I don’t know why, but for now I’ve decided to care about the word “evangelical.” “Evangelical” can be a slippery word. Lots of people want to claim it. Lots of people want to disclaim it. I wouldn’t mind leaving it, really, except that right now those to my right are insisting that you have to agree with them about a whole host of things in order to claim that label for yourself.
I posted recently about Al Mohler, who insists that you have to be a complementarian on the gender issue so as to believe in inerrancy so as to be a good evangelical. Recently the Reformed world has distanced itself from the service of Pete Enns, Tremper Longman, and Bruce Waltke because they opened the door to a reading of Genesis 1-3 that was something other than literal. Most recently, a rumor has reached my ears that a certain evangelical college (I won’t mention its name because it’s only a rumor), under the lead of its complementarian president is beginning to institute a commitment to complementarianism by only allowing, for example, men to speak in chapel. May be true, may not, but the verisimilitude is enough to make my sectarian radar go up.
I am concerned about these developments. In particular, I’m concerned because those of us who aren’t interested in helping veer the ship to the right haven’t been as interested in carving out a broad definition of evangelicalism. (Though there are some exceptions.) In our silence, the ship is listing right, and I think that many of the developments, because of that, are or will be tragic for evangelicalism in America.
In pointed (and point-by-point) response to this listing right, I offer an alternative articulation of evangelical theology in some attempt to hold onto a word whose value seems to decline with each passing headline.
Evangelicalism for the 21st Century
Evangelical is an adjective that can describe Christians of various denominations and other substantives. There are evangelical Protestants, evangelical Catholics, and evangelical orthodox. There are evangelical Pentecostals, evangelical Anabaptists, and evangelical mainliners.
To be an evangelical is to be committed to the notion that the message of Jesus is good news about a God who desires all of humanity, each group within humanity, and every individual to be in relationship with God as the God of all.
To be an evangelical is to be committed to scripture as the word of God, a word that always has the power to prophetically confront and challenge what we take for granted–both within the church and as people in diverse cultures.
To be an evangelical is to be committed to telling the gospel story such that it will sound as good news in the ears of those who hear it, even as it summons us to repentance and faith.
In light of these three commitments: that the gospel be genuinely good news, that it comes as an invitation to be received into the family of God, and that we know of the good news as we learn it from scripture, here is an evangelical affirmation for the twenty-first century:
1. You can be an evangelical and not believe in inerrancy.
We believe this because of our commitment to scripture itself. Investigation of scripture will often, to many of us, provide indications that an “inerrant” Bible is not the way that God has chosen to speak to humanity.
This is part of the good news because it means that we do not have to set aside the labors of critical scholarship to affirm that the Bible is the word of God in which the good news is articulated.
Evangelicals embrace many of those who do affirm inerrancy. Many who embrace inerrancy are able to separate issues of inerrancy from issues of hermeneutics. This enables them to free the doctrine of what the Bible is from what the Bible must teach on any given subject. Many who embrace inerrancy do so with a revisionist definition of inerrancy that only intends to signal that the Bible is our ultimate authority. This, too, is an indication that the faithfulness to scripture as the word of God can go in numerous directions of faithful handling.
To be an evangelical who does not embrace inerrancy is to be a Christian who sets aside inerrancy because of what we find in scripture itself. This is not an application of anti-supernatural bias. This is not a presupposition against miracles or historical accuracy. It is a response to the Bible that has shown itself to be something other than inerrant–with a faithful confession that God has chosen just this sort of book through which to reveal himself.
2. Evangelicals can affirm the full inclusion of women in the life of the church.
To be an evangelical affirming women’s ordination is to be someone who is convinced that scripture itself leads the way toward their full inclusion in the body.
God the Father creates humanity male and female to rule the world on God’s behalf. To be an evangelical egalitarian is to confess that shared rule in the church is faithful telling of God’s purpose in creation.
Jesus the Son receives us all into himself, baptized as one into his name, where there is no longer male and female as a primary distinguishing marker. To be an evangelical egalitarian is to confess that shared ministry in the body is faithful living out of our common possession of the identity of the crucified Son.
The Holy Spirit fills all equally so that both sons and daughters will prophesy. To be an evangelical egalitarian is to confess that shared teaching in the church is a faithful expression of the egalitarian distribution of the Spirit.
I am an egalitarian because I believe what the Bible tells me about the Triune God in redemptive relationship to the humanity restored and renewed in Christ by the Spirit.
As an evangelical, I also acknowledge that others committed to scripture might demand a complementarian assessment of humanity’s standing before God. To be an evangelical complementarian is to acknowledge that this is an issue of hermeneutics, of finding primacy in some passages while relegating others to secondary positions. This differs from fundamentalist complementarianism which sees hierarchy in the church as essential to receiving the Bible as the word of God and to our confession of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Evangelical egalitarianism is good news to the world around us because it declares that the restored world into which God is inviting it does not demand subjugation of the weak to the strong, but upends the world’s hierarchical system.
3. Evangelicals can praise the God who created a 4.5 billion year old earth.
To be an evangelical old-earther, to be an evangelical who reads Genesis 1-3 as something other than literal history, is to be a student of scripture attentive to its own indications of genre.
To be an evangelical old-earther is not to reject the stories of Gen 1-3 as out-dated, but listen to them as the Ancient Near Eastern stories of ancient origins that they are. It is to listen to them and attend to the cues that they are not meant to stand as all-encompassing narratives about the beginning of all humanity.
They speak to us truly about the condition of the earth, about God’s intentions for humanity to stand one day over an ordered cosmos, and of a particular people as the means for that glorious future. We are old-earthers because we are attentive to scripture, not because we carry in presuppositions against it.
To be an evangelical is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other Christians who, studying Genesis 1-3 and submitting to it as the word of God, cannot but confess that the world is 6,000 years old. To be an evangelical young earther, rather than a fundamentalist young earther, is to recognize that this is a hermeneutical decision that has an important voice in the church’s story, but one that has had a counter-voice to answer to since long before the days of Charles Darwin. It is to affirm that others may make a different hermeneutical decision about Genesis 1-3 without giving up their commitment to either scripture or the God of the Bible.
Evangelical old-earth creationism is good news because it means that students of the natural world do not have to abandon their scientific knowledge to participate in the story of God. It means that they might, in fact, have something to teach the church about what the book of nature is teaching us all about the way in which God created.
4. Evangelicals robustly affirm the social ramifications of the gospel.
To be an evangelical advocate of the social gospel is to affirm the biblical story that the disintegration of the cosmos extends beyond the relationship of God with humanity to encompass also the relationship of people with each other, the created order with systemic powers, and people with the sub-human creation.
To affirm such a robust set of problems is to demand an equally robust set of solutions. If the good news is to be genuinely good news, it must proclaim that God’s anointed king comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
To be an evangelical advocate of the social gospel is to submit to the stories of the Gospels themselves, in which restored bodies, restored communities, subjection of demonic powers, and forgiveness of sins were all part of the ministry of Jesus.
To be an evangelical is to insist that to reject the social ramifications of the Gospel is to dishonor the extent of God’s care for God’s world, and the sweep of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
5. Conviction without Sectarianism. (click link for a fifth point added the next day)
To be an evangelical, one does not need to follow the lead of so many in power who are retrenching this movement to the right. As those who are committed to scripture, to its invitation to enter into a rich, life-giving relationship with God, and to its proclamation of a message that is actually good news, we can stand together and proclaim a story that is, in fact, beautiful to those with eyes to see.