The scandal of being evangelical

What does it mean to be evangelical? It’s something of problematic question exacerbated both by media inaccuracies (such as using evangelical as a synonym with fundamentalist) and shifts in the meaning of the word in popular culture. As a minister who still uses the word to self-identify, let me try to spell out briefly what I mean when I say that I am evangelical and reformed in the tradition the late John Stott:

  • The necessity of a person relationship with God in Christ. For me this is not the same as decisionism — that you need to be able to point to a moment in time in which you made a decision to follow Jesus. Instead, it is more significant to me that in this moment in time you are able to say that Jesus is Lord, meaning that in an ultimate sense Jesus occupies the center of authority as the one who is guiding and shaping your life. And while this relationship is personal that doesn’t mean that it is individual. We are in relationship with God in Christ together with all the company of Christians elected by God’s great love.
  • The primacy of the Holy Scriptures to shape both the content of our faith and the texture of our life together. Here, it seems to be, the evangelical movement has continued to affirm a central tenet of the Reformation where other parts of the church have moved into murkier water. Evangelicals, or at least this evangelical, affirms both that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate and that the Bible is the Word of God written, the only infallible rule of faith and practice (Westminster Confession of Faith). What does this mean practically? Simply that Bible has veto power over any belief or practice that we may hold dear. Of course, getting to what the Bible teaches isn’t always a simple matter, but neither is the Scripture so obtuse as to be indecipherable. Rather, the Bible is the living Word of God to the Church and is given to us as a set of lenses (John Calvin) through which to see both God, the world, and ourselves rightly. It is impossible to set any person of the Holy Trinity against the Scriptures with any integrity. 
  • A respect for the Great Tradition as expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Church. Here, as an evangelical, I would affirm that I believe the Creeds in their plain or ordinary meaning. This in distinction to a former United Church of Christ colleague who affirmed that Jesus was raised from the dead (metaphorically). While many (perhaps the majority) of North American evangelicals wouldn’t cite this as primary to their theological identity, I think it is critically important. Evangelicalism is a movement within the church rather than a new church. Consequently we are tied to the Great Tradition as a living tradition and don’t get to simply create a new identity but interpret the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

I realize that there are all sorts of other meanings and definitions and baggage added to the word “evangelical” that makes being one something of a scandal, especially amongst those who think of themselves as somehow enlightened and beyond the sort of silliness that produces these sorts of convictions.

Let’s just be clear about a couple of things. I am evangelical and yet here are some things I care deeply about:
  • Caring for the creation – I believe we have a God-given stewardship responsibility that flows out of Scripture (Genesis) to care for the earth.
  • Equitable distribution of wealth – a system that speeds the exponential growth in wealth of a tiny fraction of the world and, at the same time, the poverty of the rest is no just system.
  • Education for the common good – education is formation for living a life marked by intellectual curiosity and the learning of a profession that will serve the common good. It isn’t simply learning to beget earning.
  • Respecting and protecting all life – there is intrinsic value to all life whether that life is presently in utero, or living with a disability, or in a prison cell. It should be protected and cared for with respect. The murderer is no less human than the embryo.
  • Living peaceably with all – while the Scripture teaches that my most essential level of brotherhood is with the household of faith, there is a shared brotherhood of the human family. I wish to grow in knowledge and respect for those who are different from me in any number of ways.

This post isn’t all-encompassing, but it does capture at least some of the thoughts about being evangelical that are swirling around my mind.

Here’s the thing. I believe that evangelicalism, as a reform movement, is healthiest when it is in living conversation with a broader community perhaps even a community that is (at least to some degree) hostile to it. So while being part of a university or denominational community that often caricatures or misunderstands evangelicalism can be frustrating, painful, or even hilarious, it’s important for me to remain present and engaged in the places and with the people God has called me to trusting that there is some purpose greater than what I apprehend.

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