Some thoughts on evangelicalism

July 18, 2013 in Theology · 6 comments

Evangelical?

In an earlier post, I asked “Why are you or why aren’t you an evangelical Christian?” I received some great, thought-provoking responses, and several people asked for some specifics about my answer to that question. So here goes!

  • For me, evangelicalism means living a Gospel-centered life. The Gospel is the Good News that Christ died for our sins and rose again. It is the recognition and confession that Jesus is Lord and it is living out my life in light of that fact.
  • For me, evangelicalism means living a life that is Christ-centered and cross-centered. Jesus stands at the center of Christianity and his atonement on the cross stands at the center of Jesus’ life.
  • For me, evangelicalism recognizes the importance of the Bible. The Bible offers us invaluable wisdom and insight about our faith and God’s redemptive plan for humanity. We should take what it has to say extraordinarily seriously, seeking to properly understand the messages contained in its pages.
  • For me, evangelicalism means cultural engagement. Christians are not generally called to live separate, cloistered lives, nor are they supposed to live at antagonistic odds with society. Rather, we should strive to be an active part of culture and society. Our faith should inform who we are and how we interact with others.
  • For me, evangelicalism is mission-oriented. We are called to act. Not to sit idly by, not to only look out for ourselves, but to act in the world, expressing God’s love wherever we can, caring for the sick and the poor and the downtrodden, proclaiming the gospel through our words and our deeds.

I understand how all of these facets can be taken to unhelpful and even dangerous extremes. I realize that American evangelicalism has often been particularly negligent in that regard and regularly expresses hate and judgment in place of compassion and grace. But, for me, the characteristics I outlined above stand at the very heart of Christianity — every use of the word “evangelical” can be changed to the word “Christian.”

That’s how I understand evangelicalism. But … that’s clearly not how many others understand it. For them, evangelicalism has to do with forcibly evangelizing, with drawing up battle lines, with defining in and out groups, with rooting out heresy, with condemning others to hell, with vehemently opposing abortion and homosexuality, with standing up for gun rights and with supporting a generally Republican agenda. For many, the term evangelical is a synonymous with a “brand” of Christianity that bears little, if any, resemblance to the Christianity that I believe in.

I’ve always self-identified as an evangelical because that was the tradition I was brought up in and because it seemed to me to best fit my understanding of what I believe. But identifying as such puts me in the same room as many other self-proclaimed evangelicals with whom I share very little theological common ground.

To the extent that this discussion is about arbitrary theological delineations, it is perhaps a futile undertaking to try and pin down any specific meaning for the term evangelical. But this has very practical implications for me: I do get asked what religion I am, I do get asked what kind of Christian I am. I don’t need or particularly want to place myself in a box with clearly defined borders. But I do want to respond to those sorts of questions in the most honest and accurate way possible. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that “Evangelical Christian” is perhaps not a useful term of self-identification, at least not without a great deal of potentially tedious explanation.

On the other hand, I think that self-identifying as evangelical while making it abundantly clear that my stance on a number of controversial issues falls to the (far?) left of the ideological spectrum potentially offers a powerful witness about the compatibility of Christianity with overt support for traditionally “liberal” issues. From my perspective, there isn’t necessarily any conflict between a deep love of the Jesus and the Bible and support for gay rights, women’s rights and a slew of other issues.

Am I an evangelical? Yes! What exactly does that mean to me and to you? Let’s sit down and have a conversation about it …

4 comments… read them below or add one

Anna July 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Hi Dan:

I have been thinking about this post for a while. My sense is that in healing people of all faiths, Jesus effectively said that religion does not necessarily provide path to following His way; religious labels can actively impede his command of neighborly love. As you yourself have noted above, many self-described “Evangelical Christians” do not support Christ’s message and in fact behave in ways absolutely contrary to his teachings. I therefore do not see the value in labeling your spiritual path. And choosing a label that is as highly charged as “Evangelical Christian” will likely only cause discomfort, either to the audience or yourself.

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Dan July 21, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Thanks Anna, I appreciate your response. But we can’t give up on labels entirely! Labels are incredibly useful — imagine going to the grocery store only to be confronted by blank white cans and boxes. And in the case of a grocery store — as well as many other situations — the more information a label has on it, the more we value it! Of course you’re right that labels, when misapplied, can send the exact wrong message. That’s why it’s so very important to use them accurately and appropriately. In the case of “Evangelical Christian” it seems to me that those terms have suffered irrevocable damage. They simply mean too many things to be useful anymore. In the end, perhaps the only prudent designation is, following C.S. Lewis, that of “merely Christian.”

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Anna July 22, 2013 at 7:03 am

Hi Dan, Your comment on how labels make life easier at the grocery store sort of goes to my point. You are talking about labeling standardized products, nothing that comes close to the complexity of the human soul, and yet even in this case we want labels with complex information. In the case of calling using the label “Evangelical Christian”, it is almost as metaphorical grocery store wrapped everything in bland, opaque wrappers with basically no information on them at all. Maybe words like: grains, meat, or vegetables. As most people view the term “Evangelical Christian” so negatively, its label would possibly read: POISON.

On the very rare occurrences when I have been asked about my religious proclivities, I always say: “I believe my soul is non-denominational, open to all beautiful expressions of God. However, my religious practice is…” (and then I fill in what my current religious practice is).

I am not a fan of C. S. Lewis (I think he was a pompous jerk, a bland author, and a poor theologian), but I take your point about “merely Christian”. That said, as an increasing number of people now recognize the term “Christian” with no denomination attached to it as the code for “Evangelical Christian”, you may face the same problem as above.

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Dan July 22, 2013 at 11:53 am

Anna,
Chatting with you about this stuff really highlights the importance of conversation. We can use labels all we want, but unless we’re willing to talk about what we really mean by those labels, we risk talking right past one another. Through discussion with you and others I’ve decided to pretty much chuck the term evangelical by the way side. If someone wants to know what I believe beyond “mere Christianity” then we can have a chat about it…

I agree that many people see “Evangelical Christian” as “Poison.” And many more probably see it as posing a “Potentially Life-Threatening Allergy.” And you’re right too that “Christian” is often code for “Evangelical Christian” (because if you’re not Evangelical, then you’re not Christian, right?). But, for that matter, many people view any expression of religious faith as irrational and harmful. We can’t cater to everyone’s preconceptions!

Sorry to hear about your dislike for Lewis. Sure, he had his faults, but I find a great deal of worthwhile food for thought in his writings.

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