One of the great gifts of being a Baptist in an Episcopal world is that these two years have provided me the opportunity to refine my understanding of what I believe and how I live into my faith. If you had asked me to list what I expected to learn during my months of study before I started, I would never have said these words: that I would come to a better understand that I am and always have been an evangelical Christian.
It turns out that, in light of the events of this week regarding World Vision, this is a very, very important theological understanding to grasp. But here is what I know: there evangelicals and then there are Evangelicals, I am an evangelical.
Even with this clarification, that is often a shocking thing to say among the progressive wing of the Baptist polity. In 21st century America, our image of an evangelical Christian is not a pretty one, made even worse by events like World Vision’s reversal. The simple fact that the term was adopted by a political movement that had a particular flavor of religious expression as one of its organizing principles has done serious damage to our corporate understanding of the theological meaning of the word.
For quite a few years now I have been waging what has often felt like a one-woman campaign to rehabilitate this word. Just ask anyone who reads the listener mail at NPR — I’ve written more than a few notes about that networks consistent misuse of the word on air (I wrote to them because I thought there was a chance they might listen). In all that push back, I was running on instinct. Now, I am armed with history and language.
Like many words in our language, evangelical has more than one meaning — not just the one assigned by demographers, politicians, and journalists, and it can best be understood by returning to the beginning. This word comes from an ancient Greek root: “evangelical” means simply “to the good news.” New Testament authors used it specifically to express the salvation that came from learning about Jesus the Christ, for example in Mark 8:35: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” The word we translate as gospel is, in the original Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion, or latinized, evangeluium), the root of our word evangelical.
Please note that there is nothing in this definition about excluding others because they do not agree with you. There is also nothing in this definition that says once you have heard the Good News, you will have all the answers and only your way is the right way. The word Gospel is not synonymous with the actions of groups popular claiming the Evangelical label in our country today.
The beginnings of evangelicalism are decidedly Anglo-American — and considerably less organized, more theological and less judgmental than the “movement” today. The first stirrings began spontaneously in the community at Northampton, MA, and the theology was first showcased in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley (and his brother Charles). These men (and in the case of Jonathan Edwards, his wife) began to preach and write about the importance of a personal experience of and relationship with God and his son Jesus Christ, that such an experience and relationship is known and grows through the study of Scripture, and that no authority structure is needed to mediate or explain that relationship for us.
To say that you are an evangelical in this most original sense is to say that you believe in grace and the accessibility of grace to all. To say that you are an evangelical, to stand with Edwards and Wesley, is to say that the term applies to the relationship between you and your God, that it speaks to your experience of God…not your experience of your fellow human beings. Oh, it does indeed inform how you live in community and how you respond to humanity, but if you are responding in the confidence that grace is available to all who will partake you may not be so quick to exclude and hurt.
In its own way, this original evangelical impulse was a direct response to the closed communities of the more Calvinist congregations of the early American settlements. The idea of election takes a heavy blow when the universal access to and experience of personal grace becomes a possibility. And the accessibility of such grace means that no matter what human organizations do, it cannot be interrupted. Someone may possibly keep you from a specific job, but they cannot keep you living a life in relationship with God.
You see, I am an evangelical — that’s with an “e” not an “E”. And while I haven’t been afraid to say it for some time, now I am ready to shout it from the roof tops — with its proper meaning, of course. Maybe it is a time for a “new evangelicalism”. I am definitely not the kind that would be welcome at World Vision, in so many ways.
At the root of the evangelical personal impulse is a push towards change and an acceptance of diversity. If we do indeed experience God’s grace and love through our humanity, then the expression of that grace will be different for each person, in each time and place. But I simply cannot accept the premise that, in experiencing that divine relationship, the response will be fear, intimidation, and exclusion. Those things simply cannot be of the God I know.
I am not naive about this. I realize that that words and in particular words that label have multiple meanings. But I stand for the most pure understanding of terminology (this is probably why I study original languages like Hebrew). There will always be those around me who cringe when they hear this word, who would never use it to describe themselves and their beliefs.
To my Episcopal friends, I say thank you, because in studying with you and knowing you I have come to understand much about the essence of my faith. But I also say, be careful how you use this word. I am not alone in the category that the Pew Center for Religion would count as evangelical. We grow in numbers as we return to a clear and careful understanding of just what that word means. And the real meaning has nothing to do with donations and politics. It is all about faith.
I learned these things studying with you. And I did not learn these things in a theology class. I learned them in a Church History class, one that frankly I didn’t want to take but that I needed in order to have the right credits with which to graduate. Sometimes doing what is required brings the greatest reward. For this, I am grateful.
Oh, and in case I haven’t told you…I am an evangelical.