When Do You Stop Calling Someone an Evangelical?

When Do You Stop Calling Someone an Evangelical? October 1, 2012

Terry Mattingly raises an interesting question at the excellent GetReligion blog: When do we stop calling someone evangelical?  And who decides?

The occasion for the question is Brian McLaren’s action, shortly after his son’s same-sex wedding ceremony (officiated by a Universal Life minister), to conduct “a commitment ceremony with traditional Christian elements for family and friends.”  Terry does not draw a line in the sand, and — before everyone attacks him — he does not do so over the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage.  I think it’s fairer to say that the story reminded Terry of the fact that McLaren has drifted further and further away from distinctively evangelical theological commitments.  Now, given that this was McLaren’s son, I don’t want to touch that particular case with a ten-foot pole.  If my daughter were determined to marry a person of the same sex and she wanted me, in spite of my objections, to offer a private service with some religious elements…boy, it would be tough to say no.

So let’s put the McLaren example aside.

Some suggest that self-identification is the only definition available to evangelicals, in the absence of a Pope or a teaching magisterium.  If a person calls himself an evangelical, who are you to say otherwise?  Well, I don’t think that’s true.  My Pagan friend Star Foster — not that she would want to, of course — could not simply decide to call herself evangelical and we would all have to throw up our hands and say, “Well, nothing for it, I guess.  If she says she’s an evangelical, she’s an evangelical.  Wish we had a Pope!”  That would be ludicrous.

There have been various attempts to provide a clearer definition of evangelicalism, from the famous Bebbington Quadrilateral to pseudo-creeds like the Lausanne Covenant.  I just want to make three points:

  1. There’s nothing inherently oppressive or intolerant or authoritarian in seeking to identify who is an evangelical and who is not.  The Jews, for instance, have clear terms of definition.  If they did not, they would not have survived as a people for so many centuries.  Similarly, any group that wishes to maintain some semblance of coherence over time will need, so to speak, to patrol its borders.  That means examining boundary cases, cases that challenge you to formulate a more precise definition.  If the purpose of my existence were to spew gasoline into America’s streams and bays, I could not stand up and call myself an environmentalist and expect no one to contradict me.
  2. This is a particularly acute question for evangelical seminaries.  This nation has seen countless Christian institutions of higher learning that have, over time, lost their Christian character.  Evangelicals have shown a lamentable eagerness to discover the latent heresies in Christian college and seminary faculty, to make mountains out of molehills and drive people from their jobs for minor theological transgressions.  But I cannot fault the general desire to cultivate a faculty that reflects the fundamental convictions of the institution.  It should be done with sensitivity, slowly, through hiring and not firing (in my view), except in extreme cases.  Countless Christian colleges and seminaries today are trying to find a way to be broad-minded and yet well-defined, to cultivate a Christian character without patrolling a rigid orthodoxy.  It’s not a simple matter.  On the one hand, some institutions and individuals (Mike Licona is one victim of such) can become over-zealous, backwards and so closed-minded that their institutions can no longer be places of true inquiry.  On the other hand, angry faculty do not help matters when they overreact to administrators who dare to ask theological questions and seek to maintain some sense of theological integrity in their community.
  3. I am particularly leery of definitions of “evangelical” that focus on political or social positions.  While it’s true that evangelicals are generally inclined, for instance, to oppose abortion and support the traditional marriage covenant, there are interpretations and extensions of their fundamental commitments and not fundamental commitments themselves.  I’ve heard it before: “I don’t know how someone can be an evangelical and pro-choice.”  Well, you’re going to have to trust me here: it can be done.  Bebbington shows the way by focusing on essential theological matters.
  4. Finally, saying that Person P is not an evangelical is not at all the same as saying that P is not Christian or does not have a saving relationship with God in Christ.  If I were to say that P is not an evangelical, that’s not intended as an insult or exclusion.  It’s not to say that P is wrong or unrighteous, an enemy or unwelcome.  It’s merely an observation of what evangelicalism means and an observation of whether or not P comports with that definition.  A community that does not define what is holds essential will not survive as a community for long.

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  • Definitions are notoriously difficult. We seem to know what a lot of things are without being able to define them. Are you assuming our definition will be in terms of doctrine and practice – that is something like if X does (or doesn’t do) Y or if X believes (or doesn’t believe Z) then X isn’t an Evangelical? How does that compare to what you refer to as the clear definition that the Jews have? I can see where definitions like this would be helpful to seminaries, but I wonder why we would need to make defining ‘evangelical’ the aim of those standards.

  • jehu limma

    Wonderful article! We need definitions, boundaries and commitments to be known as certain kind of people. Or else, we cannot draw a line and define. It is true with not Evangelical but also all groups. Thanks Timothy..

  • DougH

    An excellent article, but one that as a life-long Mormon I find just a bit ironic because the debate over whether Mormons are Christian takes the same questions and bounces them up a level, to the Christian label – just what makes one a Christian, and who gets to decide? As you say, going by self-labels doesn’t work, but telling someone that their personal faith is invalid seems awfully arrogant.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I hear you, Doug. I would make a distinction, though, between saying that a religious tradition is not the same as historic Christianity and saying that a person’s personal faith is invalid. Anyway, as you know, this is a long and very complicated question, and any short comment here is likely to be misunderstood, so I won’t get into it. But I understand what you’re saying, truly.

      • DougH

        Certainly I’ll agree that there’s a difference, and Mormons have definitely never claimed to be “mainstream” Christians, far from it. And though I think the issue of who is a Christian is somewhat simpler than you do, I agree that it comes down to the same two issues you raise in this column: just what makes one a Christian/evangelical, and who gets to make that call? It’s a lot easier for churches than for religions, especially churches with a strong hierarchy – you can see the same argument in Judaism over just who is a Jew.

    • Selah

      Doug , ” just what makes one a Christian ? “. I’m going to do a little fishing by asking you: ” Who do you say Jesus is ? “.

      • DougH

        That question just about sums it up. For me personally, if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World who died and rose on the third day, you’re a Christian. The rest is details – important and historically divisive details, but details nonetheless.

  • Migel

    I’m sorry to read your line, “If my daughter were determined to marry a person of the same sex and she wanted me, in spite of my objections, to offer a private service with some religious elements…boy, it would be tough to say no.” What kind of parent are you?” The “best friends” type against taking a stand for the eternal truth of the Gospel? This IS the problem with emerging evangelicalism. The frog is in the slowly boiling kettle and no one is jumping out.

    • Jeremy Forbing

      He is the kind of parent who loves his child. That is the kind of parent God made him to be. And in a society where children growing up without fathers is an increasing problem, I think having a father who might indulge my wishes out of love while disagreeing with me is a much better problem to have than the ones many other children deal with regarding their parents. Who are you to condemn anyone’s parenting choices, especially when it’s just a hypothetical point in a column? For the followers of a Savior who spent His time with unethical tax collectors and despised prostitutes, washing the feet of sinners, is shunning and shrilly castigating our gay children and brothers and sisters really what we are called to do?