When I was growing up, the Church was very simple—there was the Evangelicals, who had the truth of the Gospel, and then there was everyone else: Anglicans (who were all nominal), Catholics, and liberals. There was another very simple equation: Evangelicals spread the Gospel and try to win converts, liberals didn’t really talk about Jesus but just did social and political stuff. You can still see remnants of these equations, in the way we talk about churches today. Take something like Operation World, for instance: a country might have X% of Christians, but only Y% of them are Evangelical—“Evangelical” is a synonym for “real”; other kinds of Christian are not Christian enough.
Yet in a way, it was never as cut-and-dried as those simple equations imply; social and political stuff used to be the hallmark of Evangelicals, back when they were freeing slaves and brewing beer, but people don’t tend to like the idea that their ideology changes over time. And of course recently Evangelicals have started to reclaim their own tradition, getting steadily more involved in social and political stuff. The simple equation has got rather more complex. Maybe stereotypes like that aren’t a good idea after all.
So it got me thinking—if the stereotype of Evangelicals doesn’t hold really water any more and perhaps it never did, what about that of the liberals? These guys used to be pretty much the enemy in the Christian environment where I grew up because they claimed to be Christians and yet they didn’t talk about Christ. If it turned out that the did in fact talk about Christ… that would be rather embarrassing, and perhaps the manufactured enmity should, like our ineffective stereotypes, be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I can only speak about my local situation. I know that my particular mission agency refused to work alongside Vories’ Omi Mission because they were “too liberal.” I think that means that they spent a lot of time running hospitals, printing presses, pharmaceutical companies, kindergartens, schools and architects offices as well as planting six churches and operating a preaching ministry all around the lake. Vories was a social activist and an evangelist.
Right here in Mukaijima our own work benefits greatly from the presence of the Airinkan, a social welfare center, kindergarten, and church for the mentally handicapped, set up by Toyohiko Kagawa’s Jesus Band. Kagawa was another one of those seen as a liberal by the Evangelical missionaries, in part because he walked out of seminary after he realised that people were more interested in preaching the parable of the Good Samaritan than living it out, and went to live in the Kobe slums instead. Oh, and he pioneered the Japanese cooperative movement, so he must have been a liberal. While the Christian Century was fêting him in America,
Religious conservatives also provided some of Kagawa’s most vocal critics. While Kagawa was giving his Rauschenbusch Lectures to large crowds in Rochester, J. Frank Norris, a combative Fort Worth Baptist given to attacking the Federal Council of Churches for allegedly promoting Communism, came to the city to warn a similarly large audience that Kagawa’s cooperatives were more dangerous than Russian Bolshevism. The prominent, Minnesota-based, Fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley also “organized a demonstration denouncing Kagawa as the ‘prophet of the anti-Christ.’”
Just like Vories, he was a tireless and prolific social activist:
In 1940 Kagawa had under his supervision 4 settlements, 6 cooperatives, 6 slum kitches, 3 hospitals, 17 kindergartens, 3 tuberculosis sanitaria, 3 gospel schools, 1 domestic science school, 2 magazines, 1 farm…
But the Airinkan, while it’s not directly evangelistic, runs as a Christian centre with an obvious Christian ethos and has been providing people around here with a Christian background which has made them a lot more open to the Gospel than I have seen in other parts of Japan. Surely we can celebrate that, right?
But wait, there’s more.
… and 19 churches. As for his preaching, Kagawa was the first real mass evangelizer Japan had. During the four and a half years of the Kingdom of God movement from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, he spoke 1859 times on 734 days addressing himself to 787,223 people, of whom 62,410 submitted a decision card by which they expressed their intention to become Christians.
What if this “liberal” was a better evangelical than the Evangelicals? I put “liberal” in quotes, because of course Kagawa wasn’t really a liberal—these days we would call him a liberationist. But at the time it was easier not to get into those subtleties and just use “liberal” more as a conveniently dismissive insult than a theological description. I wonder how much that has changed.
Now I know I’ve chosen a carefully-selected and not particularly representative sample of two, but one exception is enough to prove a rule, and should be enough to remind us those cut-and-dried equations don’t really hold water, and that some Evangelicals also care about their neighbours and some liberals also preach the Gospel and try and win converts… and that labels are dangerous, and labelling people doubly so.