Why I am an Evangelical (if that’s okay with you)

Labels are a double-edged sword. When applied to someone else, they are usually a weapon, to slay those with whom you disagree with the dagger of guilt-by-association. Other times they are a shield, protecting us from having to take seriously what those we disagree with are saying to us. That’s often how labels like liberal, right-wing nut job, or even pro-life/choice work, at least when we apply them to someone else.

But when we apply them to ourselves, they often give us identity, value, and a community. When I think of myself as a Byas, a insert-political-pary-here,  fan of hip-hop, or Christian, I think of that label as something that tells me who I am and that there are others like me.

And so, I proudly label myself as an evangelical, much to the chagrin of many evangelicals. Scholars have defined four distinctives of evangelicals:

  • An emphasis on transformative and personal relationship with Jesus Christ
  • A high regard for biblical authority
  • An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • An emphasis on actively expressing and sharing the good news of Jesus

The short-hand for this is that an evangelical emphasizes conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism as marks of the Christian life. I am in. But let me be clear. I do not hold them in the way I was taught to hold to them. And because of this, I am increasingly unwelcome in the evangelical world. I am often told I can’t use that term, as though I am tarnishing it. But here is why I am still an evangelical:

Conversionism

In my tradition, conversion was marked by a prayer that you said in church asking Jesus into your heart. I still emphasize conversion, I just find it in a process more than a moment. And all are welcome into the process. When are you “officially” in? I am not sure, but luckily, I am not the person doing the interviews, that’s God’s job.

And so I find it hurtful when I am accused of not being an evangelical because I don’t “believe in conversionism.” I do, it just looks different. Is that okay with you?

Biblicism

In my tradition, the only authoritative Bible was a perfect Bible. Taking the Bible seriously means to believe certain things about what it’s allowed to be, before you even read it. To even ask the question, “Why do all of these look like contradictions?” is to question its authority.

But for me, the Bible is authoritative to me because I am a Christian, not because it’s filled with accurate 21st century science. My questions about the Bible come from my profound love and respect, not because I question its authority. If this is the book that the Church uses to know how to be Jesus to this world we better be damn sure we know what’s in it and how we should approach it, even if our conclusions make us extremely uncomfortable. Otherwise, we pretend our ideologies about the Bible are the Bible itself, which is to undermine the very authority we are trying to uphold.

And so I find it so hurtful when I am accused of not “believing the Bible” when it is my profound belief in the Bible, wanting desperately to know what God is saying to the Church, that leads me to my conclusions. Is that okay with you?

Crucicentrism

There is no doubt that my theology begins and ends in the person and work of Jesus. This is the central and foundational event of the Christian faith, what creates unity in the midst of all of the differences, what joins us together as Christians, regardless of what sub-label we identify with.

And so I find it hurtful when I am accused of not being a Christian at all. I might have questions about why Jesus’ death and resurrection is significant, what exactly they mean for the church. But I never deny that it is significant, personally and corporately. I affirm the traditional creeds that have been affirmed by the church for a few thousand years. Is that okay with you?

Activism

In my past, this tenant referred to talking to people about Jesus and hoping that they said the “Sinner’s Prayer” (see above). But my activism has become more holistic than this. As an outpost of the Kingdom of God, my words are helpful but incredibly inadequate. The Church will do more miraculous things than Jesus himself (John 14:12) because the same Jesus works in us through the Spirit.

And so I find it hurtful when my lifestyle is considered Un-Christian and compromising. But I do not apologize that my activism is not centered on Republican politics and “getting back to a Christian nation,” fighting for minor doctrine, or handing out tracts about Jesus. My activism is centered on love, unity, peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And those start with my personal relationships and the people I walk by every single day that I do not even notice as real human beings. And that does still involve words. But more than that, it involves me participating in the very lifestyle of Jesus, one that associates with the supposed “shit” of society, one that invites his betrayer to his most intimate dinner party, and one that dies on behalf of those who hate him. Is that okay with you?

That’s what it means for me to be an Evangelical. Do other Christians practice these things? Almost all do. Absolutely. Are they just as Christian? Absolutely. So why are we so defensive about the label? How are those we label “non-evangelicals” any different than us? I think those questions go to reveal that many include much more than these basic 4 into their definition of evangelical, which they are free to do. But even though I am increasingly unwelcome, evangelicalism is my home.

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5 responses to “Why I am an Evangelical (if that’s okay with you)

  1. That is okay with me.

    Jared, I haven’t been reading your blog a long time, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Thanks for your thoughts here, and your posts on Jonah were really interesting.

    Thanks.

  2. Jared,

    “evangelical”: Trait or Cult?

    I agree that you are evangelical – but I question whether you are “an evangelical”.

    [Your post of yours differs so much in what I have seen you write before that I have to believe that you did not mean any harm – I hope you can make a correction]

    The criteria that you use above, including the four point criteria that you attribute to “scholars” applies to and describes all Christians and I admit I am offended that through differentiation you appear to somehow segregate the one wearing the evangelical lapel pins as unique in those characteristics….offended until I saw the late (and weak) mention that all Christians share the traits of evangelicals.

    I don’t know if you meant to, but you talked about the cult of evangelicals in exclusive language…. but followed by describing the trait in inclusive terms. Problem is the exclusive part creates a bit of slander and calumny aimed at other Christians.

    As a Catholic I feel I can speak for other Christians that your language excludes and I will do it in terms of the Catholic experience:

    [Where I say Catholics please take this to mean all other Christians…especially any from communities that you do not actually understand]

    1: Jared, do you mean to maintain that Catholics do not maintain an emphasis on the transformative role of Jesus with the Human race? What do you think it means when Catholics listen attentively to the word every Sunday and accept the very body of Jesus into their inner parts according to his command? Do you not think that Catholics look to transformation by Christ through baptism? In baptism and in the Eucharist Catholics expect and hope for a transformation that most ‘evangelicals’ deny even occurs. Do you think that Catholics are not transformed by Christ through the works of charity and good that they do?

    2. Do you want people to think that you are suggesting that Catholics do not have a high regard for biblical authority? Granted we may tend to understand scripture in ways that most evangelicals are not open to – but Jared so do you and frankly you know you are evolving in that way and you know you happen to be evolving in a direction that is more in tune with Catholic understanding than you are with “evangelical” understanding.

    3. Do you want to promote the idea that evangelicals have a greater emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ than Catholics? Go to a Mass any Sunday in any place in the world and listen before you make such a claim. We embrace the cross – we embrace Christ on the cross. On Good Friday most of us in some form show love for the cross – through physical embrace, or kissing, or profound show of respect. And Catholic women have no parallels in their demonstration of the virtues of long-suffering that flows directly from that Catholic love for the Cross that tends to be disdained by ‘evangelicals’

    4. Do you propose that Catholics do not share the good news through their expressions and their lives? Granted we do not proselytize…we do not use our witness to increase our membership – yet without proselytization we baptize on the order of 100,000 pagans every year – these are not other Christians being re-baptized – We do not re-baptize already baptized persons regardless of what Christian church they came from – these are pagans coming from other religions or from unbelief. All of catholic piety is meant to share the good news with the world and to give worthy praise to God. As a Franciscan I urge you to go the Holy lands and observe the effects that the Franciscan presence has had through the sharing of that Good News. Christ’s entire life was salvific and the hope of the Catholic is that our very live be the sharing of the Gospel. Saint Francis famously wrote: “share the Gospel at all times – and if necessary use words.” That quote may be the most universally known quotes of the Saints and it resonates in the Catholic heart.

    If you were writing “Why you are Evangelical” I would not have been bothered by this post. I think the “scholars” may have identified some of the characteristics that go with the adjective. But you wrote this as if you were claiming membership in a class or cult. I have tried for years to discern any identifying characteristic of ‘evangelicals’ that actually belong to the Church and I have failed to find anything truly common except for a universal lust for political power and relevance – and the power and relevance desired seems currently to be that was mostly lost in the 2008 presidential contest. As a rule evangelicals cannot even go as far as accepting the faith of other evangelicals as salvific if there are ideological, philosophical, Christological, Ecclesiological, or Theological disagreements.

    So Jared I do not think you are an evangelical (partly because there is no such thing) but I do believe that you are quite evangelical and what I like about people that are evangelical (adjective) is that they are Christian brothers and sisters, are glory to Christ, and are like a salve to the world.

    Peace,

    Garry Mott, OFS

    • I completely agree with everything you’ve said broadly. After writing this out I am not sure how “evangelical” means anything other than “Christian” according to those four “distinctives.”

      My underlying question in this entire post, then, is: why do we try to protect this term from being “tarnished”? What other things have crept into the definition that makes it distinctive? I would argue that often times the self-applied label “evangelical” does not include these 4 characteristics only, but a host of other issues are brought into the definition.

      So, my attempt was to do the opposite of offend, it was to show that the label is often too broad to adequately say anything distinct from “Christian” or too narrow and as such goes against the traditional definition of the term. It is only useful as a “word” of comfort, just as calling yourself “Catholic” also provides that comfort.

      It’s obvious that my intention did not translate into the post so thanks for calling me out on that. I often wrestle with nuancing, keeping it simple while also being subversive and upending. Forgive my clunkiness.

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