Six ways I will never stop being evangelical

Six ways I will never stop being evangelical April 26, 2015
"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

The Christian blogosphere seems to viralize two things: 1) numbered lists (five reasons why this, six bad habits of that, seven epic fail church signs, etc) and 2) anything involving the keyword “evangelical” (especially if it involves wringing your hands over what to call yourself now like a post-post-evangelical Christic shaman). Sarcastic metanarrative preface aside, I realize at times that I’m a fish out of water as a progressive evangelical in liberal mainline church culture. Mainliners don’t always get me the way that evangelicals do. My evangelical zeal can be off-putting and scary. So even though all the cool kids are leaving evangelicalism these days, here are six ways I will never stop being evangelical.

1) My life is built around the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ

I cannot imagine defining Christian discipleship as solely following the teachings of Jesus, because his cross and resurrection are with me every day. Like the apostle Paul, my hope is to be “crucified together with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Also like Paul, Jesus’ cross and resurrection primarily function as metaphors within my spiritual journey. Or to put it differently, while I definitely believe in the historical events of the cross and resurrection, their power in my life is in their eternal ongoing mystical reality. Jesus never stops being crucified and resurrected. Every day, I put all my sins, spiritual burdens, idols, fears, etc on the cross of Jesus. Every day, I ask him to resurrect me, to radically transform my existence no less than if I were put in a brand-new body and mind. I’m not ashamed of the cross. I don’t feel like we need to update our metaphors to accommodate 21st century sensibilities. It is totally weird that I eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood every time I take communion. But that weirdness is part of what heals me from the synthetic, unreal universe in which I live.

2) I believe that God breathes through every word of the Bible

2 Timothy 3:16 says that “All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” I take that verse exactly at its word. Scripture does not have to be historical or scientific , but all of it is God-breathed and useful. I do not throw away any of it, including passages that make God look hideous and make Christians think that misogyny and homophobia are divinely ordained. God can give us a word for our discipleship even through ugly scripture passages. The problem with the way some of my fellow evangelicals read the Bible is that they’re reading it for ideology rather than discipleship. In the disembodied existence of the information age, our identity has become what we believe about the controversial topics of our day rather than how we treat people in our daily lives. Satan will exploit scripture if we’re reading it to find position statements that make us feel superior to other people. God will breathe his word into us if we reading the Bible to learn how to love God and love our neighbors.

3) I believe that we are justified by faith in Christ and not by works

The doctrinal cornerstone of evangelical theology is supposed to be justification by faith, namely that we are not made right with God through any deed of ours but through the gift of faith that God unilaterally provides us. Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the best summary of this doctrine: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The implication of this doctrine is tremendous. What we are saved from is trying to justify ourselves before God. If “faith” is “not our own doing,” then “faith” can’t in any sense be an effort that God is evaluating to decide whether we pass or fail. We are saved when we actually trust that God loves and forgives us unconditionally and there is no test for us to pass. That’s the foundation for holy, compassionate living, not a constant anxiety over whether we’ve adequately proved our “faith” to God or not. When Christians are obnoxious and self-righteous, it’s because they haven’t actually trusted in God’s unilateral forgiveness yet, even if they’ve memorized all the scripture concerning it. They haven’t been saved from trying to justify themselves through a “faith” that’s really a work.

4) I believe that everyone is a sinner who needs a lot of grace

Some mainline Christians seem to feel icky about calling people sinners. But when you don’t start from that basic assumption, it’s a lot harder to create a community where forgiveness happens. It’s a lot easier just to end relationships with people when they offend you or lash out at you. Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to actually live out. It’s especially hard to admit that you’re wrong and ask for forgiveness from others. That’s why it’s very powerful to be in a community where we expect everyone to be a sinner and have a means of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness. The problem happens when your church community spends all of its zeal talking about the sins of people outside the church walls. A good sermon should convict the listener of his/her own sin while also offering the good news of God’s grace. Sermons that make their listeners feel self-righteous about condemning other peoples’ sins may pack out a megachurch stadium but they’re still bad sermons.

5) I believe that the world is not okay as it is

When the New Testament talks about “the world,” it tends to speak of it in a negative light. Romans 12:2 says not to be “conformed to the pattern of this world.” James 4:4 says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” It’s critically important how Christians interpret what “the world” means. Some Christians interpret “the world” to mean everybody outside their churches, so they build gated communities with fellow believers and avoid contact with people on the outside. Because Ephesians 6:12 says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities,” I believe that “the world” refers to the global socioeconomic order as it currently exists rather than the people who are being oppressed in varying ways by it. “Friendship with the world” means obliviously enjoying the privilege I have been granted by our unjust socioeconomic order rather than fighting for a more just world. Some Christians who think that they’re standing against the world because they shield their children from R-rated movies and cuss words are actually in a state of “friendship with the world” because of their unconcern with changing the social order that privileges them. The “kingdom of God” is a phrase the New Testament uses to talk about the just and compassionate order that God wants to bring to the world. When Jesus says in Matthew 6:33 to “seek first the kingdom of God,” he makes it clear that we are called to give our lives to making the world just, not bide our time in privilege waiting to go to heaven after we die.

6) I believe in evangelism

When I was a freshman in college, I handed out tracts to complete strangers on the Lawn at the University of Virginia. I was convinced that if they read my brilliant arguments, then they would immediately become Christians on the spot. My understanding of evangelism has changed a whole lot since then, but I still believe in it. I understand evangelism to mean simply sharing the good news of God’s love. It can be done without words, but using words isn’t bad. The biggest difference between now and when I was a college freshman is that I enter into every conversation with another person expecting that God will evangelize me through them at least as much as God evangelizes them through me. God is the one who evangelizes, not me. The goal of evangelism is not to manipulate somebody else into converting over to my way of believing things. It’s to be inspired by each others’ stories and rejoice at God’s goodness together which will always look different depending on the unique spiritual journeys of the people talking. When I share the exciting, beautiful things that God has done in my life, I trust God to use my words for whatever purpose God has. There are no insiders and outsiders when it comes to evangelism, because it’s not about recruiting; it’s about mutual inspiration. God has used both Christians and non-Christians alike to evangelize me to a deeper level of communion and love with God.

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  • Rust Cohle

    A fundamentalist in progressive drag.

  • Erik Merksamer

    I can really appreciate this Morgan. I especially love how you explained the “world”. Good stuff!

  • Michael Brian Woywood

    This speaks to me. God is redeeming the evangelical church, just as He is redeeming everything else. One of my greatest concerns about Post-Modern Christianity is that it so often has a weak theological center, that there is no room for a confrontational, radical Christ.

    I have a hard time with #2, because while I believe that the Bible contains truth in every one of its 66 books, I am not sure that we can find truth in those blatantly cultural passages that so often get used in Bible-thumping arguments. There is a passage in Exodus, right after Moses’ experience with the burning bush, in which God tries to kill Moses. Zipporah saves him by doing a field circumcision on their son and rubbing the foreskin on Moses’ feet. I accidentally stumbled across that story while doing a poorly prepared Bible study for my youth group… and I had to confess that not every part of the Bible can be considered useful, that some things are far too cultural for us to gain any wisdom from.

    Other than that one, I am totally with you.

    • Rust Cohle

      An imaginary friend has been “redeeming” evangelical salvation cultists from imaginary underworld realms since the days of Homer (800-1200 BCE,) as this passage from Plato’s Republic shows:

      […] they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.

      Plato (4th century BCE) The Republic. Book II.

      But I do agree with you that that story about Zipporah is the most ridiculous thing ever.

    • summers-lad

      Michael, I’m with you there. In our Bible study at the moment we are looking at Gideon, which is new to several of us, and although there is a strong lesson in how God taught Gideon not to rely on military strength, I wonder how we will take it when we get to the more violent part at the end of the story. And there are other parts of Judges – the story of Samson for example – which I just can’t see as being an account of God’s action or a fulfilment of 2 Tim 3:16 at all. Help me please!
      Morgan – could you do a post on how you handle the passages that make God look hideous?

  • summers-lad

    Thank you Morgan for another deeply thoughtful and encouraging post. I have been helped and had my outlook broadened by your blog and various others, but one thing I’m uneasy about is the divide that often appears between “progressives” and “evangelicals”, which you allude to in your introduction. I think when you are truly following Christ, the label doesn’t matter, and if there was less division we might learn better from each other. I wonder if the divisions in the Corinthian church in the first century (“I follow Paul / I follow Apollos / I’m better than you because I follow Christ” – that’s how I read the last bit) were about personality, or doctrine, or practice – but again it doesn’t matter because we are called to unity. So as a non-denominational ex-Baptist with Quaker influence in an informal house church, I need pieces like this post to remind me that where I have been and where I am going belong together.
    I love your bit about evangelising each other. It reminds me of something you wrote a while back about sharing the gospel being less like sharing a cake and more like sharing a sunset. I need to practice that more.

  • Carlton Kelley

    And being fully evangelical is being fully catholic and vice versa.