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…
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.