am i an evangelical?

Am I an evangelical?

This has been a question that has been playing around the edges of my mind over the last few years. Twenty-five years ago I would have said “what is an evangelical?” Fifteen years ago I would have easily answered “of course I am an evangelical”.

Now I am not so sure.

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What seemed so easy then has become more complex, the more I know and the more I discover, the less certain things become. Other people seem certain about what it means to be an evangelical, and usually that is believing exactly the same things as them. Evangelicals are making the news a lot lately, their involvement in politics in the US and their vocal and visible stance on certain issues puts them in the public eye. Part of my hesitancy around identifying as an evangelical is simply wanting to distance myself from the negative stereotypes and the more conservative sections of evangelicalism. Michael Frost sent a tweet the other day that resonated a lot with me:

I want to distance myself from that image of what it means to be an evangelical. But that public version of what it means to be an evangelical is not all there is to it.

On this journey to explore whether i am an evangelical or not the first question I have to delve into is, what is an evangelical?

Stuart Lange (affiliate link to A Rising Tide) defines evangelicalism as both a “historical movement and a set of doctrinal commitments.” (p.12). I find it interesting that he states as I found throughout my childhood growing up in the NZ baptist church, that there are groups of people who share the characteristics of evangelicals but do not explicitly call themselves evangelical. Lange goes on to say that from the “time of the sixteenth century reformation, ‘evangelical’ meant belief in justification by faith, and in the primacy of biblical authority and practice’. I might not express it exactly in those words, but if I was living after the reformation I think I could happily say that I was an evangelical. But as Lange says evangelicalism is a movement, so it changes and grows and lives. Lange identifies the roots of what we now see as the modern evangelical movement as emerging in the 1730’s in Britain and it’s colonies. At this time there was a new emphasis on revival, religious experience and evangelism. Ok so by those stands I think I can still happily and easily be an evangelical.

Today it seems that Bebbington’s definition of what it means to be evangelical is most widely accepted. He states that evangelicalism has four characteristics. Firstly a belief that lives need to be changed (conversionism). Secondly having a high regard for the bible (biblicentrism), thirdly putting faith into practice through involvement with social justice, care and sharing faith, (activism). Finally evangelicals emphasise Jesus sacrificial death on the cross (crucicentrism). There are not a lot of doctrines in this definition! For my own journey I can happily sit with three of these characteristics, I believe that people need to change, that the bible is the best way to understand God and his work in the world and in people’s lives, and how we are to live in the light of that. I believe that our faith has to be put into actions that show care and love to others and that introduce them to the God who created them. The characteristic I struggle with is the emphasis on Jesus sacrificial death, I have seen that an overemphasis on Jesus death, leaves out so much of the story. The death of Jesus does not stand alone but must be emphasised in context of God’s redeeming work throughout the history of creation and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. This may just be a matter of semantics and interpretation, I think most evangelicals would agree with me on that.

Now this portrait of what an evangelical is, seems remarkably different to how it is used, and who it describes today. Remember that it is a movement and Lange points out that

“historians have shown how evangelicals emphasised different doctrines and practices at different times and were constantly adapting to new contexts”.

Evangelicalism in the US, the UK and NZ are vastly different things, they have grown differently and adapted to their contexts differently. Being a NZ evangelical is not the same as being a US evangelical. Many evangelicals have tried to force a definition based on specific doctrines, but that is not as widely accepted as the broader definitions based on characteristics. Lange describes evangelicalism as “a mindset rather than a closed system, and an unstructured transdenominational movement crossing many ecclessiastical and national boundaries.” Evangelicalism is not just one thing. Large publishing houses, popular bloggers and others from the US may give that impression, but I don’t think they are right.

The question then becomes who gets to decide what evangelicalism is?

It is always the people with the most power (or publicity) who get to make the definitions. I am seeing it more and more used almost as an insult – “if you think that then you are not an evangelical.” I found a lovely quote by Toni Morrison “definitions belong to the definer not the defined”. Just because somebody else says that you are not an evangelical doesn’t mean that it is true. It just means that you don’t agree with them and the doctrines that they think make up evangelicalism.

So I have come full circle, I started this post thinking that I was going to conclude that I wasn’t an evangelical, there is so much I disagree with many of them on. But if I disassociate myself from evangelicalism, if I say I am no longer that, I let those who have the most conservative doctrinally based image of what it means to be an evangelical claim the definition, to make it their own.

I am not sure they get to do that!

If I leave evangelicalism, then I leave evangelicalism stagnant, stuck in a particular model, never to move, never to change, unable to grow and contextualise. We let vocal people from the US define our faith. It ceases to be a mindset and an unstructured movement and becomes a narrow set of doctrines. I find that I am reluctant to leave it to that fate.

 

What are your thoughts? Are you an evangelical? What do you think it means?

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7 thoughts on “am i an evangelical?

  1. OK, so firstly, Frost’s explanation doesn’t completely track. While he place himself under the reign of the King he neglects to identify himself as a participant in the Kingdom collective. He’d probably suggest it was implied, but I don’t think you can make that leap these days. Too many “emergents” (is that even a thing still?) take an individualists view of following Jesus. You can’t. It’s not part of the deal. Allegiance to the King requires your full participation in his Kingdom which includes all His subjects. ‘Nuff said about that.

    Secondly, I don’t like the term conversionism. Conversion is a by-product not an objective. It should be transformationism or some such thing. People don’t need to change, in the sense that they need to expend energy to try and measure up to some objective standard. We change as we are being transformed. It’s a critical difference. It’s a transcendent shift. Conversionism is anthropocentric. Transformationism (let’s run with that term for now) is much more theocentric. It is what happens to you when you step into Christ’s kingdom through a faith-choice. It’s a grace, not an effort on our part.

    Thirdly, I agree with you on the crucicentrism, to a point. The cross is still a central part in the Christian narrative, but only because it signposts a change, not because we perversely celebrate the gruesome torture and brutalisation of another being. Yes, we need to acknowledge the gravity of what happened. It magnifies the wonder of the lengths God’s love extends towards us among other things. But the NT writers focused on Christ’s death for the change it made possible in reality because of it’s accompanying RESURRECTION. If he wasn’t raised we are to be pitied above all others Paul says. The cross represents a Stargate (to draw on a favourite analogy), it stands as a symbol of the portal Jesus opened up between our current state (darkness, unillumenedness, death) and access to God (light, awakened, life). A bridge to God? Perhaps, but a bridge suggests a long walk. A portal is a step and therefore more in keeping with Scriptural imagery. A step of faith is all it takes to spark off the transformation process.

    Finally, who really cares about the labels these days? Really. Why the need to identify as anything more than just a Subject of Eternal King Jesus? Names, labels, categories, etc are such modern constructs. One thing I’ve been thinking on -A LOT- lately is the need for some good Identity Theology. As I’ve taught the 2/3rds World Theology course at Laidlaw Manukau I’ve noticed the major thread through all the theologies (including Western theologies) is that they seek to reinforce (or argue for) a particular Christian identity. Where Contextual Theology deals with the transition of Christian concepts into other contexts, Identity Theology would deal with the practice of Christian relationships relative to context. Evangelicalism is merely one type of contextual theology. Let it go. It’s sliding away. I reckon it will shift from the centre of theological training it’s enjoyed over the past 50 years to the subject of church history toward the end of our lifetimes. Let’s move on and focus on being Basileians* (inhabitants of the Kingdom), modelling obedience to the King rather than a creed. 😉

    * I see there is already a Basileian presence on the web: http://www.basileians.com

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  2. Yes totally agree with your points about conversionism, it all comes down to the language we use and what we understand by it, I do basically understand it as a need for theocentric transformation.

    I did play with the question of why label for a while, but it needs it own post! I think you hit the nail on the head, we use labels because we are searching for an identity, a tribe to belong to. Labels indicate belonging to something, and it seems that to simply define ourselves as followers of the way is no longer enough, we have to identify within that with certain positions. I guess for me it is important I have a response, because it is something that you tend to get asked. It is a question that you have carefully and diplomatically dodged in your answer – what do you say if someone asks you: Are you an evangelical?

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  3. Yes, I dodged it just like Michael Frost dodged it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been asked the question! However, if I was I’d answer, “It depends. What do you understand Evangelical to mean?”

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  4. Great to read your musings here. I just completed a Masters degree where my topic was how Evangelicals understand the concept of Social Justice,. I had to provide a definition of what evangelicals were and it very difficult to do! I used Bebbington, however evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics are very closely woven particularly in New Zealand. The reactions of other people to the word ‘evangelicals’ was also very interesting, the majority of non church people associated it with American politics and being ‘anti’ many things (these comments were from NZers and Australians), and middle age to older Christians had no comment on it. Young Christians, and young people in general, didn’t know what the word was referring to. I grew up in an evangelical Baptist church, now I don’t use that label, I just say I’m a Christian. In the current environment the word evangelical has been high jacked by American Religious Right politics. Even though the word has great roots, and a strong social justice genealogy , it is not that history people think of now when they hear the word ‘evangelical’. Kind of like how no kid these days can in good conscience be called Adolf.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, there is a great tradition as you say. Do we let the US religious right highjack the term or do we reclaim it and redefine what it means again. Or do we simply say the great days of evangelicalism are over and move on as Jay suggests above?

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  5. I have a similar degree of ambivalence about the term, especially when I see its modern advocates in the USA attempt to take ownership of it (both on the conservative and “progressive side” I might add!). Yet when I look at the history of evangelicalism since the reformation and also in its flourishing through world mission, and especially in my experience of worshiping and meeting people from other contexts I can’t deny my evangelicalism! On both a doctrinal level and in what in my spirituality , I find myself rooted to the same commitments my parents generation and many before were: a belief in reality of the personal, transforming power of God within history and a strong commitment to the centrality and authority of the bible in all aspects of Christian faith. I also think the value placed on the authority of special revelation beyond and above naive appeals to human experience or anthropology by evangelicals is incredibly important within a culture that overvalues personal fulfillment and the freedom of the individual. The overwhelming failure of liberal protestantism is a testimony to what happens when the church prioritises human experience over revelation. Ironically, in becoming more involved in a mainline denomination and also having some interest in what a renewed and mission centered ecumenical movement might looks like, I have realised the immense value of evangelicalism. At its best, it stresses things which the church has historically always need to hear for its own benefit and effectiveness: the importance of radically gracious and saving power of God, the necessity of personal faith and repentance, the importance of evangelistic witness and the public truth of the Gospel, along with a spirituality centred around biblical formation.

    At its best, I would agree with someone like Michael Horton, a staunchly denominational reformed theologian, in suggesting that evangelicalism has been at its best when it has functioned as a renewal movement and kind of “village green” space for discussion across traditions and missional endeavour. Where I think it has become problematic is in the way it has become something that exists in and for itself, enmeshed in its own parochial parachurch structures and peculiar debates, shallow in its theology, lacking in its appreciation for the church catholic and ignorant of wider church tradition and history and obsessed with its own questions of identity. Evangelicalism has functioned far better when it is something that helps enliven existing traditions and connect people across denominational lines . It strikes me that it has historically been valuable when it has been marginal or under criticism, rather than culturally dominant within the church e.g the work of the first reformers within the Church of England, the evangelical revivals in Britain and the US during the 18th century, the work of its social reformers like the Clapham Sect and Abolitionists in the American North, its history of establishing protestant missions, its ongoing transnational presence etc. Basically, I don’t think it can exist on its own – it needs to be something that leavens the lump rather than trying to turn itself into some kind of supra church tradition. This is where I think mainline evangelicals have probably done better than independents.

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    1. Thanks for your comments lots to think about there, yes interesting how populist success can change movements.

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