Can We Take Back the Word “Evangelical” Now?

I was listening in my car to a podcast from The Nation magazine as they interviewed a woman who had done a history of White Evangelicals (she studied Black Evangelicals as well, but said that was another book altogether). She talked about how 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, because they believe he was most supportive of their agenda. Issues of piety — whether he had 2 divorces and 3 wives or went to church regularly – did not matter to them, though that was the standard that every President since Reagan has been held to. What mattered to them at this moment in time were “fighting terrorism” (The Wall and Muslim Ban) and “economics” (jobs in poor White communities), and “abortion” (they’re against it, really against it, so the Supreme Court choice was vital to their ideology). If I heard it right, 20% of Americans consider themselves this kind of evangelical. I want to be an evangelical and I want to be known as an evangelical, but I never want to be that kind of Evangelical.

                         “Christ for the world we sing/the world to Christ we bring”

For years, those kinds of evangelicals have been claiming that they are “real Christians”, just as conservatives in politics have been claiming that they were “real Americans”. This was so true that many liberal Christians like me gave up using the word. My friend Leigh McCaffrey was the only person I knew in seminary who was both proudly liberal and called herself an Evangelical. She still does. Though we’re different people with different ways, she is closer to the kind of Evangelical I want the world to be full of than all the other “Evangelicals” I know.

I have been told that “Christ for the world we sing” is about colonialism and triumphalism (the “we’re better than anybody else” version of Christianity), and I might not want to sing it in church. Besides just liking the hymn itself, I believe both that we should sing and bring Christ to the world because the world needs what Jesus is selling – not political Jesus or “might makes right, I’m the only way” Jesus, but actual Jesus. By that I mean “love your neighbor as yourself and love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” Jesus. I believe that what Jesus had to say, and the things that he did while on earth, are, in fact, the best way to live for me. I’m not going to kill you, or even threaten you if you don’t believe the same thing, but it’s my job to put my kind of Jesus on the table of choices. You can’t choose what you don’t know, but if there’s only one way , then you can hardly be seen as having/making a choice.

The first thing to do, it seems to me, is to break the term Evangelical from its political moorings. People who focus on God and Jesus don’t even necessarily believe in having allegiance to countries, so a certain type of allegiance to a country makes less than no sense. One can be a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Social Democrat, and be a Christian. Swearing allegiance to a party or its platform has nothing to do with Christian living. At best, one party might be closer to Jesus’ call than another, but party is not church, and it shouldn’t be. Following Jesus is different – and more important to me – than following Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or frankly anybody. I want to measure my President by Jesus’ standards, not the other way around.

                                                           “We sing”?

Wanting to be called an “evangelical” is important because of what “evangel” means. “Evangel” in Greek means “good news” or “gospel”. Wanting the world for your self isn’t good news to anybody. Wanting to take away a woman’s right to choose – to make decisions with good or bad outcomes and thinking she can cope with the decision – is apparently not good news to all those women who marched the day after Trump’s inauguration. “I’m richer than anybody on the face of the earth” isn’t good news to anybody but you. “I’m more important that anyone else” isn’t good news to the rest of humanity. So what is good news? Anything that tells another person they are worthy of love, peace, and happiness is good news. Anything that tells another person that I want them to be the best “them” they can be is good news. Anything that tells of the mercy, grace, justice, peace, of God or Jesus is good news. In short, people know good news when they hear it. Furthermore, people believe good news when you act on it.  

I’m more of a practical guy. I like to see results. I can tell my kids I love them, or I can give them a hug. I can say I believe in equality, or I can have people over for dinner or protect, advocate for or march in support of them. That is what it truly means to be an evangelical – you tell the good news of Jesus through your actions to God and your actions towards others. Jen Chapin has written a song called “gospel” after attending the environmental march and caring about others. That makes her, in my mind, an evangelical, because she understands the very heart of the gospel. Whether she knows it to be Christian or not, she and everyone else understand that what she is saying is good news.

How do you know if you’re bringing the good news to others – other than asking them? The Bible says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. Quite simply if you’re doing the things God wants, and you’re modeling the faith of Jesus, you should be feeling those things and acting like you feel them.

So that’s a definition of Evangelical I can get behind, and it so far from the voting pattern in America that I want it back. I want to evangelize with my heart and my actions. I want to draw people to Christ because I have something they think they want. I want to be someone they want to be. I want to act in ways that they know good people do. Right now, I accept that my doing so will confuse them, because of all those other people who have used the term as a term of separateness and power over others. That’s ok. If I do this right, I’ll be the same most of the time, and they’ll have time to get used to it.

A FINAL NOTE: The things I have said above aren’t just true of me, but of almost any colleague of mine that I know. They live their lives the very best they know how, the care, and they hope you’ll see Jesus or God or the Spirit in their life and living. They, too, have been living in a world where somebody stole their word. They want it back, too.

Resisting in peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

                 

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2 thoughts on “Can We Take Back the Word “Evangelical” Now?

  1. Personally I have a hard time believing that any president in my lifetime was a true Christian, although several of them have stated that they are. I suspect this is a disingenuous attempt to get the “Christian vote” (I have issues with that).

    Especially in the South, the Christian Vote cannot be overlooked because of sheer numbers. That makes it an attractive thing to say during a campaign, but don’t think any President has let his sense of Christian morals override his political motivations (at least in my lifetime).

    -Bob

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