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:
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?
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?
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?
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.