When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?
Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.
“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US. Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.
If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.
It’s actually worse than a pox. It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word
As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.
The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.
In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.
Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.
If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.
Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?
The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.
ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.
It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.
There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.
In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice.
To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.
I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:”
What is the euangelion?
“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.
The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.
While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.
Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.
Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.
The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.
McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,
“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.
“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle. It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.
“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.
The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means, and second, it is defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.
What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?
Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.