“Evangelical. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, on Vizzini’s use of the word “evangelical.”
I’m an evangelical.
I love the things that evangelicals hold dear – the joyous transformation of personal conversion, the centrality and supremacy of Christ, the power of the gospel, the authority of the Bible and the call to evangelism and making a difference in society.
At its best, evangelicalism offers an extraordinary and compelling vision for life and faith. There are more than 600 million evangelicals worldwide –more if you add Pentecostal and charismatic movements that hold the same convictions as those who call themselves evangelical.
How can evangelicals avoid being fearful, moralistic, politicised jerks?
But “evangelical” has become a dirty word in many circles. It’s become associated with a wide range of negative ideas and themes, especially, but not only, in the United States. There are many examples. Promoting partisan politics. Fearing cultural change. Rejecting those who do not hold to a rigid form of Calvinism. Embracing nationalism and sanctioning militarism. Encouraging racial and gender discrimination. Acting as moral police while avoiding real scrutiny. Equating white middle-class values and lifestyles with the gospel. Avoiding scholarship and independent thought. Conflating capitalism with the Christian good life. Being afraid of science and literature and higher criticism. Endorsing immoral politicians and forming questionable alliances for short-term social or political gain. The list is long.
In many circles, evangelicals are seen as jerks, or worse.
The Bible is the highest authority in Christian life; people need the salvation offered only through the gospel and person of Jesus Christ; and God calls us to proclaim Christ and his salvation in every way possible. But none of that needs to be associated with the problems I’ve just mentioned.
So, what does a generous, loving, humble and holistic evangelicalism look like? Or, to put it more crassly, how can evangelicals avoid being fearful, moralistic, politicised jerks?
Here are 12 ways to be truly evangelical.
1. Grasp and respond to a fuller gospel
Evangelicals are passionate about the gospel. But, too often, the gospel is defined in a narrow or prescriptive way. We offer people a small five-point gospel, or something similar. But that’s an inadequate or truncated version.
Evangelicals must care about the whole biblical witness and the whole gospel. There is no gospel without the full biblical story.
God calls us to repentance and discipleship in response to a grand story. This is the story of creation, of biblical Israel and of the Jewish Jesus. It is the story of God, from creation to the final rule and reign of Jesus Christ.
So, what is the gospel? The gospel is the climax of this grand, stunning, defining story – a story that spans history, from creation to the eschaton.
1 Corinthians 15:3–4 tells us that the gospel is “of first importance.” What is the gospel? “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” How does this gospel shape our lives? “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
God calls us to respond to the entire biblical story. In one sense, this whole narrative is both the story of Jesus and the gospel. But, in another sense, the gospel is the climax of that story, as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
2. Let the Bible lead to a deeper love for Jesus
The Bible is crucial for Christian life. The Bible plumbs, measures, illuminates, adjudicates, enlivens, inspires, norms and more. The Scriptures are the authoritative word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. They have absolute and final authority in all aspects of corporate and individual faith, ethics, conduct, witness and theology.
We need a revival in our enthusiasm for Scripture.
Evangelicals must not shy away from biblical authority – we embrace it. Sadly, many Western Christians have a declining passion for memorising and contemplating and interpreting and applying Scripture. I find this deeply concerning. When I serve in Asia and Africa and Latin America, I see the opposite. People are passionate for Scripture. They devour and honour and memorise it. They interpret it contextually, while maintaining a conservative bias. And they apply it creatively and bravely. This is instructive for those of us in the West. We need a revival in our enthusiasm for Scripture.
3. Tear down false divides and really join God’s mission
The missional God has a missional church. The church does not have its own mission. God has a mission, and the church joins that mission.
But is that mission only about personal and individual conversion? Not at all. Since the mission of God includes the restoration of all things in fellowship with God, our mission must be integral and holistic. It can’t just be about simple proclamation or individual conversion. It includes those things but isn’t limited to them.
Let’s stop treating the culture as our enemy. Culture is our counterpoint, mirror, conversation partner, protagonist, foil, enricher and more. We must be socially and culturally engaged since we are always culturally located.
True evangelical life and mission integrates proclamation, justice, healing, creation care, political action, signs and wonders, reconciliation and human flourishing.
4. Welcome culture as a conversation partner
Sadly, evangelicals are often seen as fearing culture and cultural change. We treat culture as the enemy and act out of fear and defensiveness.
Let’s stop treating the culture as our enemy. Culture is our counterpoint, mirror, conversation partner, protagonist, foil, enricher and more. We must be socially and culturally engaged since we are always culturally located. Being culturally engaged and located does not mean being socially and culturally reduced. Instead, we explore where society, culture and theology have enriched, shaped and shackled each other. Sometimes all these things are happening at once.
5. Seek discipleship in community
Evangelicals care about personal conversion. But often our discipleship is too individualistic.
Discipleship happens in community. Community is essential for changed hearts and churches. Churches must seek orthodoxy (renewed beliefs), orthopraxis (transformed practices) and orthokardia (renovated hearts). All three need to be dynamic, transforming, life-giving and integrated. All three are about personal and corporate transformation.
Jesus calls us to discover discipleship in community. God calls us into fellowship with fellow Christians, the gospel, and his sufferings, consolations and hope. We share this vital fellowship with the Trinity and with all God’s people. A common possession unites Christians. This possession is the divine life and grace offered us in the life, death, resurrection and hope of Jesus Christ. We become disciples together – not individually or alone.
6. Listen and learn from many voices
Lesslie Newbigin writes, “We need the witness of Christians of other cultures to correct our culturally conditioned understanding of Scripture.” It’s as true to say that we need the witness of Christians of other cultures, races, denominations and genders to correct our culturally conditioned understanding of the gospel, the Bible, mission, discipleship, community and much more.
Sometimes evangelicals are viewed as arrogant. It’s time to change that. We need to be open to the interpretations, lives, cultures, traditions and views of others. This is about discerning God’s divine presence in community and conversation and church and world. This involves humility, listening, relationship and prayer.
7. Unite Spirit and word and justice
Why are so many evangelicals nervous about the work of the Spirit and also about social justice? We need an evangelicalism that unites Spirit and word and justice.
In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus is engaging the Sadducees in a debate about marriage at the resurrection. He hits these religious leaders hard with these words: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” It’s clear that Jesus thinks that these religious leaders don’t even know what the Scriptures say about the resurrection, let alone the power of God to do supernatural, astonishing, world-transforming things.
Their errors of biblical interpretation and superficial, corrupted faith arise directly from the fact that they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. Yet, Jesus knew both. In verse 33, we see that the crowds were “astonished” (amazed) when they heard him (as in Luke 9:43 and Acts 3:10). Jesus had the ability to amaze with his words as easily as with his signs and wonders – both produced the same reaction. This is because Jesus walked in the power of the word and the Spirit. We must seek to know both too.
Living in the power of the word and Spirit is about expressing the fruit of the Spirit, being generous and content, caring for the poor and broken, and loving our enemies.
8. Be the church and stop with the partisan politics
God calls God’s church to be a distinct people, with a distinct ethic, a distinct story, a distinct peace, a distinct community, a distinct diversity and a distinct witness. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “The first responsibility of the church is to be the church … The church doesn’t have a social ethic – the church is a social ethic.” Put another way, “The church doesn’t have a social strategy; the church is a social strategy.”
Evangelicals are often too closely aligned with specific political parties. But no secular political party represents Christ.
As the new humanity in Jesus Christ, our life together is political.
We’re not talking here about Republicans or Democrats or some other form of party politics. Evangelicals are often too closely aligned with specific political parties. But no secular political party represents Christ. A faithful church abandons the reach for politics, power, influence, wealth and prestige. Rather, it imitates the foolish weakness and scandal of the cross.
9. Pursue peace in a divided world
We are living in a divided and conflicted age. Evangelicals could contribute to this, or we could choose to be people of peace.
God calls the church to be a people of peacemaking and reconciliation. The Messiah is our peace and he’s abolished the conflicts and enmities that divide people (Eph 2:11-14). Peace and reconciliation are at the very heart of the new humanity in Christ.
10. Restore justice
Too often, evangelicals are seen as not really caring about justice. This can’t continue, without doing terrible damage to our tradition and our churches.
Restoring justice involves educating ourselves about injustices in our neighbourhood, society and world.
We must also educate ourselves about what it means to be a good and just neighbour for those exploited, on the margins, or suffering injustice.
Restoring justice involves talking openly and honestly about the issues. Talk about the injustices, deaths, discriminations and atrocities. Talk about the lives and humanity of black and white and other people. Talk with people from right across the spectrum – black and white, old and young, poor and rich, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and women and men.
11. Care about creation and the environment
The church cannot join fully with God in his mission while it neglects its responsibility to God’s creation. And I see no way that we can be disciples of Jesus without a passionate concern for his creation and a desire to heal the planet he gave us.
Creation care is missional. It’s essential to a missional church and theology. And it’s crucial to discipleship. Creation care is a gospel issue. The gospel calls the church to care for the world God has given us to steward well.
12. Seek a generous, humble and loving evangelicalism
In this piece, I’m asking us to move away from a narrow, fear-based, exclusive, anxious, partisan, politicised and combative evangelicalism, to one that is generous, inclusive, humble and love-based. This is a true evangelicalism and a true witness to the euangelion.
This true evangelicalism honours what evangelicals have always said they hold dear: the power of personal conversion, the supremacy and Lordship of Christ, the glory of the gospel, the authority of the Bible and our call to go into all the world and make disciples.
And this true evangelicalism grasps and responds to a fuller gospel story, which calls us to a prophetic, alternative way in the world. What is this way in the world? We let the Bible move us into a passionate love for Jesus Christ. We tear down false divides and join God in mission. We welcome culture as a conversation partner, and look for signs of God’s presence in the world. We seek discipleship in community, and live lives in contrast to the individualism and consumerism of our age. We’re humble enough to listen and learn from many voices. We unite Spirit and word and justice. We reject partisan politics and abandon the reach for politics, power, influence, wealth and prestige. Instead, we seek to imitate the foolish weakness and scandal of the cross. In the process, we discover that this generous, humble and loving evangelicalism is also a prophetic, compelling and biblical faith.
Graham Hill teaches pastoral studies at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. He is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. Graham has written six books. His latest two books are Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (InterVarsity Press, 2018) and GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches (InterVarsity Press, 2016).