is that the writers of the declaration wanted to persuade evangelical Christians of the truth of the declaration’s tenets.
If the writers wanted to repel evangelical Christians and only rally those who probably already agree with the declaration’s tenets, then the declaration is fine as is.
I hope they want to persuade the evangelical Christian, along with others, and hope they will continue trying to do so.
1. The declaration fails to acknowledge Jesus’s divinity.
In its opening line, the declaration describes Jesus as a “Jewish prophet for justice.” This is an accurate—but woefully incomplete—description.
The opening line, true as it is, signals to the evangelical reader that the balance of the declaration might not be rooted in Jesus’s divinity. It raises suspicion.
The shared baseline for evangelical Christians, mainline Christians, Catholics, and virtually every form of Christianity is the divinity of Jesus. Acknowledging that he is Lord helps to establish that the declarants and the evangelical reader begin from this shared point.
2. The declaration does not demonstrate, through scripture, that its tenets are Christ-rooted or imperative.
Simply acknowledging Jesus’s divinity is not enough.
A declaration seeking to persuade evangelical Christians needs to root its tenets in Christ and to explain how they are rooted in Christ and how Christ made it imperative that we follow them.
For most of the Boston Declaration’s tenets, it is easy enough to understand in a vague way that they are rooted in Christ. It is easy enough from a social-justice standpoint to see that they are imperative.
Missing from the declaration is the specific scriptural formulation that demonstrates clearly that the declaration’s tenets are rooted in Christ and, probably more important, that Christ expressed them as imperative. Specific scriptural expressions resonate with evangelical Christians.
3. Probably the most significant miss in the declaration is that it does not reference the new command of Christ, the one that addresses and supports many of the declaration’s tenets.
Apparently acknowledging that individualism is generally recognized as a common trait of evangelical Christians, the declaration condemns policies rooted in “extreme individualism.”
This recognition did not find its way into an emphasis on Christ’s teachings or a scriptural demonstration in the declaration.
The declaration notes that Christ said “love your neighbor as yourself,” but, to someone who emphasizes individualism, “as yourself” might have a very different meaning than it has to you.
Christ gave us an imperative command beyond “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Christ said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 (NRSV))
He repeated: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12 (NRSV))
He said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15 (NRSV))
This is a radical new command: Followers of Christ must love others and do for them just like Christ loved others and did for them while he was on Earth.
Our divine Lord told and showed us what to do. This is more specific and, often, more intense than “love your neighbor as yourself,” particularly for an individualistic person.
I discuss this in an earlier post.
A declaration that reminds us of this new command and relates the scripture expressing the way Christ did it to today is a declaration that can persuade Christians who place great value in individualism.
4. The declaration anchors itself on the writers’ views instead of Jesus’s views.
Throughout, the declaration refers to how the writers feel, what the writers say, what the writers mourn, and what the writers reject, explaining that “we are outraged,” “we declare,” “we mourn,” and “we reject.”
The declaration fails to explain at what Jesus was outraged, what Jesus declared, what Jesus mourned and lamented, or what Jesus rejected.
To be clear, my view is that the writers’ views align with the views expressed by Jesus in most respects.
But if you want to persuade an evangelical Christian, neither my views nor the declaration writers’ views matter. What is persuasive is explaining Jesus’s views.
5. Lastly, but in the top two of importance, the declaration does not speak evangelical.
The Boston Declaration does not speak the language of an evangelical. It uses words and phrases common in evangelical’s speech to mean something different than what evangelicals mean.
For example, the first substance section is titled “Choose Life.” That term invokes abortion issues for evangelicals. The declaration urges “choosing life” and uses similar phraseology elsewhere. The declaration urges everyone to “reject all political and social movements that do not lead to life.” The unborn are not mentioned in the declaration.
As another example, the declaration refers to justice for “the lost.” “The lost,” to most evangelicals, are those who have not yet been saved, those who have not yet been born again.
Another example is referring to the declaration as a “prophetic” appeal. To most evangelicals, prophetic refers to prophecy, via God, of future events. Yes, “prophetic” and “prophet” do not mean just that, but in evangelical terms, the future-prediction sense of prophet and prophetic is what is normally used for them.
Another one is describing “shalom justice” as the goal. The declaration uses this and other such terms, possibly familiar to academics, but not familiar to many evangelical Christians.
If you want to persuade an evangelical Christian, speak their language.
There are other problems with the Boston Declaration—like using a sentence at the outset that can be interpreted to say that Evangelicalism is an expression of Christianity driven by white supremacy, not noting commonalities with evangelical thinking and many of the declaration’s statements, and lamenting and condemning people but not speaking pastorally to the individual.
I offer these criticisms with constructive intent. There is no doubt in my mind, that, as a whole, Christianity in the United States needs to improve significantly its efforts in fighting and eradicating oppression, racism, sexism, discrimination, and other matters described in the declaration.
I admire and applaud the work and effort that went into the Boston Declaration.
My main point is that if future declarations—or follow-up on the Boston Declaration—are meant to have an impact on evangelical Christians or to persuade them, then attention ought to be given to the points I raise above and to considering how to communicate better with evangelical Christians.
(The picture is one of Boston I took yesterday while walking along the Charles River.)
Sources & Notes
“…evangelical Christians …”: I have in mind Christians that approximately meet the characteristics of evangelicalism set out by David Bebbington and noted by the National Association of Evangelicals at https://www.nae.net/what-is-an-evangelical/. As an aside, the definition of NAE/LifeWay Research on the same web page seems off to me, as many evangelical Christians would not consider the Bible as “the” highest authority for what they believe, giving that title instead to God or Christ, while possibly agreeing with Bebbington’s “high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority” phrase because the phrasing of the latter leaves more room for what might be implied at the end of that phrase (“available to me,” “on Earth,” ….). Semantics, yes, but it seems to me it would impact survey results. Another attribute in the NAE/LifeWay Research definition that is questionable is that to be an evangelical under its definition, one must strongly agree that “[i]t is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.” There are lots of people who fairly consider themselves an evangelical Christian but who see themselves working on Earth to support others who personally encourage non-Christians in this way, rather than for them “personally” doing so. I suspect that NAE/LifeWay Research using such a definition does not accurately reflect the evangelical Christian world.
“individualism is generally recognized as a common trait of evangelical Christians”: see earlier post discussing Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000).
My earlier post on the Boston Declaration is here.
The Boston Declaration and its accompanying press release can be found here.
(Updated: Fixed some typos and word choices.)