How long will it be before I can say I’m an evangelical without adding some qualifying phrase? The word “evangelical” now has varied meanings in different crowds. Previous generations joked that an evangelical was anyone who liked Billy Graham. By that definition, Paul was certainly no evangelical.
So, if I assert “Paul was an evangelical, then he got saved,” I’d better explain myself. And, no, the title is not entirely clickbait. Let’s start by explaining our terms.
What is an “evangelical”?
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
For short, I’ll call this “theological evangelicalism.”
Nowadays, the term “evangelical” carries a much wider range of connotations. For some, it simply means “white Protestant.” Jonathan Merritt summarizes the situation,
Because they span a range of denominations, churches, and organizations, there is no single membership statement to delineate identity. As a result, individual observers are left to decide how to define what makes someone or something evangelical. To the pollster, it is a sociological term. To the pastor, it is a denominational or doctrinal term. And to the politician, it is a synonym for a white Christian Republican.
This post will largely refer to evangelical subculture, which is a fusion of the various descriptions above. From this perspective, “evangelical” is an amalgamation of theology and sociology. To speak of evangelicals, then, merely speaks to a nebulous composite figure who may or may not have authentic faith, who might or might not be an active church member, and who reads her Bible or does not.
In reality, evangelical churches consist of every such type of person.
Paul began as an “evangelical.”
Tim Gombis’ Power in Weakness is a provocative little book that will doubtlessly cause readers to reexamine their own evangelical backgrounds.
Contemporary readers are prone to equate “Pharisee” with “religious non-Christian.” Whatever a Pharisee is, “Christian” is the contrast. Paul did not think that way. Gombis reminds us, “Paul remained a Pharisee after his conversion” (15). Paul even states, “I am a Pharisee. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6).
He speaks about more than mere doctrine. As Gombis summarizes,
Resurrection, to the Pharisees, indicated this larger, national scenario of economic, political, and religious restoration of God’s promises to the patriarchs and to Israel through the prophets. (16)
Paul’s zeal for God far exceeded that of his peers (Gal 1:14). Gombis writes, “He longed to see God’s word enacted in God’s people. In his mind his motivations were pure!” (20). Formally, Paul belonged to the “evangelical” tribe of his day.
In a similar fashion, Paul adopted some of the same traits we find in evangelical subcultural today. It was when I read the following quotes that I immediately thought about several prominent camps and organizations within evangelicalism.
I’ll highlight two observations that jump out to me in particular. First, Gombis says of Paul,
What he thought was zeal for God turned out to be passion for tradition, for his own ideological tribe. Paul’s experience reveals the possibility of mistaking loyalty to human traditions or commitment to group identity for allegiance to the one true God. (25)
Paul was convinced that because he was loyal to his inherited framework of thought and set of practices that he was clearly please the God of Israel…. We may mistake our membership in a denomination or commitment to a theological tradition for loyalty to Christ. (26)
When not to imitate Paul
Second, consider the behavior such confusion elicits in Paul and today’s evangelicals. Gombis states,
In addition, because group cohesion is fostered by criticism of others, when group members speak constructively or sympathetically of rival groups, they are viewed with suspicion. Perhaps such people lack faithfulness! (26)
He is even more direct when he adds,
One way this group loyalty shows up us in identification with a well-known figure, a celebrity pastor…. A destructive tribalism is developing when we find ourselves minimizing others, criticizing them regularly or even attacking them our of loyalty to one person, organization, school of thought or theological tradition. We should be alert to the temptation to construct a ministry identity according to any individual or ministry organization. (27)
In this environment, what results? So much effort is poured out “toward image maintenance” (27).
Check out a recent Twitter posting of an email (below) explaining what happened when an application was interviewed to be accepted by Bethlehem College and Seminary.
FYI, if you apply to Bethlehem Seminary, be ready in the interview to answer questions about:
Answer wrongly, and you will be declined and steered toward another school pic.twitter.com/4cw5QPNFQp
— Daniel Kleven (@danieleleven32) December 31, 2021
I won’t dissect this email in detail. That would take too long. Apparently, agreeing with the school’s faith statement isn’t enough. Applicants must also agree on personalities, book, and subcultural debates.
Similarly, I myself was dismissed last year from The Gospel Coalition’s journal Themelios because I criticizes the founders’ theological methodology (not their conclusions) concerning the topic of women in the church.
I highlight these things for a few reasons.
1. We all need to be aware of how we are just like Paul prior to his knowing Christ. Don’t villainize Paul so much that his testimony ceases to be a tool of correction for us.
2. Gombis’ analysis helpfully demonstrates ways that we absorb the worst parts of evangelical subculture yet excuse it because we claim to have evangelical theology.
3. I urge people to check out Gombis’ book if you want to consider seriously a different approach to following Christ and leading his people. One of his key ideas is that we need to have converted ministries, not simply converted hearts, minds, politics, and private lives.
Gombis will help readers to “reflect on how you can inhabit [your] weaknesses and make them the markers of your identity” (99). In so doing, evangelicals can embrace “cruciformity” in the pattern of Christ.
 For example, when I belonged to the IMB, I often told people that I was “Southern Baptist” by theology, not culture. That will make sense to most people who’ve spent much time around the American South.