Anchor Sunday School Class
by Bob Marsh
WHAT IN THE WORLD IS AN EVANGELICAL? OR “DOES THE TERM HAVE ANY CLEAR MEANING IN TODAYS FLUMMOX-FILLED WORLD?”
A recent WALL STREET JOURNAL began a book review with these penetrating and somewhat disquieting words: “the role of evangelical Christians in the nation’s political life has been a magnet for controversy.” (How Culture Beat Religion, Mark A. Smith).
I had just heard some political talking heads pontificate on TV “political news” about the “power of the evangelical vote.” A CNN reporter stated: “South Carolina evangelicals are determined to defeat the progressives (a somewhat disingenuous euphemism for Liberal).” Fox News opined that "the EVANGELICAL VOTE WAS UP FOR GRABS." Subsequently the term “evangelical vote” has almost dominated the conversations taking place on TV, radio, and the printed page. I have heard the term used 3 times via TV this morning, and now I am looking at an article consisting of 3 paragraphs, containing the term EVANGELICAL 6 times! The NEW YORK TIMES asked a relevant question: “Who is a true EVANGELICAL?”
Much to my amusement and utter dismay, one candidate said of another candidate “I am more evangelical than he.” I was a guest preacher in a self-described EVANGELICAL CHURCH. Before I was called on to begin my Bible study, one of the leading churchmen called on the church to pray. “The Second Amendment is under attack. We need to pray that all of us EVANGELICALS will stick together and fight this attack.” At another church the announcement was made “we must make certain that the EVANGELICAL voters know how to vote.” So literature was made available entitled “THE EVANGELICAL VOTERS CHECK LIST.”
Other than the terms CONSERVATIVE AND PROGRESSIVE (LIBERAL), the term EVANGELICAL has been bantered and bloviated, and one might add discombobulated, from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam!!! In our protean and partisan political discourses, where rancid rhetoric trumps reasonable and honest dialogue, the term has an ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS characteristic when HUMPTY DUMPTY says in a rather scornful tone: “A word means what I want it to mean, nothing more, and nothing less.” Humpty, unfortunately, spoke for the mentality of much of our political narrative. If EVANGELICAL is a relative term, based on tropes that morph into vapid meaningless talking points, then we should have the courage to admit “it is sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It “means what I want it to mean.”
Reminds me when we were living in Andalusia, Alabama, a charming and wonder-filled town. Driving down East Three Notch street one day with our son, Charles, standing on the seat beside me (pre seat belt requirement days). Approaching one of the few traffic lights on the street, I saw that I had the green, but a woman was coming from a side street, obviously running the red light. I slammed on the brakes, causing the 4 year old son to go plummeting under the dash board, arms and legs flailing, yelps and screams spewing forth. Charles was neither bruised nor battered, but any semblance of aplomb was long gone. Jumping back on to the seat, rolling down the window, putting his 4 year old head out of the window, he bellowed “you bootlegger!!!” (Far nicer and cleaner than I had in mind).
I mildly scolded my son: “don’t call people bootleggers.” (And certainly not what I had in mind). He looked at me in all innocence and asked: “Dad, what is a bootlegger?”
The philosophers would philosophize: “great illustration of linguistic analysis!!!!” My take away has been: “great illustration of where we are today in all the kerfuffle’s over WHAT DOES EVANGELICAL MEAN?” (You might add CONSERVATIVE to the garrulous prattle).
So let’s call “time out” and raise the question that is dominating the semantical landscape: “What does the term EVANGELICAL MEAN OR SHOULD MEAN? OR DOES IT HAVE ANY CONSISTENT MEANING?”
We can begin with this axiom: to some it is a pejorative term, conjuring up images of snake handlers, ignorant back woods fundamentalist, narrow minded, misogynist, homophobic, and or course, Republicans. To some it is a synonym for Republicans who defend “traditional values, anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage,” and a host of other pro and anti-causes, worthy of substantive discussion and debate. We can categorically state that the term EVANGELICAL has a mixed legacy, and if one does not explain what he/she means, others will fill in the meaning for them. Good luck with that maneuver. Furthermore, the hard fact is that those of us who have worn the label EVANGELICAL have not always given the term the positive image that it deserves. We may have been more loquacious than logical; we may have answered the question with pious talking points rather than with “grace and truth.” One evangelical spokesperson wrote: “Want to know if someone is an evangelical? Ask them what they believe.” Of course, but the problem is “which evangelical do you ask?” Which begs the question “how do you know you are asking a TRUE EVANGELICAL?” The tendentious tirades that often take the place of rational discussion merely roil and produce an atmosphere of distrust and complete lack of sagacity. So, where do we who have claimed to be EVANGELICAL go, and how do we define what we think we are or should be?
The history of the EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT certainly needs to be explored by those who are determined to use the term. That is another subject for another day. The “fundamental” ideas (doctrine and theological beliefs) that generally define the EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT must be studied, but also clarified. For example, there is a long list of issues, doctrines and theological positions where bifurcation and extraneous issues dominate and tend to determine the direction in which the EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT actually moves. That is a vital discussion for another day. When Leith Anderson, the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS (NAE) president, argues “EVANGELICALS should be defined by their beliefs and actions, and not by their POLITICS OR RACE,” is he being quixotic or stating what should be obvious to all? In any event, for this paper, the conclusion is: IF THE TERM EVANGELICAL CONTINUES TO BE USED (and some EVANGELICALS think it should be discarded), HOW SHOULD IT BE DEFINED? Or more succinctly: “IS THERE A BIBLICAL ANSWER TO THE QUESTION?”
At the risk of being egregiously presumptuous and appearing to have a capacious appetite for arrogance, let me observe a few non-negotiables.
1. John 1:12. One must receive Jesus the Messiah in order to become a CHILD OF GOD. This indicates that a personal relationship with a personal Savior is the beginning of the Christian life, and at the heart of EVANGELICAL belief.
2. Romans 10:9, 10. Confession that God has raised Jesus from the dead is the foundation of faith. I Corinthians 15:1-4 presents the essence of the gospel, the good news from God. Acts 2:22-36 reveals the FUNDAMENTALS of the Christian gospel. It is important what one believes, and that belief must be founded upon the authority of THE WORD OF GOD.
3. John 13:17, “NOW THAT YOU KNOW…DO THEM!!!” What we believe should motivate a believer to put “EVANGELICAL BELIEF” into shoe leather. Before we continue using EVANGELICAL, let us be embraced by James 1:19-17. In fact, ruminating on “WORTHLESS RELIGION” would be a wise investment of time. James is essentially saying “if you are a TRUE follower of Jesus, using an equivocal term should not define you. What you DO in serving Jesus by caring for people, living out God’s love, is what truly matters.”
4. John 13:34-35. No definition of EVANGELICAL is valid unless it begins with what Jesus teaches is the most essential factor of the Christian life. No, it is not that one is “more conservative” than the other, nor more “sound in doctrine. The Christian must be marked as one who is “living a life defined by LOVE.” I John 3:11-18. Those who use the term EVANGELICAL to describe themselves are guilty of spiritual turpitude if these verses are ignored, or dismissed as “espousing a SOCIAL GOSPEL.” I John 4:7-21 expands on I Corinthians 13 by making it categorically clear that “real” Christians put into practice their DOCTRINAL BELIEFS.
5. A TRUE follower of Jesus will incorporate into daily living EPHESIANS 5:1-2 and the implications that follow. Ephesians 5:8 not only defines what it means to be a Christian, CHILDREN OF LIGHT, but motivates us to delineate and determine how we “live as CHILDREN OF LIGHT.”
6. Finally, and we are leaving out scores of Jesus’ teachings that give substance to a definition of EVANGELICAL, we listen to Jesus in MATTHEW 25:31-46. Yes, it is APOCALYPTIC LANGUAGE, but it clearly states what any definition of EVANGELICAL must include: caring for those who need to be loved, fed, clothed, visited, encouraged, and embraced in kindness. He speaks of THE STRANGER AND THE LEAST OF THESE. In vs 37-40 replace RIGHTEOUS with EVANGELICAL and we have an answer to the question: WHAT SHOULD DEFINE AN EVANGELICAL? “THEN THE RIGHTEOUS WILL ANSWER HIM, LORD WHEN DID WE SEE YOU HUNGRY AND FEED YOU….WHATEVER YOU DID FOR THE LEAST OF THESE MY BROTHERS, YOU DID FOR ME.”
I am totally aware that these observations are subject to disagreement, and I would welcome clarification and correction. However, at this point I will not budge: THE TERM EVANGELICAL MUST NOT BE DEFINED IN POLITICAL TERMS, nor become a vapid partisan phrase to appeal to certain segments of voters. In ACTS 11:26 “THE DISCIPLES WERE CALLED CHRISTIANS.” The writer Luke had referred to these followers of Jesus as “DISCIPLES(6:1), SAINTS(9:13), BRETHREN(1:16, 9:30), BELIEVERS(10:45), BEING SAVED(2:47, AND PEOPLE OF THE WAY(9:2).” These were the labels marking the believers. Christian: It was actually the pagan unbelievers who looked and listened to these followers of Jesus, saw acts of mercy, heard words of kindness, saw love in action, and declared THEY ARE CHRIST-PEOPLE, MESSIAH-CENTERED-PEOPLE, and CHRIST-REVEALERS!!!! They were being AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST, CHILDREN OF LIGHT, and REVEALING JESUS THROUGH DOING THE GOSPEL.
If the term is rescued from egregious mischaracterization, from being a political code word, then we must hear and heed the prophet’s admonishment to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream.” (Amos 5:24). We who are prone to wear the label EVANGELICAL must respond to Jeremiah’s description of “true” follower of the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast of His wisdom or the strong man boat of his strength, or the rich boast of his riches…but boast that he KNOWS ME, and that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on the earth. IN THESE I DELIGHT.” Jeremiah 9:23-24. So the next time we hear the term EVANGELICAL, let us measure the validity by the criterion of Christ: 'IF YOU KNOW THESE THINGS....DO THEM IN LOVE AND THE NAME OF JESUS." If the term EVANGELICAL is to have any reason for existence, it must be heard and seen by that which defined the early Church: “I will show you my faith (EVANGELICAL?) by what I do (caring for the needs of people in the name of Jesus).” Amen!
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