Evangelicalism: I Don’t Think it’s Me

The recent discussions on the internet sparked by the article Rachel Held Evans wrote for CNN have caused me to re-evaluate (again) whether defining myself as ‘Evangelical’ is actually accurate. For the record, I think Rachel is a voice worth listening to, it’s the voices that offered little grace toward her recent thoughts that I struggle with. A few of them stated that she shouldn’t describe herself as Evangelical. Now hear me, I’d prefer to just call myself ‘Christian’ or ‘follower of Jesus’ but when trying to do that an endless number of qualifying words are still needed to help people place where in the Christian spectrum I might fit – something I personally find hard to do. I’ve used ‘Evangelical’ for a very long time but am coming to the point where I wonder if I need to let that go because it may not be an adequate qualifier any longer…

Evangelicalism

Photo: Francis Ritchie. Mother and Child icon on the streets of Old Jerusalem.

The term ‘Evangelical’ is most simply defined by a few core beliefs and it must be noted that John Wesley was one of the pioneers of the movement. That’s significant since I’m a Wesleyan Methodist minister, admire Wesley and would happily say that I follow in his line of teaching. I easily sit in his theological camp. The early Methodist movement was the start of modern evangelicalism (as opposed to its use by the likes of Luther to identify the whole Protestant movement or in the way it was used to distinguish people such as William Tyndale).

I should make a note here – there will be sweeping generalisations and strawman arguments in this post. Forgive me. This is about subjective observation and opinion more than anything else.

The core beliefs of Evangelicalism can be defined by the following:

1) The authority and inerrancy of scripture
2) Salvation through Christ alone
3) The necessary conversion of the individual (this is sometimes called being born again)
4) The need to share the Gospel

Those are rather clunky ways of putting it but they’d be the basics (others may want to add, adjust or subtract from that). Of course there are other ways to use the term but mostly, when people talk about Evangelicals these beliefs are at the core.

My problems start with those terms and extend well beyond them. It’s my view that Evangelicalism has moved beyond its roots and is largely defined by whatever is going on in the United States now and in the US the Evangelical camp is a very very broad one. In historical terms what is often being called Evangelicalism is actually Fundamentalism (a historical reactionist movement largely focused on a push back against culture and certain political views) and therefore Evangelicalism is often associated with the political and social reactionism of that movement; the two have become synonymous. Those of a more progressive or open persuasion but still adhering to the above beliefs are often seen having to defend their place within Evangelicalism. Secondly, Evangelicalism seems to largely be defined now by the New Reformed movement with the modern forms of Arminianism being seen as something ‘other.’

With those core beliefs I mentioned above my problems come with how broadly I now understand those terms and how much I disagree with the predominant understandings of some of them within popular Evangelicalism. For instance, I believe in the authority of scripture, but I believe in the authority of the universal Church alongside it (and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as the foundation of the two) – I don’t believe one can exist without the other so I can’t place scripture above the Church. Scripture is born from the Church and the Church is fueled by its own story (scripture) and thus the two rest on each other. I believe in the truth of scripture but I don’t agree with the popular literalism that the idea of inerrancy seems to now be associated with and I think it’s a concept that is too often argued about. I think it’s easier to simply drop the idea if one properly understands how scripture can be authoritative both in the life of the individual and the life of the Church – seeing it as a signpost to Christ and, in turn, God; an icon in the form of written word.

I believe in salvation through Christ alone but my ideas of salvation have broadened beyond individual conversion to something more global and I no longer believe that salvation is one instantaneous event but rather involves God’s whole story of the redemption and reconciliation of his whole creation – justice. It is both now and eternal, both now and not yet, both now and an ongoing process. I believe Christ, through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension is the vehicle (for want of a less crude term) by which this occurs but am less interested in a person’s set of stated beliefs than the direction of their life.

On conversion I’m interested in people committing their lives to Christ but am less interested in this happening through an identifiable conversion experience that results in little else and am more interested in the journey of the life of the individual and the ongoing reshaping of a person into the image of Christ and God’s intention for our humanity. Sometimes that involves an immediate conversion experience, but sometimes it’s a long road where that ‘conversion’ may not be immediately identifiable… this doesn’t necessarily fit well with the desired outcome of much popular Evangelical work.

On the need to share the Gospel I say yes, yes and yes!!! But what we understand the Gospel to be here sees me part ways with many Evangelicals as again my understanding of that term broadens and becomes something bigger than the story often told to prompt conversions.

When I read John Wesley, both his sermons and his diaries, we’re not far apart but when I look at much of modern Evangelicalism, how it is defined and who its most parochial voices are, I find myself sooner turning to the desert fathers, the catholic mystics and the voices of eastern orthodoxy. I run to liturgy, sacraments (both were highly important to Wesley but are unfamiliar to much of modern Evangelicalism and scorned by far too many) and icons. I flee to a high view of communion and find my place in silence (I can’t do life well without it now) and the practices of contemplation – things often condemned in vast circles of Evangelicalism. I am most intensely interested in my union with God and the story of justice playing out in the world. I don’t find myself far apart from John Wesley but I find myself at a great distance from too many modern Evangelicals to properly use that term anymore.

I am aware that there is a difference between academic Evangelicalism and popular Evangelicalism but the latter is what defines the term in our culture and it is the latter I don’t sit well with so I am at a point where I am more comfortable with calling myself an Ecumenical Wesleyan Methodist than I am with calling myself Evangelical. Ecumenical because I turn to so many of the ancient traditions to inform my relationship with God and to be shaped by him; Wesleyan because I have an affinity with the life and teachings of John Wesley in all their messy enthusiasm and Methodist because I want to identify with that historical community and believe I carry the torch of that community somewhat. I have an affinity with historical Evangelicalism as presented in people like Wesley, but I do not sit well with much of its modern incarnation so it is no longer a term I feel comfortable using to help people understand where I fit.

I say none of this to disparage those who do self identify as Evangelical or to call for it to change to suit me, I just don’t think I can honestly say it’s a good description of who I am. I must also say that I’m open to being critiqued on this to show where I may be really off base as I would have no problem with continuing to use the term if it could be well demonstrated that someone such as myself could be wholly comfortable with it.

 

 

  • Tim Bulkeley

    How about a Classical Evangelical or a Traditional Evanbgelical? To distinguish yourself from the Modernist Evangelicals who have turned their backs on that tradition?

    Personally I’ve had difficulty with the term since the Evangelical students’ group pulled out of association with a mission to the University were I was studying because “head office” told them they could only participate if all the speakers first signed their Statement of Faith. I don’t like being part of any exclusive club.

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      That could work, Tim. Classical makes sense. Though discussing labels can be frustrating, if you had to how would you describe where you sit on the Christian spectrum if ‘Evangelical’ carries difficulties for you?

      • Tim Bulkeley

        I’m a Christian of the Baptist denomination, who appreciates his Anabaptist heritage. I am happy with Evangelical as long as the person using it understands it in a traditional and/or open way.

  • Mikey Brenndorfer

    Fantastic. I grew up in an active, liberal but traditional Lutheran church in Canada, and I hadn’t come across Evangelical Christianity until arriving in NZ. I found its currently popular manifestation off putting and foriegn to me. I think to differentiate myself from that manifestation I started using the label contemplative Christianity to describe my approach. Because, as you say, contemplative spirituality doesn’t have much of a home in most Evangelical circles from my experience.

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      I think its home in Evangelical circles is growing but in the United States where the term Evangelical most has its home now, it’s probably still a minority and contemplative terms have to be used carefully. It also gets a lot of push back in much of Evangelicalism so though it has a small home, it’s not a comfortable one.

  • jonesboy

    The biggest straw man was the title…the rest of it was a healthy immolation…

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      The first working title for the post was “Evangelicalism…. hmmmmmmm” because for the life of me, I couldn’t conjur up anything better ;)

  • Guest
  • rhettsnell

    For old time’s sake…

    http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3ves6z/

  • rhettsnell

    Not sure why that link posted twice.

    Anyway, I prefer to use “Evangelical” as a sociological rather than theological description. I used it that way just this past Sunday when teaching a class at our church on church membership, to describe the Baptist denomination. “Broadly Evangelical” was the term I used, and I meant that we are a group of believers gathered around the 4 points you mention, but in a centred set, not a bounded set. I clarified that there are more conservative Baptist church’s and more progressive ones, but we don’t have much in the way of Lloyd Geering style liberalism.

    I don’t really get too bothered by gatekeepers of the term. In any case, my conservative friends appear to have given up on the term too; many of them feel it’s lost all meaning.

    I’m not sure I’d use it with a non-Christian, unless I had the time to explain it.

    I don’t think it’s a big deal whether you choose to use it or not. In reading through the way you unpack the 4 core commitments you quote, I’m not sure there’s really much dissonance there. Maybe around placing the Church alongside the bible as an equal authority (am I understanding that correctly?), but I suppose it’s all in how you unpack that. It might land you in some hot water in Baptist circles ;-), of course, not that you care!

    But certainly, the Wesleyan quad, with things such as tradition and reason as important factors in interpretation (but still sitting under the bible), there just isn’t any issue with that.

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      To answer the thought about the Church and the Bible it’s probably best if I ask a question (how Rob Bell of me ;) ). What is the Church without scripture and what is scripture without the Church… and what are the two without the Holy Spirit? If there is any hierarchy it places the Holy Spirit as the ocean the other two sit in but the other two are nothing without the other so I think to place scripture above its community creates a false hierarchy – the same if the Church is placed above scripture. To say that they’re alongside each other I don’t think captures their relationship either – I think they’re interwoven; they’re a part of the DNA of each other. We need to remember that scripture is a product of the Church in union with the Holy Spirit and it then feeds back into the ongoing identity of that which produced it.

      When I talk about the Church I’m talking about more than tradition in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – which I wholeheartedly agree with and in the quadrilateral I would gladly create a hierarchy that place scripture at the top. I’m also talking about something bigger than the local church. When talking about the Church we’re talking about the realm of God. With it and scripture I can’t place one above the other as I think they are inseparable and lean on each other.

      I wonder if one of the problems we have is that in the fragmentation of the Church since the reformation and even before that, in the Great Schism, we’ve felt a need to create a hierarchy that shouldn’t exist simply because of that fragmentation? The problem is that hierarchy has led to countless divisions due to people having their own interpretation of scripture…. because scripture is not, in reality an ultimate authority above the Church – if it were, different interpretations wouldn’t fragment the body.

      That last paragraph is more of a musing than any solid thinking.

      • jonesboy

        NT Wright speaks of the authority of scripture as deriving from the authority of God rather than having any inherent authority of its own. Perhaps the same could be said of the church. Your discussion reminded me of that.

        • rhettsnell

          Sure, I can dig that. :-)

          I think it’s a kind of easy for talk about biblical authority to turn into a game of semantic one-upmanship (especially, if I can be so bold, with people who are really keen on words like “innerant”).

          My understanding of being “under the bible’s authority” so to speak, is that my posture is one of submitting my life to be shaped by the biblical text, guided of course by reason, church history, etc, etc. If there’s an “evangelical” posture, I think that’s it, as opposed to seeing the text as a frog to be dissected or a problem to be solved.

          Still not sure about the false hierarchy stuff, but maybe I just don’t grasp exactly what problem you’re trying to solve there. But agree with scripture being a product of the church with the Holy Spirit, etc.

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            I think you’re approaching it in terms of the individual’s relationship to scripture whereas when I reference the Church I’m talking about the community. That might be where the confusion is around hierarchy. In terms of false hierarchy I’m talking about placing the Bible above the Church; above the community of God as an authority over it.

          • rhettsnell

            Can you give an illustration of how you see the difference playing out?

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            What do you think the difference might be?

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            Basically it’s idolising the Bible vs not. Rule book vs our story. Fundamentalism vs the best of Catholic views of the relationship between the Church and scripture.

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            Freedom to grapple with scripture, question, doubt etc vs rigid literalism (that still ultimately relies on interpretation from the community but pretends it doesn’t).

          • rhettsnell

            Oh, cool, I agree with all that. Which makes me think I’m still missing what you’re saying (sorry if this is annoying!).

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            Nah, you’re probably not missing anything. You ultimately just agree with me ;) It can feel like it’s just playing with words, but for me it’s about finding a healthy framework that strengthens the relationship between scripture and community, removes the fear some have of the Bible, and stops it being wielded as a weapon.

          • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

            And remember, it’s pop evangelicalism that I’m pushing against not the more moderate, broader and more reasonable academic form that exists in our Bible Colleges. It’s erroneous views of scriptural authority I’m pushing against rather than the the healthy views in our Colleges.

  • Ben Kendrew

    Always appreciate your thoughts Frank!

    I agree with how a term can be hijacked, even unintentionally, and therefore make it difficult to associate with all that becomes attached to the term. “Evangelical” certainly falls into this category.

    For me, in the past 12 months I have been challenged – maybe even convicted?! – about such conversations. Often these discussions about labels are usually had by Christians, about Christians, regarding terms that only Christians understand.

    My challenge is, how much do these terms & these discussions help us portray the gospel and bring others closer to Christ…?

    Ps. not my intention to hijack the comments! Just responding to your tweet asking for thoughts :)

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      Cheers mate, I appreciate the response. This is most certainly a conversation from a Christian, for Christians about my Christianity. Christians are the biggest audience I communicate with. How the Gospel is portrayed is exactly what’s at the heart of it for me. Much of my life is about communication so I’m always interested in whether or not what I’m saying is being understood in the way that I want it to be understood. There are some terms where I’m willing to stay the course and simply defend them no matter what explanations I have to go through, ‘Christian’ being the most obvious. There are others that I’m willing to drop or adopt depending on what they convey and how they’re understood in the wider world… ‘Evangelical’ is one of those terms for me, hence the flexing of it here and the willingness to drop it. Does that make any sense?

      • Ben Kendrew

        Certainly makes sense! And I didn’t want to pick apart or criticize having the discussion in this forum :)

        I also find myself asking these kinds of questions (“contemporary Christian expression” “evangelical” “modern Pentecostal”) what do these titles mean & do they fit with who I am trying to be? Mostly though, I’m trying to be more cautious and aware of what conversations I give most attention to. i want to be ‘effective’. I guess this post sparked that thought

        • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

          If it sparked that thought then I’m a happy man. It’s easy to get bogged down in these sort of discussions and for them to ultimately not add anything to what we do so we do need to be careful with them. Good communication is a tricky and ever changing thing as language is ultimately just a metaphor for trying to convey other concepts so it can change from audience to audience too depending on how they understand the metaphors being used.

          With that in mind, the real foundation of good communication is good listening – really hearing those you are communicating with, who they are and how they hear things.