Why Are/Aren’t You An Evangelical Christian?

June 28, 2013 in Theology · 16 comments

Evangelical Christian?

The title of this post is an honest question that I’d like to hear your answer to: why are you or why aren’t you an evangelical Christian?

What does the term “evangelical Christian” mean to you? Is it a useful distinction that clarifies theological positions, or is it merely a word that furthers divisiveness?

If you don’t consider yourself to be an evangelical, what does it mean to you to be a Christian? How do you define your Christianity in a way that excludes evangelical distinctives but still holds true to positive statements of faith?

If you do consider yourself to be an evangelical, how do you understand your faith in relation to non-evangelical Christians? What makes you different? What makes you the same?

I think that all Christians are (or should be) evangelical … and the more I think about it, the less I see a way of being a Christian that isn’t evangelical. But I understand that term means many things to many people and is often encumbered by an enormous amount of baggage. And, when it is used to label a particular “brand” of Christianity, it is often entirely unhelpful in delineating essential differences. It either becomes a pejorative used to marginalize someone on the far right of the theological spectrum, or it is little more than synonym for “true, Bible-believing” Christian, as opposed to the so-called “Christians” whose liberalism destines them to hell.

So, for all three of my readers, what are your responses to these questions?

*Also see my follow-up post: Some thoughts on evangelicalism.

16 comments… read them below or add one

Mike McCandless June 28, 2013 at 6:05 am

Glad you asked the question. At this point, I find the term “evangelical” essentially useless at describing a single, identifiable set of beliefs or positions. During the past 20 years and due to moving around the USA, I have been a member of churches in the Evangelical Covenant, Presbyterian (PCUSA, twice), Episcopal (twice), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) denominations. Also, in the past 10 years, I have worked for three prominent ministries that describe themselves as “evangelical.” For Christians who consider themselves to actually be evangelicals, the two touchstones seem to be the centrality of the Bible as the only true source of doctrine and faith (although there is a wide range of opinion about what constitutes “truth”) and the importance of taking/sending the core message of the gospel to everyone, everywhere, i.e. a commitment to the Great Commission. For other Christians, an evangelical is someone who is probably narrow-minded, misguided, and Republican, Yes, I consider myself an evangelical (although no longer Republican), but if someone asks, I’m a “Jesus-follower.”

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Dan June 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Thanks Mike — I appreciate those thoughts and am in general agreement. “Jesus-follower” has too much of a hippy feel for me, but does certainly place the emphasis on the right person! I would love to simply call myself a Christian, but that means so many things to so many people that it’s perhaps even less helpful than “evangelical.” In the end, labels can only take us so far, and any one- or two-word designation probably can’t do justice to the depth or breadth of one’s personal beliefs.

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Ford1968 June 29, 2013 at 5:37 am

Welcome back Dan! Sadly, this is an easy question to answer.

I agree that if I’m Christian, I’m necessarily evangelical and I used to identify as such. As a label, unfortunately, Evangelical has become entirely unhelpful.

I’m a gay man living in Hells Kitchen – the biggest gay ghetto in New York and probably the world. At least half of my closest friends are gay. The numbers of gay people who have been severely damaged at the hands of the church is as astounding as it is heartbreaking.

The hurt and hostility that many gay people have toward Christianity in general, and “Evangelicals” & Catholics in particular, is palpable. Many of us experienced the religion-based rejection of family and community from a young age. These specific groups (or at least their spokespeople) have often expressed their distain for us and have sought to harm us and our families. They call us horrible names from disordered to degenerate to diseased. They spread vile lies like we are emotionally unstable, predisposed to child rape, and incapable of monogamy. They actively work against anti-bulling, anti-discrimination and marriage equality legislation lest they appear to condone “the gay lifestyle”. To many people, the words “Evangelical” and “Catholic” don’t just connote conservative beliefs, they are synonymous with hate.

When I get into conversations about religion and belief, I usually get aggressively attacked. It’s pretty tough being a Christian in my world. Truth be told, it kinda sucks. To soften the blow, I generally talk about faith in general terms until the conversation compels me to talk about the gospel. Maybe that makes me a bad Christian…I don’t know.

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Dan June 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Thank you so much for that personal perspective. But doesn’t the word “Christian” carry pretty much the same negative connotations as “evangelical” and “catholic” do? Or, in the context you’re referencing, does “evangelical christian” really just end up meaning “I don’t hate you a little bit, I hate you a lot!” How on earth do you talk about your faith at all without bringing along all that baggage?

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Ford1968 June 30, 2013 at 6:10 am

This will be an inadequate answer to a pretty complex issue.

Yes, there is a lot of resentment towards the religion that, for the most part, tries to shame us and tell us the relationships we form are sinful and inferior.

But I think the LGBT tribe does a good job of sussing out those who are trying to do us harm – including Evangelicals and Catholics. We know that the Vatican pours tons of money into anti-marriage organizations like NOM, and we know that the word “family” is code for anti-gay. [btw – it is mind shredding to me that evangelical leaders don’t denounce the patently hateful FRC; supporting them belies any claim of love for people who are gay.]

There’s also a generational difference.

My good friend Tony is 67 and was a devout Catholic; he lost his belief in God during the AIDS crisis when he lost dozens of friends and the church abandoned him (they refused to do funerals for his catholic friends).

Many gay people in my cohort (late boomer/ early Xer) have emotional scars. They generally haven’t given up a faith in God, but they can’t fathom identifying as Christian.

The Millennial cohort, however, is probably less hostel to Christianity and more open to retaining a Christian identity. I think this reflects the changing understanding of homosexuality in the Church. As the number of affirming congregations grows, so does the number of gay kids who were affirmed by their faith community.

That’s a lot of words to say that, within the LGBT community, attitudes toward Christianity may be softening; but that also puts the naked hatred of the evangelical establishment in high relief.

In my community, the word “Christian” is freighted. There’s no way to share my faith without understanding and acknowledging that.

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Christy Thomas June 29, 2013 at 5:55 am

I left evangelicalism many years ago–even started but never finished a book called “The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Woman” because I could no longer stomach the lies that appeared to me to permeate evangelicalism. The theology is based on the world view of white, privileged, Western males. Female voices rarely heard, a few voice of people of color, and as for the voices of the Gay/Lesbian community . . . all are shouted down as irreparably biased, as though the viewpoint of privileged white Western male is also not irreparably biased.

The deeper I sank myself in the Gospels, the less major theological stances and affirmations of Evangelicalism made sense. The routine disregard for the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the neglected borders of society along with the theological arguments over the tiniest details of the text come very close to matching the attitudes and behaviors of those for whom Jesus had the harshest words: the scribes and Pharisees.

There is a powerful and transformational Christianity outside the bounds of self-defined and self-righteous evangelicalism that gives life and light. I found it in the United Methodist Church, but that is not the only place.

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Dan June 29, 2013 at 2:47 pm

How do you define your religious faith now? As simply “Christian”? As Methodist?

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allegro63 June 29, 2013 at 7:27 am

No I don’t. To me being an evangelical is almost completely negative meaning. I see it as a conforming branch of Christianity, of playing by a specific set of rules, and looking at those who don’t with derision. I also see it as a recruiting method; to try to get people to become Christian, the conforming branch of Christianity, even those who already consider themselves thus. I found it too rule oriented, too looking negatively at those deemed on the outside, to restrictive. Freedom in Christ was an opposite to me, and I never once felt good enough a Christian while within that branch.

I’m a Christian. I’ll never try to talk you into become one, I’ll never dismiss your religious beliefs, just because they are different then mine, I’ll never consider you due for God’s wrath because you do or believe things I don’t agree with. I’ll never rejoice if something tragic happens to a people who are not Christian, I’ll never use politics to attempt to suppress or oppress anyone’s rights and ability to live as I have the privilege to live.

That puts me on the outside of what most of the people I know, and have spent my entire life surrounded by, consider evangelical.

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Dan June 29, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Heretic!

Kidding, kidding!

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allegro63 June 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Haha, I’ve been called worse. i think I’m now immune.. A Methodist pastor friend of mine has a hilarious one-worded list that he’s been called over the years for sharing his views.

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Derek June 30, 2013 at 8:44 am

Am I an Evangelical?

I Suppose I was an Evangelical in my very early teens, and a pretty obnoxious one at that. I remember ‘evangelising’ my grandmother when I was about 15 or 16 – a couple of weeks before she attempted suicide. I don’t suppose there was any causal relationship between the two events but it made me think long and hard about what evangelism was – not about expounding the ‘four spiritual laws’ but about loving people for who they were and not trying to squeeze them into my or anybody else’s narrow definitions of humanity.

My first public falling out with evangelicalism was when they tried to tell me that the greatest love of my life – rock music – was evil and demonic and this on what seemed to be very flimsy arguments. Some people told me it was evil because it harked back to tribal African rhythms, surely just barely concealed racism. Other people told me that rock music was wrong because you responded to it primarily with your bidy and not your mind; surely a variant on simple Gnostic body hatred, which also produced in the church the fear of sex generally and of women and non-heteronormative sex in particular.

Then I would watch the way many of my friends who were outsiders to the evangelical community, such as queer people, artists and musicians and Catholics to name but three, were treated by that community and I wasn’t impressed. Queer people were unacceptable because they pracriced abominable acts; artists and musicians were suspect for many reasons. What they did was often ‘spiritual’ but not in a way that fitted in with evangelical definitions. Roman Catholics were simply beyond the pale. In a staggering act of historical denial, a distinction was made by evangelicals between ‘Christians’, (read evangelicals) and Catholics. This distinction was offensive to me and just plain wrong. I still meet this attitude in nany contexts and try to counter it when I do meet it. By the time I was in my early twenties I had begun to read widely in so-called ‘liberal’ theology. James Barr’s Fundamentalism and James Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament showed me, as I had long suspected, that evangelicalism was by no means the the only way of looking at the world and that indeed other ways of looking at the world were more spiritually and intellectually satisfying to me. By then of course I was already lost, an evangelical/charismatic friend telling me that I was possessed by a demon of intellectualism. I don’t know what might have happened if she had tried to cast it out of me. At the very least I’d have lost a friend. But I thank God that she didn’t try. But as I say, by then I was already lost having discovered liberation theology, with queer theology having come to terms with my own bisexuality – no thanks at all to evangelicals – and Catholic Spirituality from my reading of Merton, Nouwen, the English, Spanish and German mystics. I was also reading widely in Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism which all cotributed to my sense of evangelicalsm as a narrow and largely unhelpful definition of faith and spirituality. Through all this I am clear that I remain a Christian, someone who is besotted by the person of an obscure first century Jewish radical whom I have to say I do not find represented in much of what gathers under banner of evangelicalism. I find it difficult therefore to identify with your claim that all Christians should be evangelical. In my own personal spiritual journey I have found evangicalism to be consistently more of a hindrance than a help for my spiritual journey. Why do you feel that I should be an evangelical and what do you feel does evangeicalism has to offer someone like me?

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Anna July 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Interesting question and I have enjoyed reading the responses. 

 I define religious evangelists as those who wish to “convert” others to their particular theological view and religious practice.  In effect they are political campaigners who have a very specific definition of their “god candidate”.  They attempt to nourish this god image, this idol, with gifts of money, property, literature, and forms of worship, which likely includes soliciting others to join their cause and support it with time and money.  

Using this definition of religious evangelism, I belive it is intrinsically flawed primarily because God is beyond definition and God is uniquely experienced by each of us, even if you believe we are all one.  That is, my relationship with God is unique to me, it is part of my soul and it is what gives me MY hope, MY strength, and MY flaws, too.  So I bristle when evangelists say silly things like “God loves you” or “Jesus saves!” because that may be their experience, but it is not transferable.  This is why studies are proving that religious evangelism creates atheism, a rejection of the false idol created by evangelists by those who in no way have the same experience.

In attempting to define God, religious evangelists create huge divisions within even their own religious communities.  This is true of all religions.  If you peruse the New Testament you will see that divisions appeared in the early Christian church even predating the crucifixion, when Peter and Judas lost their way, and John’s mother lobbied for his exhaulted place in Heaven.  After the crucifixion, Peter fought bitterly with  Paul the Evangelist over the direction of the church, particularly over dietary laws and circumcision.  That Paul never met Jesus and yet was so instrumental in the formation of the New Testament gives me further pause to his credibility and the “infallibility” of the Bible. 

I further believe that there is no such thing as an Evangelical Christian.  If we look at Jesus’s message in the Gospels, it is that he engaged with people of ALL faiths, social classes, ethnicities, states of health, and even genders, with women being his most dedicated apostles.  I belive Jesus of the Gospels would embrace homosexuals into the church and would encourage them to celebrate their love, as he encourages everyone to do this.  Christ was about unity, about loving our neighbors, including the ones we may never have met but with whom we share a planet.  Religious evangelism is about separation, about “winning”, about suspicion and subjugation of the “other”.  Religious evangelism is also about money.  Jesus loathed the mixture of money and power with faith, his ENTIRE MINISTRY spoke against it.  As such, I do not believe that Evangelical Christians exist.  They are delusional if they believe pressuring others to adopt their specific theology and religious practice in any way supports Christ’s ministry.

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Dan July 2, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Thank you Anna. Given that understanding, I’d agree that “Evangelical” is antithetical to Christianity. But I’ll elaborate further in a future post…

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Jill October 18, 2013 at 9:22 am

Hi Dan! If I’m to take Wiki’s word for it, the meaning from Greek is ‘good news’. If that’s the only meaning and use, I’m on board. But unfortunately, that’s not the primary use in modern society (nothing you don’t already know of course). There are words, and their attendant meanings, that have effectively been retired from the language for reasons like this.

I don’t have quite the negative experience with the word as many, many others unfortunately have, but I have the same reflexive reaction to the word evangelical: one that polarizes and separates– in this case, those that consider themselves The Sheep and those that are scornfully deemed The Goats.

‘Christian’ as a word transports baggage, yes, but ‘evangelical Christian’ transports baggage + steaming, aggressive, active hostility to anyone considered outside that circle. With pasted smiles on their faces. I wish it weren’t the case.

Basically, the word itself– harmless, well-intended even. But the modern inherent connotation– not good. So, it’s a no from me.

(and I’m sorry for the delayed response– been mostly off-grid this summer…)

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Dan October 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

Thanks for your thoughts Jill.
I’m pretty well convinced that identifying oneself as evangelical is entirely unhelpful in most cases. You’re right that even “Christian” has baggage too … but it seems to be a bit less toxic than what “Evangelical Christian” has come to mean.

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Beth Derke July 17, 2016 at 9:37 am

Evangelical to me is someone who thinks everyone else’s religious believe are wrong….this country has freedom of religion, we do not have a national religion. I believe they are narrow minded, they think the country should follow their beliefs, they are extremist, you can’t talk to them, they are right and everyone one else is wrong. God did not teach hate or intolerance, there are good and bad in all walks of life. You don’t know what someone else has been through in their life, you cannot judge others. There is speration of church and state, look what extremist thinking has led to in the middle east.

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