I'm an Evangelical – don't let them steal the name

I’m an Evangelical, and I’m proud of it. I believe that the Bible is the authoritative guide to truth about God and to the Christian life. I believe, in Roger Olson’s words, that “authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of regeneration and that faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and repentance for sin are necessarily included in that”. I accept without reservation the Basis of Faith of the Evangelical Alliance here in the UK – although I do have reservations about some American definitions of evangelicalism which define the Bible as inerrant. I’m also a Charismatic, but that’s a separate story.

But my right to call myself an Evangelical seems to be under attack from all sides at the moment.

A few weeks ago I discussed here how Adrian Warnock seems to accept as Evangelicals only those who take the Bible literally. His reasons for not accepting a particular person, Rob Bell, as an Evangelical also include him

speaking with people who had problems understanding what God is like. Hence he looks at what it sees in this world and then formulates a theology … he sees life then tries to interpret Bible.

John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, wants to put a different kind of restriction on being Evangelical. In a post yesterday Episcopal appointments – from subtle exclusion to overt discrimination he discusses when “the last Evangelical appointment was” of a bishop in the Church of England. The answer he gives, 1997, shows that what he really meant was the last appointment of an Evangelical opposed to the ordination of women – a point clarified in a comment by Beryl Polden.

Dave Warnock, a somewhat liberal Methodist minister unrelated to Adrian, offers an outsider’s perspective on the limits of evangelicalism. Phil Whittall posted about the sad story of Gordon Lynch who lost his Christian faith, largely, it seems, because of abuse by power-hungry Evangelical church leaders. In comments in response to this Dave offer a rant (his word) against Evangelicals, which he repeats in a post on his own blog. Here is part of the rant:

a) The number of Evangelicals willing to engage in critical thinking on these issues is close to vanishingly small.

b) The number of Evangelicals willing to trot out proof texts, anger and aggression on this issues is huge.

c) I know many women who have articulated the response they have got from trying to engage with many Evangelicals on issues of power and gender. Evangelicals do not come out of this well at all. …

In his response to my comment about this, Dave clarifies that he is

addressing the “hard Evangelical position”, in other words the Evangelicals who take a hard line on issues such as gender and sexuality and who eagerly condemn those who disagree with them.

But what he originally wrote makes no such distinction. He seems to be putting about a stereotype of typical Evangelicals characterised by his five negative points, of which I quoted three above. He accepts that there are thoughtful Evangelicals like me but implies that our numbers are “close to vanishingly small”.

Then for a North American view: Joel Watts writes I’m a Evangelical Reject I reckon based on a post by Kurt Willems You Might Be An Evangelical Reject If… It seems that Kurt and Joel both consider themselves to have been put outside the Evangelical pale because of a number of attitudes and positions that they take. I share with them most of these attitudes and positions. But I do not accept that these make me an “Evangelical Reject”. I don’t care too much if others reject me, but I won’t accept their labels. I know that I still stand within the fold of historic evangelicalism, and it is before God, not before men and women, that I stand there.

Roger Olson has written on Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical”. I’m not sure I agree with him that the media are to blame for the distortion of the term, at least here in the UK. I put the blame on other Christians like the ones I have quoted in this post. But I stand with him in this:

All labels have their problems and, to be sure “evangelical” is fraught with them.  But I am not giving it up.  Instead, I will fight for it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that the Bible is an inerrant source of facts which its authors could not have known or understood.

I’m an Evangelical, and I am allowed to let my theology be informed by what I see, and what scientists see, in the world which God made.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe in a worldwide flood within the last 10,000 years.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that God the Father punished his Son for sins he was not guilty of.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that nearly everyone in the world, including anyone with homosexual inclinations, is going straight to everlasting torment in hell.

I’m an Evangelical, and I am free from behavioural rules of conservative Christianity such as “no drinking” and “no dancing”.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that women cannot exercise leadership.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can believe that I should live in the world, as a good Christian, and not separate myself from it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can believe that God is interested in social justice and in protection of the natural environment.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that the world is inevitably going to get worse and that all Christians are soon going to be miraculously raptured out of it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can work towards the Kingdom of God in this world while I wait for Jesus to return and bring in the fullness of that Kingdom.

Evangelical AllianceI applaud the Evangelical Alliance for its largely successful efforts to keep UK Evangelicals together, under a broad umbrella which can include people like myself as well as all but the most extreme fundamentalists. They have weathered storms like the Steve Chalke controversy and emerged stronger. I trust that they will continue to maintain this unity despite efforts to break it from inside and out.

I accept the right of other Evangelicals to disagree with me on some serious issues, as long as they don’t compromise the basic gospel message. Healthy debate, on blogs and elsewhere, is a good thing. But please let’s all be more careful about divisive statements, even in throwaway comments, suggesting that some other person or group is not Evangelical.

0 thoughts on “I'm an Evangelical – don't let them steal the name

  1. Peter, this is the post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now!

    I think a lot of the problem comes from so-called “Conservative Evangelical” churches (such as, unfortunately, the one I attend) who have redefined evangelicalism in opposition to what they perceive to be a liberal attack on ‘Biblical’ Christianity.

    So, for example, the “Conservative Evangelical” position is against women in the episcopate. I don’t agree with this position – but I am still an evangelical.

    Anyway, I’m not sure I think labels like this are necessarily productive or helpful. Not sure what I’d say instead, but still!

  2. Thank you, Phill. I agree that labels are not always helpful, but I don’t want to be labelled as a non-Evangelical either.

    I know your former vicar Andy Saville from the Chelmsford and District Evangelical Association. I was asked to join its committee to balance out the majority on it who were very conservative, but this was hard work.

  3. While having serious issues with your rejecting of things such as penal substitution, eternal hell and Biblical inerrancy (I’d be interested in hearing more from you on your doctrine of scripture. In your recent discussions of such things as the flood I thought you were assuming Biblical inerrancy as you attempted to reconcile the Biblical account with the apparent science.) I heartily agree with your overall point, evangelicalism should be wide enough to include a variety of disagreement on secondary issues. We (conservative evangelicals) sometimes define evangelicals as complementarians and complementarians alone… we shouldn’t.

  4. a) I apologise that my post came over to you as meaning all Evangelicals. It was never meant that way. I wrote the comments as responses to the review of the book which was about the “Evangelicals” who had led Gordon Lynch to reject the label. My comments do include phrases such as “hard edged” a number of times (they were originally written in a very small commenting box which made reviewing them tricky, I decided it was fairer to repost them on my blog without changing them).

    b) I still want to see myself as an Evangelical and I agree with every one of your “I’m an Evangelical” statements. I might personally might phrase them in more positive ways such as “I’m an Evangelical, and I celebrate and rejoice in the way that God calls women and men to positions of leadership in the Church and the world.”

  5. Pingback: Kingdom Chronicles For The Week Ending 6/11/11 « παλιγγενεσία: The Regeneration

  6. Sorry to be slow responding to comments. I have been away.

    Nora, I hope you, or I, don’t get into trouble for this.

    Dave, thanks for the further clarification. I must say I was surprised to read after what you wrote before that you still consider yourself an Evangelical. Your more positive restatement is good.

    Joel, I didn’t actually say that I reject “things such as penal substitution, eternal hell and Biblical inerrancy”. My point is more that being an Evangelical does not require a certain definite and narrow position on these matters. I carefully chose my words to avoid a broader rejection. For example, the position on penal substitution that I reject is that of Jesus as a reluctant victim of his Father’s wrath. I accept versions of this doctrine in which the three persons of the Trinity worked together with one will to take the penalty for our sins. And the version of biblical inerrancy which I would reject is that which for example insists on taking the biblical account of the flood as “an engineer’s literal report” rather than as the type of literary genre that the author intended.

  7. Peter, I was wondering if an undercurrent to this topic is the (subconscious?) belief that evangelicals are the only true christians, perhaps even the only ones who will be going to heaven. This could explain the actions of those on both sides of the debate.

  8. Sidefall, I’m sure that’s part of it, and not always subconscious. But there is also the aspect that many Evangelicals will only have fellowship and share in ministry with other Evangelicals. I don’t want to be excluded from such circles – although there might be some I would have trouble working with, for example if they insisted on very narrowly defined presentations of the gospel message.

  9. “For example, the position on penal substitution that I reject is that of Jesus as a reluctant victim of his Father’s wrath. I accept versions of this doctrine in which the three persons of the Trinity worked together with one will to take the penalty for our sins.”

    I agree, the cross isn’t cosmic child abuse, it’s cosmic self abuse. But who holds this position on PS? People say this is what PS means and then reject it. But it’s simply not. Strawmen arguments are so tiresome.

  10. That last post came across as a little dismissive, apologies to those who don’t hold to PS. Also, ‘cosmic self abuse’ isn’t meant to be an entirely accurate description of PS or the relationship between the Father and Son.

  11. Joel, perhaps this is a bit of a straw man approach. I can’t find any penal substitution advocate who actually argues that Jesus was a reluctant victim – but of course Jesus showed his own reluctance, but eventual acceptance, in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39). But here I am taking the same line as J.I. Packer, described in my 2007 post, in correcting common if misguided misunderstandings of the doctrine.

  12. Benny, thank you for the link. I cannot fully accept Jeremy’s position, as indeed in various ways I differ from many other evangelicals’ positions. But I am prepared to accept them as fellow Evangelicals as long as they don’t focus on our differences.

  13. Thanks Peter – I think that is the key. For example, Accpeting Evangelicals is for both ‘gay-affirming’ and ‘gay-accepting’ Evangelicals. In those terms ‘gay-accepting’ means that although I may not agree the theology of openly gay Christians, I do accept their Christian integrity.

    That particular debate is so often dominated by those who want to polarise people to the extremes. What is actually needed are people who are willing to say the kind of things you have said in your blog.

  14. Pingback: Do Evangelicals have to condemn gay sex? - Gentle Wisdom

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