Monday, September 5, 2011

The Importance of Being "Evangelical"

Tolerably early in life I discovered that one of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to go about unlabeled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog.
-- Thomas Henry Huxley

I grew up a part of the cleverly-named East 91st Street Christian Church. It was, as you might have guessed, located on East 91st Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. And it was called "Christian Church" because that was the only label that those in its spiritual tradition would accept.

I remember many occasions where I was asked "What kind of Christian are you?" My stock answer was "I try to be a good one." "But are you Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian? Catholic?"

Nope. Simply "Christian."

It was fascinating to realize at a young age how much labels mattered to the people around me. I didn't learn until I got to college that I was an "Armenian." It wasn't long after that before I learned I was an "Egalitarian." (Side note: in the spirit of calling things what they are, can't we change "complementarian to "patriarchal" and "egalitarian" to "complementarian?" There's a benefit of naming your side first.)

As time went on, I learned more labels for myself, mostly from people who disagreed with me. But it wasn't until grad school, while taking a church history class, that I discovered I was an Evangelical. I kid you not, I went through three years of Bryan College and came out without realizing that "Evangelical" could be a spiritual heritage in addition to a voting record. People would say "We Evangelicals believe" and I'd zone out since it didn't pertain to me.

So Rachel, one of my favorite current writers, wrote a fantastic piece today called "Journeys of a Religious Misfit." If you're not reading Rachel, start now.

I've been reading her blog since Day 1, and one of her ongoing frustrations has been one I see many of my friends wrestling with: the label "Evangelical." Does it help us or hurt us? Should we further split the "Evangelical" label into smaller, more accurate ones? The whole discussion makes me nauseous. I wrote about it several months ago but failed to save my work.

The one label I'll allow myself these days, if somebody's really trying hard to pin me down, is this: "Well, I currently attend a Vineyard church, but I'm really a crypto-Campbellite." A what the what? "Campbellite," after Thomas Campbell, who wrote one of the most important religious documents in American history: The Declaration and Address.

He strongly encouraged his readers to abstain from all other names besides "Christian," because, as he said:

division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.

Here's the thing. I'm a Christian. So's John Piper (with whom I don't always agree). So's Rob Bell (see above). So's the Pope (again). So's Tim LaHaye, or the CBMW, or the Sojourners, or anybody else with whom I frequently disagree. It doesn't matter. These people are still Christians just like me. Or, perhaps more accurately, each one is "a wretch like me."

Today Rachel wrote:
At lunch I confessed to one of the monks, Brother Brenden, “I know it doesn’t work this way, but I wish I could take the pieces I love from each tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, Mennonite, Methodist, Evangelical, Anglican—and cobble them together into a home church.” He smiled sympathetically, but in a way that said, “Yeah,it doesn’t work that way.”

Why not? What's stopping us? I respect Brother Brendan's position and find it almost everywhere, but I beg to differ. There's a word for someone who's a Catholic Orthodox Mennonnite Methodist Evangelical Anglican:

Christian.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hiya--just a note, that you are really an Arminian (theologically) rather than an Armenian (ethnic group).

even one sparrow said...

Lovely. Yes. AMEN. It's about time we started talking this way in the church. Thank you for this post.

(I followed it from Rachel's blog!)

wilsonwanderings said...

this is awesome! i am a fellow east-91ster, and i read rachel's blog frequently. i could not agree more with you more. good to find you on the blogosphere!

anne durham-wilson

Don said...

I once saw a self-description of some Christian who went on and on for about 30 terms, many of which I could not even guess what they meant. But I guess he knew what he was and wanted to proclaim it.

In deference to Messianics, I prefer the term believer over Christian even.

Micah said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I blame auto-correct.

David Miller said...

Brian McLaren's GENEROUS ORTHODOXY is an attempt to appropriate all the good stuff, so to speak, from each tradition.