I’ll always remember the first time I became aware of the term “evangelical”. As a young boy growing up in a predominately Lutheran town with predominantly Lutheran friends at school, I had asked my mom what “type” of Christians we were. “Well,” she began, “we’re what you call ‘evangelical’.” Although my curious and inquiring mind wasn’t completely satisfied with that answer, it was content enough for me to shrug and identify as “evangelical” for years on afterward. But cultural tides have shifted, and as a culture changes, so does the popular use of certain words.
These days, if you were to ask the average American on the street today what comes to mind when they think “Evangelicalism”, odds are that they would say right-wing politics and all the things conflated with that loaded word. But is that what evangelicalism is really all about, or what it’s supposed to be about?
Several days ago, Tim Keller wrote an insightful article for the New Yorker that differentiated big-E “Evangelicalism” (those that are defined primarily by political ideology) with small-e “evangelicalism” (those defined by their theological convictions) and shows that there is actually a wide and considerable disparity between the two that eclipses and overshadows their apparent overlap. While Evangelicalism [big-E] “serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity” in some parts of the country, it is not generally correlated with theological convictions that are practiced by the voters, either by necessity or in actuality.
It’s very tempting for me to delve further into the article’s discussion. It’s an enlightening piece replete with sociological, statistical and anecdotal insights and illustrations, and it’s definitely worth your time. But my primary concern for this blog post is to be more doctrinal and theological rather than sociopolitical in addressing the church, and the last thing I want to do is to make this just another political commentary. (Besides, after a holiday weekend of sitting at the same table with in-laws and extended family, aren’t we all tired of these conversations?). I won’t begin to adjudicate between political parties, especially when I personally have problems with both of them. I simply want to offer this thesis: that if political partisanship is the very first thing that people think about when they hear the term “evangelical”, then there is something askew with our gospel presentation, because that is not the Gospel.
Let me make my case.
Will the real evangelicalism please stand up?
The word “evangelical” is a derivative of the Greek word *euangelion, which is where we get our Old English word for “gospel” (godspell), meaning “good news” or “good message“. In other words, euangelion means “good news”. This “good news”, or euangelion, was something that ordinary people have been willing to bleed and die for since the first century A.D. In the 16th century, the word “evangelical” first appeared and was used by some of the continental Reformers as a preferable alternative to the title “Protestant”, because they believed that they had recovered the truest form of the “good news” buried under years of Medieval tradition.
I realize that those reading my blog include Christian brothers and sisters of all different persuasions, stripes, shapes, and colors, and I myself have several Catholic friends that I consider brothers/sisters in Christ despite our disagreements. But whether you agree with the Reformers or subscribe to another tradition, the title “evangelical” does implicitly (and by definition) suggest that those who identify by it are supposed to be gospel-centered, (that is, first and foremost about the proclamation of the gospel or “good news) and therefore evangelicals are ideally supposed to be “gospel people“. Which begs the question: what is this gospel that the apostles and the earliest Christians were willing to sacrifice their lives for?
The “Good News”
The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15: “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…”, and, he adds, “he was raised on the third day”.
What is the Gospel? That Jesus Christ died for our sins, and that He was raised back to life. That does sound like good news! And yet it is news that is apparently unfamiliar to the average American. Why? Let me suggest that it’s because we have failed to consistently preach the right gospel in the right way, and we have also failed to live it out in our daily lives as believers in the One we claim to follow. We have made it about being Republican, partisan loyalty, and legislation. And in doing so, we have made it about another list of “do’s and don’t’s”, instead of the person of Jesus Christ.
But it is not ultimately legislation that carries about change. It’s the Gospel that changes lives. It’s the Gospel that changes hearts. It’s the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, representing a personal God, that ultimately changes the world, not legislation. It is the good news. For proof of this, you only need to look at the exponential growth of the persecuted early church during and after the apostolic age in the first centuries of the church. And until others know the Gospel and the God that it is about, we cannot expect them to change or to be held accountable for things that they cannot understand. You can debate about tax reform and gun laws all you want, but that is not the essence Gospel. Psalm 146 tells us to “not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save”. The same can be said of politicians. Ultimately, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that must intervene and change lives and hearts.
‘Moral Majority’ or sinners saved by grace?
So that’s my first point: that we have made “Evangelical” a political movement rather than the proclamation of the Gospel itself. My second is this: a correct and accurate understanding of the Gospel, the euangelion, should lead to more humility, not self-professed moral superiority. Why is that?
In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul continues his gospel presentation in very much the same vein as the previous verse I shared (1 Corinthians 15) by saying, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”. That should be familiar by now. It very much echoes the “good news” of 1 Corinthians 15. “Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” However, in this verse Paul immediately adds another clause at the end of the sentence: “…of whom I am the worst.” Paul the Apostle, the one that we call “Saint Paul”, was also by admission a sinner in need of the grace and forgiveness of God.
And now we arrive at the reason why Christians of all people can’t be boastful or claim moral superiority to others: because we are no better, and no better off, than the rest of the world. We are simply saved by grace. The Gospel tells us that we are all sinful and in need of God. That’s part of the beauty of the Gospel–that Jesus came into the world to save sinners like you and me, and we need only to trust Him.
The problem is that the rest of the population doesn’t hear that Gospel espoused by many of us. After political ideology, the words “hypocrites” and “judgmental” are likely to be sprinkled throughout the milieu of the answers of those that are asked about what they think about “Evangelicalism”. And to be honest, our “right-wing, right-hook” approach has often nurtured and cultivated an “us-against-them” mentality and an attitude of proud indignation toward the rest of society, noses turned upwards and all. But the Gospel, correctly understood, is meant to humble instead of puffing up. Jesus was much more patient and understanding with “tax collectors and sinners” without once affirming their lifestyle choices or compromising his convictions (and he was much more convicting that we often think, by the way). He had much less patience for the self-righteous religious zealots, the Pharisees, that believed that they were good enough for God. No one is “good enough”. All can approach God through His grace alone.
I’ll attempt to wrap things up. In my very first blog post, I wrote about how many millennials, including those within the Church, have been disillusioned with the state of American Evangelicalism for at least the two reasons stated above: that 1) our “Evangelicalism” has been conflated with strict and rigid political ideology instead of the Gospel first and foremost, and 2) the sense of superiority that often tends to come along with it. And in my first blog post, I also wrote that there are at least ways two ways in which people have responded. One is to openly denounce and condemn culture and the rest of society as morally bankrupt while raising yourself on the political platform as the “moral majority”. The other is to abandon orthodoxy all together and trade it in for heterodoxy, moral relativism, and permissiveness. But the age-old Gospel dismisses both approaches. It does convict us of our sin, and therefore humbles us. And yet it frees us from the plight of our sin, and therefore liberates us. All this done by Jesus Christ and His atoning work at calvary. That is why it is good news.
I titled this post “Taking Back Evangelicalism” because I have felt among thousands (if not millions) of others that the title has been taken away from me. And so “taking back evangelicalism” is another way of saying “reclaiming evangelicalism” as the evangelicalism I thought I knew–the one that taught me about a God that loved me first, that inspired me to love Him back, and that inspired me to love my neighbors as a reflection of that love. I don’t know if I would say I’m optimistic about the future of evangelicalism, but I am hopeful, and I know that there is a new generation of Christian millennials that are not content or complacent with the state of affairs in the Church at large. These Christians are looking for a Gospel that does not compromise on essential doctrinal beliefs, yet also does not compromise on moral convictions in the voter’s booth as a means to an end.
I stopped using the word “evangelical” as the first descriptor of my faith about a year or two ago. I look forward to the day that I can unabashedly, without reservation, call myself an evangelical in the truest sense, and I genuinely hope one day that will be realized. Until then, I’ll be content with “Baptist”, or “simply Christian”…or even “confessing millennial”.