am I an evangelical Christian?
I was excited to hear one of my favorite bloggers speak the other day at the annual Gay Christian Network conference. There, in a Q & A session after her main talk, she spoke a bit about what it means to be considered an evangelical Christian. She confessed that she feels a bit conflicted about applying the term to herself because of all the unnecessary weight that word tends to carry.
To many, being evangelical means affirming a certain set of abstract theological tenets – generally regarding important but nuanced topics like “biblical inerrancy,” “dispensationalism,” or “penal substitutionary atonement.” Those who can in good conscience intellectually assent to these doctrines are regarded as card-carrying members of the tribe and those who cannot are consequently considered social outsiders.
To others, the term has become irredeemably politicized – holding an evangelical ethos necessarily entails publicly opposing homosexuality, unilaterally criminalizing abortion, spurning environmental protection practices, and denying basic scientific theory.
A Palestinian friend of mine once admitted to me that she doesn’t really understand but still deeply fears and distrusts American evangelical Christians because upon hearing the word evangelical, her mind floods with images of the militant nationalists who blindly support Israel’s glaring human rights abuses in her homeland.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty more dismaying caricatures of what this type of Christian is supposed to look like (some justified, some very much not), and I’m sure the blogger speaking to us had heard some of these fears and descriptions spoken aloud as well.
She remarked to us, however, that if the label evangelical is understood literally, it would apply to her 100%. If we’re talking about evangelical the way the word really ought to be used, then she said to count her a fully-fledged evangelical Christian.
I thought that was a really cool point.
You may already know a bit about the history of this well-worn adjective: that the word gospel (meaning “the good news”) originates from the Greek eu-angélion, from which we get the English word evangelism. Euangélion is itself a fascinating biblical term emerging from the Roman political and military tradition, literally meaning “to announce and bring news of good.”
What this meant in the context of 1st century Rome is that when a great battle or conquest was won (or when a new Caesar usurped the royal throne) the Roman empire would send out to all its corners a proud message of imperial propaganda advertising the latest “good news” – the latest evangelism. “All Hail Caesar, who has shed the blood of his many enemies in great battle!” “Praise our new, True Emperor, who has just taken the throne by slaying the False Ruler!”
The early Christians and Jews who wrote the letters and stories we now know as the New Testament were naturally aware of this practice, but they refused to let outside societal norms dictate what this term would mean for them. So what they did was boldly annex the term – Caesar’s term – “gospel,” and creatively apply it to the life and good news of their True King, Jesus Christ. Evangelism now began to mean spreading the good news of a new type of universal decree – one which no longer signaled to the common people the results of yet another distant battle or the newest treacherous episode in the rich and powerful’s bloody game of thrones, but the eternal promises of the love and peace of Jesus Christ.
I imagine those who heard this new gospel message immediately detected a striking change in tone – “All Hail the Prince of Peace, who does not shed his enemies’ blood, but freely forgives their sins!” “Praise the One True King who has taken the throne not by backstabbing but by humbling himself, becoming obedient unto death – even death on a cross!” This new version of evangelism – the sharing of God’s pronouncement of peace, the declaration of Christ’s defeat of death, and the reconciliation of rich and poor and heaven and earth – this good news soon began spreading like wildfire throughout the vast borders of the Roman kingdom.
It has since become the hallmark of the Christian faith.
But today, as it turns out (depending on who you ask), the term “evangelical” has once again become corrupted by selfish politics and the violence of empire.
One thing that helps me remember the true legacy of this word is that the early Church was not defined by their prejudice or their politics, but by their excitement to share God’s beautiful gospel news of forgiveness and peace with others. This is what I force my mind to re-orient itself around whenever I am tempted to classify evangelicalism as a movement of mere doctrinal posturing or political maneuvering.
That said, I am occasionally asked (by others and by…well, myself) whether I’d consider myself to be an evangelical kind of Christian.
And when I think about it, I have to agree with that blogger – you can absolutely call me an evangelical Christian if, like the early Church, you’re asking whether I’m passionate about sharing the good news of God’s love and reconciliation.
But you’re going to have to strike my name from the books and not call me an evangelical if it means adhering to some of the vile things folks in my faith tradition have sometimes been known to support.
If it means believing people who haven’t heard of Jesus are going to hell.
If it means worshipping a Book…and not a Person.
If it means devaluing the poor.
If it means supporting torture and encouraging armed conflict in the Middle East.
If it means teaching that the environment is not worth protecting because, according to the book of Revelation, God is coming back any day now to destroy everything anyway.
If it means having to believe being gay is a rampant sin that will send you straight to hell.
If it means teaching Christian Zionism and supporting an oppressive regime – on the land Jesus once walked – all at the cost of the lives and dignity of the Palestinian people.
If you’re asking me whether I’m an evangelical in that sense, in a sense corrupted by culture and politics, I couldn’t back away from you fast enough.
Count me out.
But, as I have tried to articulate above, there is a more ancient, more gracious, and more conservative way of applying this term.
And if you’re asking me that question, it’s a very different story.
So you can definitely call me an evangelical if it means being excited to tell everybody about Jesus’ life-altering love and sacrifice.
If it means studying and reading my Bible, considering its writings to be inspired and breathed out by God, and trying to follow its teachings as best I can with the help of my Church and new family in Christ.
If it means teaching that our Majestic God made the Mystery of the Creator present among us in the person of Jesus Christ.
If it means believing we must seek to answer all of our questions about God by centering our thinking on the revelation of Jesus, the true Prince of Peace.
If it means telling everyone I can that because of our sins, because of the darkness in our hearts, a scraggly 1st-century Jew was lifted up on a cross to die – a King who forgave us, died and was buried, and then actually rose from the dead three days later to take his rightful place on the throne.
If it means wanting to share the good news with everyone, insisting that God’s radical love for each of us really is as good as it seems.
So if we’re talking about the word “evangelical” in this sense (following the example of the early Christians who re-centered their thinking on Jesus instead of on prevailing cultural definitions of the term) then I’m more than comfortable with the label.
Count me in.
If we’re talking about the word in this way, then by all means please don’t hesitate to call me a Bible-thumping, Jesus-worshipping, Spirit-filled, passionate and relentless evangelical Christian.
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What do you think of when you hear the word “evangelical”? Do you feel like the label accurately describes your own faith journey and personal experiences relating to God?