Over the last few months, there’s been a flurry of folks stating they are no longer Evangelicals, leaving behind that label for supposedly better appellative pastures.
Almost all that I’ve heard doing this are responding to the recent election in which a very high percentage of Evangelicals aligned with Trump.
That sentence is fraught with commentary potential, so much so that the very point of my post has already been sidetracked three and a half times. Erased sentences, one passionate rant now entirely subdued, and a google search history notwithstanding, I’m going to press on to my purpose.
Hi, I’m Patrick and I’m an Evangelical.
No, I’m not going to add any “yes, buts” or “howevers” and there will be nary a “post-” prefix to be found. I’m owning the label, come what may.
Why so bold? That’s who I am. I’m an Evangelical, and there’s just no getting around the fact without having to deny some significant aspects of my reality that I have no inclination to deny.
And if the label fits…
Before I get to why it fits so perfectly, I will add that I refuse to let others define the label for me, especially those whose motives are not in keeping with either the definition or the history of Evangelicals.
There are those who claim the label Evangelical that are nothing of the sort, and there are those who want to recast the label so as to undermine its history and contributions. I refuse to be cowed by either species and so enter the lists in defense of the title and myself.
I’m an Evangelical.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Confession.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation.
All of these are important and together they lead me to an inescapable conclusion.
1. I’m an Evangelical because of confession.
A while back, historian David Bebbington defined Evangelicalism according to four elements: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.
- Conversionism is the belief that people need to be converted. There’s a way of life and a way of death, and people aren’t naturally trending the right direction. This implies the fact that some people are on the wrong path and some are on the right path. Most people have opinions about other people’s paths, so it’s not really as controversial as some make it out to be.
- Biblicism is the belief that the Bible is the revelation of God’s work and being, a testimony of the way reality is and who is in charge of it all.
- Crucicentrism is the belief that we need Jesus to be saved. I was going to write something longer and complicated, but that’s really the essence without the theological frippery I tend to add. More to the point, the death of Jesus on the cross is a key moment in our restoration as people and our restoration in relationship with God.
- Activism means that the life of Christ is expressed in our actions, which historically has involved both personal transformation and social action.
That is the ‘bigger’ meaning of Evangelical. I can say that I believe what John Wesley believed or Jonathan Edwards believed.
More specifically, I confess my alignment with the Evangelical movement in the United States that formed in 1947. I affirm the intellectual and social engagement, which insists that Christians are participants in and with this world, not separatists only interested in escaping this world and chastising everything about it in the meantime.
Why link to those statements. Because not only do I agree with them, I have at several points signed my name in affirmation of these statements.
Whatever else Evangelical has come to mean in terms of politics is not inconsequential but it’s not definitional.
I believe the core statements about Evangelicalism and have oriented my life and committed my life in ways that reflect this in word and action. I’m an Evangelical because that label sums up my confession of faith and practice.
2. I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition
Confession and tradition are tied tightly together. Especially a tradition that’s oriented around confession, such as Evangelicalism. This is true for me both in my personal history, my family tradition, and in the ecclesial tradition I’m joined with.
For me personally, I was baptized at age 5 in a Wesleyan Church in San Dimas, CA. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior on Easter Sunday 1979. I remember the service, I remember the prayer. I had a picture Bible I read over and over and over again until the pages fell out. That means the stories of the Bible shaped my sense of self and this world from an early age.
I grew up attending Evangelical churches, participating in Sunday schools, camps, variety of evening services and assorted events. My participation drifted into different denominations, from Wesleyan, to Baptist, to Assemblies of God, to non-denom Charismatic, to Brethren, to Foursquare, to Conservative Baptist with a missional twist, to non-denominational, to Nazarene, and now back to Wesleyan. Not once did I change my core beliefs. The denominations changed, the tradition stayed (mostly) the same.
I went to Wheaton College, and joined in with their (then) 130+ year tradition, which has always been aligned with an activist approach to Biblical Christianity.
After taking a year or so away from Wheaton, I attended Fuller Seminary. Fuller isn’t just part of the Evangelical tradition. It was established as the flagship seminary of Neo-Evangelicalism, that form of Evangelicalism that is what we’re talking about when we talk about Evangelicalism in the US today. It literally defined what Evangelicalism is, what its goals are and what its priorities should be. Not without struggle or controversy of course, but addressing all this is part of the tradition. It’s a renewing movement through and through.
I have a BA from Wheaton, an MDiv from Fuller, and a PhD from Fuller.
I’m a fully credentialed Evangelical. An Evangelical of Evangelicals?
Not only did I go to these schools and take part in these churches, I come from a long line of Evangelicals, both formally and confessionally so. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so won’t spend more time on that.
I affirm this tradition. I’m proud of my family and my institutions, the roles they’ve all played in issues large and small. When I think of Evangelicalism, those are the stories and the faces I think about.
Someone wants to tell me Evangelicalism is something different? They have to show they have more right to speak about the movement than I do. Very few can do that. I don’t just have letters after my name, I have the blood in my veins.
I don’t have another ecclesial tradition. My family are pioneers moving here and there over the centuries, changing location, changing profession, changing denomination. If I dropped that label, what would I use? Nothing else fits.
It’s not just about family and institution. There are those around the country and around the world and around my neighborhood who share the same set of beliefs. I interact with these people all the time, and even though we have very different stories and backgrounds, there’s a common bond, a shared confession, a unity of faith that unites us in with the communion of saints from throughout history.
That’s why Fuller Seminary has provided some of the most diverse experiences I’ve had, people from all around the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, coming to study a shared faith with shared motivations.
I am an Evangelical because that’s my tradition.
3. I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation
So, that’s all well and good, Patrick. History and beliefs are understandable. But that label? It has become distorted, abused. Don’t I know the reputation of Evangelicals in our society? Do I want to align myself with those sorts of people who do those sorts of things that have nothing to do with the good stuff I’ve mentioned so far?
Most of the rejections of Evangelicalism I’ve heard recently aren’t about rejecting the tenets of the Christian faith, in fact, they are attempts to sharpen the discussion and return it to focus. So, I get it. I just can’t do it, won’t let go the label.
Two reasons. The first involves how stories are told. We sometimes think that stories are neutral, that we’re just telling the facts. That’s never the case. We pick and choose which facts to share, using language in ways that steer the impression and reception.
There’s different ways of telling the story of Evangelicalism. If someone is telling this story so as to emphasize the deficiencies and distortions, to define it in terms of a narrow category, they have an agenda. Same goes for someone who idealizes the history.
I don’t need either version to tell me who I am. I’m not obligated to Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham or Rick Warren or John Piper or… whoever else is the media darling/villain of the moment to define Evangelicalism for me. Being famouspastorform is not one of the core definitions of Evangelicalism. I’m obligated to Christ and in turn I am obligated to live out my faith in a transformative way.
I know the story of Evangelicalism both in its local American version and its broader history. I know the good that is done even now in and by churches all over the country. I have my critiques, oh I have my critiques, but I have even more affirmations about the giving, the sharing, the love, the generosity, the hope that such communities provide.
As someone who is an Evangelical in confession and tradition, I can’t be passive but indeed I need to express the fullness of Evangelicalism for what it is, in my actions, my beliefs, the ways I respond to others, my participation in society, my priorities. I have an obligation to set the story straight.
The second reason I won’t let go the label is connected with another obligation. I’m a teacher. That’s a calling and is currently my vocation. I teach and preach sometimes at church. I also teach at Fuller Seminary. My job is to teach pastors and Christian leaders about the history and doctrines and practices of our faith. I teach teachers and I shepherd pastors. So, when I cringe at distortions or opinions or priorities in Evangelicalism, I’m not allowed to just drift mumbling into the night. My obligation, my calling, is to teach and train, and lead so as to bring the most out of my students and my movement.
When I see politics become a messianic orientation, when I see people respond in hate or panic, I realize the importance of my job. The purpose of Fuller is “equipping leaders with minds for careful scholarship and hearts for the unchanging, saving gospel of Jesus Christ.” Those leaders then go on to lead in a wide diversity of settings.
If I’m frustrated by Evangelical reputation or behavior, I’m not going to jump ship. I’m in a place to invest in transformation.
This obligation involves a critique and an exhortation, to address where we may be offtrack and to encourage renewed faithful priorities.
I am an Evangelical because I am obligated to address distortion and I am obligated to teach those who want to live out this confession in full.
All these three come together.
I’m an Evangelical because of confession, tradition, and obligation.
They tie together who I am and what I am called to do. Drop the label? For what?
Of course I am still an Evangelical.
Lord, where else will I go?