Today I want to talk about something I’ve been pondering for a little while. A mini-series if you will. A set of questions I think are important but are also very niche.
This little mini-series is a brief attempt to explain why, in this the year after the year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I still identify firmly with the label and theology of what we call ‘evangelical’. Associated in many minds with a creationist/homophobic/sexist/right-wing/unthinking/fundamentalist form of Christianity (or, by some writers, a form of something else entirely), to claim the label evangelical is apparently a contentious move.
Over the next few posts I’ll explore various aspects of why I am an evangelical, and why I use that label in spite of the problems apparent in the movement, and as a modifier/explainer of what I mean by being a Christian.
The next few posts will examine the following topics:
Being Evangelical – An Alternative Western Quadrilateral?
Being Evangelical – in the public square
Being Evangelical – For something in a negative world
Being Evangelical – United in the Gospel
For now, though, a few brief thoughts about ‘Being Evangelical’, to set the scene before I go in a little deeper.
Firstly, the term. Evangelicals, as I understand it, are those Christians who have a particular focus on four things, often identified as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. These are biblicism (A focus on and obedience to the Bible), crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning work of Jesus on the Cross), conversionism (the idea that human beings need to be converted), and activism (the idea that the Gospel needs to be expressed, embodied, explained, and outworked. This is a rough summary – and describes Christians from other streams to a greater or lesser degree. It also lacks nuance – which Jesus, for example – and can be over-simplistic. But I think it works and I’m happy to say that those four things are key hallmarks of my faith and how I understand following Jesus.
Second, the notion of being evangelical. It isn’t a label I wear lightly, and it isn’t one I claim without awareness of many failures and downright catastrophes committed by those who claim to be evangelical. It is, however, important to me. I was born to evangelical parents, grew up in an evangelical church, was shaped by parachurch evangelical youth and student movements, have studied at an evangelical theological college and worked at another, and to this day attempt to articulate evangelical theology from my own perspective, and market the evangelical books of IVP. Evangelical is a label that, for me, is vitally important, all about Jesus, and demands a day-to-day response.
Thirdly, in this year of the Reformation, I think it is important to recognise the many problems and failures of evangelicals (of various stripes, and I’m not going to try and explain away some people/movements by branding them something) and that for some people who think deeply the label ‘evangelical’ cannot be reclaimed, redeemed or reformed. Personally, at this time, I think it is an overreaction. Martin Luther began his protest about the way things were in his religious movement, his part of the Church, as a loyal Roman Catholic who wanted to start a conversation. The 95 Theses, in their original formulation, were a far cry from what Luther eventually ended up believing and teaching. In a similar way, I’m wary of those seeking to throw off hundreds of years of evangelicalism without engaging the tradition, going back to the Gospel, and imagining what a ‘reformed’ evangelicalism could be. The internet has brought problems into sharp focus, and enabled us to gloss over really thinking about things. The leader of the Vineyard movement in the USA, Phil Strout, uses a great phrase; ‘slow kingdom coming‘. I honestly believe, most of the time, that Christians in particular and people in general would benefit from slowing down.
Often, I want to slow down. Remind myself of where I’ve come from, what I’ve learnt, and where I might be going ecclesially and theologically. As a convinced non-conformist who is open to the present leading of the Spirit, I have to be open to being ordained in a church movement I don’t find myself in. As someone deeply aware of Church history, and the prayers of Jesus in John 17, I have to be open to increasing unity even if I don’t understand what is going on. For me, evangelicalism has been a tribe and a family, but more importantly a sort of ‘missional language’, to explain the shape of our trinitarian, Gospel-centered faith, and the way we actually live it out as the priesthood of all believers
So there you go. A new mini-series, and the start of what I hope will be a positive articulation of how I try to follow Jesus, rather than a divisive pernicketiness that obscures the Gospel and promotes divsion.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, positive or negative, about what evangelicalism is or isn’t to you, and so on.