Why “evangelical” is a label I won’t surrender

Why “evangelical” is a label I won’t surrender September 6, 2011

Several commenters here have asked why I hold on to the label “evangelical.”  Why not just give it up in light of its contemporary connotations in American society?  (It has become virtually synonymous with fundamentalism or neo-fundamentalism and the so-called Religious Right.)  Well, let me explain again.

The Merriam-Webster on line dictionary defines “evangelical” several ways.  Here are the first three definitions:

1) Of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.

2) Protestant.

3) Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.

Certainly I claim to fit all three of those definitions.  (The fourth definition has to do with the European Protestant churches where “evangelical” simply means Lutheran or Reformed.)

As to the fact that “evangelical” has come to be used by the movers and shakers American society otherwise, well, so has “Christian.”  In many places and from many mouths and pens “Christian” is synonymous with ultra-conservative, mean-spirited people who happen to believe in Jesus Christ.  I’m not going to give up “Christian” just because many people in the media and the academy misuse it for their own ideological purposes (or just out of ignorance).  The same could be said of the label “Baptist.”  There are parts of North America where “Baptist” conjures up images of extremely legalistic, narrow-minded, even uneducated riff-raff to be resisted.  Should I therefore give up calling myself “Baptist” and defending its good name?

I have always been evangelical; I’m not going to let fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists own it.  I consider them evangelicals, too, but they don’t consider me one and that irritates me (to say the least) BECAUSE they have much influence within today’s evangelical subculture.

In the Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism book one author says my theology is a betrayal of the gospel.  Another one says I am “postevangelical.”  I don’t question their evangelical faith; it is they who question mine.  I strongly disagree with their approaches to it, but I consistently employ a “big tent” model of evangelicalism which they have narrowed down to a very small tent or (better) fortress.

Some of these people are claiming to speak for all evangelicals.  Why simply give up and allow them to do that?

The evangelical subculture in America includes many well-intentioned administrators of evangelical organizations who do not have the time to figure out who is and who isn’t evangelical, so they rely (too much) on influential spokespersons.  If I (and evangelicals like me) simply give up the label and allow neo-fundamentalists to control it, what are the practical results?  Many evangelical organizations will soon be dominated by neo-fundamentalists.

Also, supposed I give up being “evangelical.”  What would I then say to someone who asks about my theological and spiritual orientation?  Anyone who says “just say ‘Christian'” cannot be fully aware of how diverse Christianity is.  Just saying you’re a Christian reveals almost nothing.  Mormons claim to be Christians.  The obvious response I would get is “What kind of Christian?”  So why not just say “Baptist?”  Again, that’s almost a meaningless term when it comes to describing a theological or spiritual orientation.  There are so many kinds of Baptists including very liberal Baptists.  (I realize many people in the South don’t know that, but they should travel more!)  So why not just “Protestant?”  Same problem–far too broad and inclusive to be helpful.  I still find “evangelical” fits me well, but I admit I have to qualify it these days.  For me, “postconservative” works.  I’m NOT “postevangelical.”  I’m as evangelical as I ever was–by the dictionary definition and by historical meanings of the word (before neo-fundamentalists made a concerted effort to redefine it to mean only them!).  I believe in the authority of scripture (inspired and infallible), the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith alone, the miracles of Jesus and his virgin birth and resurrection, the return of Jesus Christ and an earthly millennium before the new heaven and new earth.  What more do people want?  Oh, silly me, they want: Calvinist soteriology, biblical inerrancy (whatever that means), young earth creationism, classical theism (divine simplicity, absolute immutability, impassibility, etc.), etc., etc.  SOME of them want me to join them in loudly opposing every shred of theological creativity and in narrowing the evangelical “tent” down to them and their Amen Charlies.  And, of course, many of them want me (and others like me) to join them in their crusade to “take back America for God” (meaning–criminalize all behavior they consider sinful and establish conservative Protestant Christianity as the common law of the land).

These are not evangelical hallmarks; historically they just aren’t.  The post-WW2 evangelical movement (to say nothing of the evangelical movement before WW2) was diverse on these issues and I want it to stay that way.

Also, my experience has been that SOME (many?) of the leading spokesmen (none of these happen to be women) for neo-fundamentalism use underhanded, dishonest, mean-spirited methods to win for their cause (e.g., in taking over denominations and organizations).  They specialize in fear-mongering among the laity and pastors.  (For example, calling open theists “Socinians” and/or “process theologians,” inventing quotations and attributing them to evangelicals they don’t like, taking things completely out of context and blowing them out of proportion to convince worried lay people and pastors that heresy is lurking in the hallways, classrooms and offices of evangelical institutions of higher education.  Even well-meaning, broadly evangelical administrators find themselves giving in to the pressures these tactics create.

So, no, I won’t hand the good label “evangelical” over to neo-fundamentalists without a fight.  In fact, I never will no matter what.  But I do find it necessary to qualify it with adjectives like postconservative, progressive or moderate.

I hope this explains why I am not willing to stop identifying myself as evangelical even if I must distance myself from the neo-fundamentalists who are coming increasingly to dominate the evangelical movement.

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