You don’t see many articles with a title like this.
Evangelical has come to equal bigot, or fundamentalist, or right-wing, or simply old-fashioned. I have lots of conversations where profoundly evangelical people and organisations agonise over their use of the word. It has become toxic.
And I understand the baggage, I sympathise with the aversion, I even empathise with some of the critique. And I don’t have any particular interest in rehabilitating a word. But….
Evangelicalism is the movement that brought me faith and nurtured it. And there are some things about evangelicalism as a movement that I don’t want to lose. It’s not that I don’t value other tribes or movements within Christianity but rather that without a strong evangelicalism I think the Christian movement will lose out.
In my life I think that evangelicalism as a movement has come under two significant attacks. First the attempt to weld it to right-wing politics and secondly the attempt to define it narrowly.
The political attack reached its hight with the Republican/evangelical marriage in the USA although you can track it in many countries over a long time. According to my American friends there was a time when not to vote conservative Republican put a question mark over your commitment to Christ. In popular media and culture ‘born again’ or evangelical equalled politically conservative. I think that this is waning at he moment. This is partly due to church disillusionment with the marriage- much was promised and little delivered. Partly, the sense that such overt political action and identification was hindering the ministry of the church in evangelism, discipleship, worship and pastoral care. And partly because there is a realisation that as citizens of a different kingdom, christianity can never completely identify with any one political philosophy. To do so is to sell our birthright.
I understand that at the start of the 20th century the significant danger to evangelicalism was from a theological liberalism. I have studied that period, understand the dangers and am aware of how they could return. However that was a long time ago. The current significant theological attack comes not from those who would be too liberal but those who would be too definite. This is the desire to define every point of doctrine, ethics and action so completely that a big wall can be built which defines who is ‘in’ or ‘sound’ or ‘orthodox’ and who isn’t. This betrays the essence of evangelicalism as a movement which has generosity at its heart, and has changed and developed as a movement through careful reflection on both text and context. I understand and empathise with the desire for certainty. I feel the inadequacy of a theology which has to preface everything it says with the phrase ‘It seems to me…’ But if we abandon generosity and agonising within our evangelical community then we turn a movement into a sect where policing the walls takes up more time than serving the world.
So, what do I like about being evangelical? What does evangelicalism as a movement mean?
A movement isn’t a club that you join it is territory to roam in. So I have six landmarks to this territory. When I see these landmarks I know that I am the territory of evangelicalism. They are not litmus tests but guides to the terrain. The first four are inspired by the now famous work of David Bebbington (Evangelicalism in Great Britain: A history from the 1730’s to 1980’s, London, Unwin Hyman, 1989) and the other two are from lots of reading and thinking.
Landmark One: It’s personal.
Evangelicalism as a movement has always stressed the need for a personal decision to follow Christ. We use words like repentance and born again. The point is that there is a personal decision to follow Christ and ask him to be Lord of our lives. God has no grandchildren the saying goes and so we each have to put our trust in Him. Part of the amazing good news is that I can have a personal relationship with God. I understand that this can lead to a self-absorbed individualism but I also know that it can lead to a glorious intimacy and union with God.
Landmark Two: It’s the Bible
Evangelicals have a high view of the Bible as the written word of God. This means that we see it as authoritative over our doctrine, lives and conduct. Agonising over what the Bible means and how we interpret its meaning for our situation is at the heart of the evangelical movement- because we really care about the Bible. I think that most of our current controversies really come down to the question of hermeneutics- how do we understand the Bible properly. There are some doctrines and creeds that have passed the tests of time and place- they have been helpful and authoritative to lots of believers in different places, at different times through history. The historic creeds are like this. There are other things that change. For centuries most Christians thought slavery was OK (if they thought about it at all). Now we struggle to understand how anyone ever thought that. If someone takes the Bible seriously, wants to sit under its authority and has an argument to make about what it means then I want them inside the evangelical movement however challenging they are rather than throwing them out without agonising with them.
Landmark Three: It’s the cross
Evangelicals have a very high view of the cross and its centrality for salvation, not just of individuals but the whole cosmos. Jesus is more than a guide or a teacher or a moral example. His sacrifice on the cross is at the heart of our faith. It was His sacrifice for sins that brings believers into peace with God. Christ died for us is our rallying cry. It means that He did what we could not do and therefore we receive forgiveness as a gift. It is the standard that defines love and the most vivid revelation of the character of the God we serve. It is the place of exchange where our filthy rags are exchanged for new clothes, our sins forgiven, evil destroyed by good, darkness by light, hate by love. The only response is to say thank you and worship.
Landmark Four: It’s for everyone
This good news must be shared. Through word and deed in the power of the Holy Spirit we share the good news of Jesus. Our faith is personal but never private. Whether it is serving a world of need, praying like mad, giving generously or telling the story of Jesus we are active in loving God and loving others
Landmark Five: It has a past
In a slightly (OK… very) geeky way I love church history, I was 18 when I discovered radical church history through books like ‘The Pilgrim Church’. I thrilled to stories of celtic saints, wild missionary movements and communities of conviction, passion and love who were often misunderstood and persecuted. There were some bishops and important people but it wasn’t primarily a story of hierarchy and power but of ordinary people who having encountered Christ wanted to change the world. Some of these people wrote down what they believed and how they worked out their salvation. Some of it was pastoral and devotional like ‘the imitation of Christ’ or Ignatian spirituality. Others like the reformers or the evangelists of the great awakening wrote more formally. Evangelicalism as a movement understands that it sits in an historical context. Roger Olson describes this as a respect for Christian orthodoxy. We don’t just make everything up to suit ourselves, our times and our cultures. As John Stott wrote, every generation needs to have an emergent church that is a bridge between the historic faith and the current context. I don’t want to live in the past but neither do I want to abandon it. I want to connect with it and translate it for the present. This is important because of the last landmark.
Landmark Six: It’s about renewal
Evangelicalism as a movement has always been about challenge and renewal. Whether it was the monastic movements, the reformation, the pentecostal outpouring, the charismatic movement or the emergent church movement evangelicalism as a movement focuses on what needs to change. Packer wrote that in response to dry orthodoxy and dull services God did not raise up another Barth or Calvin but sent the charismatic movement to renew worship and experience. Because we are about challenge, renewal and change we will always be a bit restless and feisty. The ones who change the world always are. We will question and deconstruct and experiment and so we should. We are a renewal movement- personally, denominationally and out into society. This means that we can be noisy and messy and awkward as we strain for the new. It means that we can get sidelined into novelty in our search for authenticity. But we should never be dull!
So, what do you get if you put these things together. You certainly don’t get a neat credal statement. You get a movement of passionate, loving people seeking strong, relevant discipleship through an ever deeper understanding of the Bible and a respect for our shared history. We are utterly dependent on Christ and are in awe of his free gift and sacrifice. We are striving for ever more authentic community, faith and action. And all of this in the service of glorifying Christ and loving people.
Now that is what I like about being evangelical.