in defense of evangelicalism

Labels are a strange beast. As a word-lover, I appreciate their precision, but plenty of people eschew them altogether, perhaps not wanting to be categorized, pinned down, or boxed in.

There is power in naming, which I suspect relates on both counts. Label lovers use them to demonstrate certain understandings of the world or to proclaim integral components of personal identity. Label haters, on the other hand, refuse to allow themselves to be controlled by something so limiting and inadequate.

"Evangelical" is something of a contentious badge these days. The media made it synonymous with the Religious Right of the 1980s onward, and plenty of Christian culture warriors were (and remain) happy to play along, but Evangelicalism's hallmarks are not conservative politics but belief in the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Christ, his saving work on the cross, and a commitment to conversion and evangelism.

I grew up evangelical, asking Jesus into my heart when I was five. I am well-acquainted with flannel board Bible lessons and Psalty praise tapes. Every summer at camp, I re-dedicated my life to Jesus with my back against pine and tears in my eyes. I signed a True Love Waits pledge and fasted for the 30-Hour Famine with my Baptist youth group. I kept quiet times, prayer journals, and well-marked Bibles. I skanked to the beat with the Supertones and camped the Creation Music Festival. I dragged my longsuffering Jewish friend to a volleyball tournament that included a gospel presentation. To this day, I can't hear "Total Eclipse of the Heart" without flashbacks of mimes falling prey to addiction and gossip. I know my way around Young Life, InterVarsity, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and non-denominational worship. I crushed on Mac Powell of Third Day and sat through dozens of iterations of a that "I Am a Thief" skit where Jesus is crucified, and you're supposed to feel sad, but it's also confusing because camp's cutest counselor is playing Jesus, and he's not wearing a shirt.

I also technically grew up in the Mainline, but my twenty-odd years in the Presbyterian PC(USA) church were thoroughly evangelical. (I didn't actually meet a bona fide Mainline liberal until I got involved in anti-poverty and peace organizing as an adult.) I didn't feel stifled there as a woman. My gifts for ministry were nurtured and largely affirmed, and I worked as a youth minister my first job out of college.

I still believe in the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus, but I believe that Jesus is the Word of God to a greater degree than the Bible is, and I have a few more questions than I used to. I seek to understand the Bible in community through the witness of Jesus, historical context, and the arc of the biblical narrative as a whole. My esteem for Scripture is just as strong, but when Truth is understood as a Person, the Bible becomes something more than a textbook. There's more room for mystery, tension, and beauty.

I still believe in Christ's saving work on the cross, but I believe his birth, ministry, and resurrection were significant, too. Jesus wasn't "born to die"--he lived to reveal God's shalom and set right the ill sin wrought. Put to death by religious and political authorities, Christ's resurrection disarmed their violent power, revealing a better kind that makes all things new in humility and love, without coercion.

I still believe in conversion, but less as a once-and-done event. Repentance is an ongoing work, and salvation is not merely for individual hearts or heaven: it's also the liberating, reconciling inauguration of God's reign here, "on earth as it is in heaven."

I still believe in evangelism, but not like I used to when I alienated more than one friend trying to get them to come to Christian events. The gospel of come-to-church-stuff (or go-to-heaven-when-you-die for that matter) isn't the most compelling good news we've got, and honestly, it betrays a certain heresy about where God works and dwells. These days, evangelism looks more like attempting to reveal what Jesus is like and acknowledging the ordinary sorts of places where I see God at work. It's a lot more like regular life.

When we moved here nine years ago (for Jim to work at the evangelical camp where we met and I grew up), we found ourselves most at home at the little country Episcopal church full of elderly folks and empty-nesters. I suppose that means I'm not properly an evangelical anymore, but not because I outgrew it or was pushed away. Evangelicalism was good to me. It showed me Jesus. It still does.

I know a lot of people's stories are different. Many stories involve great pain and loss, feeling chased out or condemned, and those stories need our hearing. They are valid, 100%.

Mine is, too.


Some fundamentalists are evangelical, but all evangelicals are not fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination. Fundamentalism has a unique history and identity, and its emphases on separatism, authority and control, literalism, doctrinal purity, and rigidly enforced boundaries delineating In from Out set it apart from its far less inhibited cousin.

Having grown up and ministered in bigger tents with a considerably more generous orthodoxy, that's not the Evangelicalism--or honestly, the Jesus--I recognize. Since their faith doesn't particularly read like Good News, I'm not sure why the fundamentalists should be allowed to renegotiate the bounds of Evangelicalism.

"Fundamentalist" was originally a self-chosen label, but as it's taken on a pejorative connotation culturally, there is a vested interest in re-branding fundamentalism as evangelical, but any dogged policing of the gates betrays the tell-tale mark of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are free to assume the evangelical label, but when self-appointed emperors aren't wearing any clothes, we don't have to pretend otherwise or acquiesce to their determination of who's Out.

I don't presume to know if God would have you stay or go. Since denominations, local congregations, personal experiences, and tipping points vary tremendously, there will be few universal answers for the faithful navigating the minefield that is Evangelical Christianity in this post-modern age. The Spirit may make it clear to you, or She may feel a million miles away, but I trust you'll know your next steps better than any random blogger on the interwebs. But if the gatekeepers can't kick us out, the leavers can't drag us out either. Go or stay; there are a million ways to be faithful.

Here's what I do know: Christ has but one Church, and for better or worse, we're family. Fundamentalist, Evangelical, liberal, Catholic, missional, Mainline, conservative, charismatic, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Reformed: we're sisters and brothers. We can disagree, drop, and pick up new labels and traditions, but as long as we're following Jesus, there's no escaping the fact that we're keeper and kindred, meant to live and bear the Good News together. We belong to one another.

At the end of the day, these labels matter little. It is by love we're called to be known, and we've got a world of work to do.

Post-script: After the 2016 election, I no longer believe the evangelical label to be worth salvaging. Christ exists outside that bedded-to-empire mess, beloved.

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