Evangelicalism: Take it, or leave it?

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Words carry meaning.

Or is it more accurate to say that words carry meanings?

All words have a lexical definition. But in cultural contexts, where we actually live and read and speak, and especially over time, sometimes words take on meanings different than what the dictionary might prescribe.  A Christmastime example;

Deck the halls with boughs of holly;
tis the season to be jolly;
don we now our...

Fa-La-La-La-La I guess…

Lately there’s been quite a bit of buzz regarding the meaning of a particular word that bears tremendous significance for my chosen vocation; evangelical. President-elect Donald Trump’s November victory appears to be deeply indebted to the so-called ‘evangelical vote’, especially in crucial swing states such as Florida. Most polls and news outlets indicate that Mr. Trump carried an astounding 80% or better of “evangelical” votes. 

Now we have to be careful here – while I personally did not vote for Mr. Trump, I do know a few people who did, and certainly without liking it. Many of my ‘evangelical’ friends felt trapped in a zero-sum game this past election; something akin to Gozer the Gozarian forcing the Ghostbusters to choose the form of their destroyer. The raw statistic of 80% of a demographic’s vote does not necessarily translate to 80% actual support.

That having been said however, no small number of Christians, who previously would have assumed that the nomenclature of evangelical applied to them, are now looking up and wondering, If 80% of people in this group voted in a way with which I (vehemently) disagree, why do I continue to associate with this group?

Two articles in particular from major publications have recently weighed in on this issue: An op-ed in the NY Times entitled, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men is Dead, and a feature in the Atlantic, Should Anti-Trump Evangelicals Leave the Movement? Both pieces seem to agree that “evangelical” no longer means what it used to, but they come to opposite conclusions as to what ought to be Christians’ next move.

Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne urge a reformation of sorts in the NY Times, calling Christ-followers to break from the “evangelical” religious-right political establishment and replace it with a new movement, returning to the so-called “red words” of Jesus in the Gospels. 

Jonathan Merritt on the other hand argues in the Atlantic that anti-Trump evangelicals need to stay where they are, and affect change from within. Rather than jump ship, they should try to steer the large religious group back toward its lexical roots, while being a force to influence our new president’s policies and behaviors. 

So what is a Christian to do? Abandon the vocabulary of “evangelicalism”, or fight to reclaim it? Here are three considerations:


Jesus Doesn’t Call Us Evangelicals

“Evangelical” is not found as a title for Jesus-worshippers in the New Testament. In fact, even the word “Christian” only occurs three times in the entire Bible (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Pet. 4:16). The first followers of Jesus were overwhelmingly referred to as his “disciples”, i.e. learners, or even apprentices. In what has stood for centuries as the consummate vision statement for so many churches and Christian organizations, Jesus entrusts his mission to his followers by commanding them to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). Not “converts”. Not “conservatives”. Not even “believers”. Disciples.

The guiding principle of Jesus-worship is to become his apprentice: to do Jesus-stuff and say Jesus-things.

This isn’t to say that the titles “evangelical” or “Christian” are inherently wrong.  Nor is it to deny that apprenticeship to Jesus involves, or even requires belief, conversion, or holy living.  But it is to remind us of what Jesus himself says about his own followers. First and foremost, the guiding principle of Jesus-worship is to become his apprentice: to do Jesus-stuff and say Jesus-things. And then to show others how to do the same. 

So whatever vocabulary we may use to describe this group of people, it will only be valid so long as it conveys that essential meaning. If the word “evangelical” no longer means in our vernacular, “a follower of Jesus, transformed by his evangel”, then can we really justify continuing to use it?


Jesus Doesn’t Fit in With the Religious / Political Establishment

As you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it’s impossible to miss Jesus’ perpetual conflict with the religious establishment of his day. This is particularly evident in his clashes with the Pharisees, who were, ironically, the conservative party at the time. It’s a mega-theme in all four Gospels. 

Jesus was not content to sit and let people fall victim to a religious organization ruled by those who might “honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him” (Matt. 15:8).  Jesus had no patience for hypocrisy or self-righteousness among the religious in his day, and it’s hard to imagine that has changed.  

Jesus did not come to us so that he could create a new voting-bloc to subvert local Judeo / Roman politics. To the contrary, the many in Jesus’ day who expected their Messiah to be a political figure were sorely disappointed (e.g. Matt. 16:21-23). 

It’s not that Jesus was some anarchist, or “anti-establishment” per se. But the public political/religious machine of his day had certainly gone in a direction he could not and would not endorse. And he didn’t try to fix it. He called people out of it. 


Jesus Is Not Threatened

Finally, it seems appropriate to remember that Jesus is in fact the one building his church (Matt. 16:18). If the gates of hell cannot prevail against Jesus’ work, then neither can a seventy-year-old-man from New York (nor could a sixty-nine-year-old woman from Arkansas for that matter). The impression I'm left with over the last eighteen months of watching election coverage on news stations (both right and left-leaning), is that Chicken Little has somehow hijacked all the media outlets: The sky always seems to be falling!  

The ‘movement’ of Jesus-followers is not at risk, and can hardly be called a ‘casualty’ of the election.

Perhaps we should all pause and take a collective deep breath before we each give ourselves an ulcer. Jesus is still the Lord of the church. Jesus still walks among the lampstands, and holds the stars in his hand (Rev. 1:19-20). As shocked as many of us may have been on November 8, 2016, Jesus was not surprised. At all. Vocabulary aside, the “movement” of Jesus-followers is not at risk, and can hardly be called a “casualty” of the election, despite Mr. Campolo’s adamant insistence to the contrary.  

As far as the label “evangelical” goes, maybe it will stay, and maybe it will go. Many other labels have come and gone before. The vocabulary of “evangelicalism” might confuse the watching world for a season. But as Christians continue living out the Gospel in plain view of others, it will bring poignant clarity as to who actually worships and represents Christ, and who does not (John 13:35). 

The next season for the church in America might be one of winnowing out nominalism (Matt. 3:12). Jesus-followers in 2017 might have to work harder than ever to explain the Gospel, and what it does and does not mean. The church might have to engage the culture in fresh and creative ways in order to declare the excellences of Christ.

Can we really say any of these are a bad thing?