Evangelical: I don’t think this word means what you think it means.

Am I alone in wondering what it means to be an evangelical who stands for justice in today’s culture?

It’s been obvious for a long time that the centre of gravity in much of evangelical Christianity has shifted far to the right and has strayed a long way from the original intent of what the word evangelical meant. Those of us who believe in a truly biblically-based Gospel that is good news for everyone including the poor, used to use the word evangelical to describe ourselves with a sense of honour. So much wonderful justice-based work around the world has flowed from the compassionate heart of evangelicals who have talked about the true Jesus and then lived it out, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Faith in action has fed the hungry, comforted the afflicted, protected the vulnerable, and spoken words of truth and eternal life that have been imbued with power because of the actions and lifestyle that back them up. Yet in recent years and particularly in the last few months, that word has been so devalued and distorted that it has come to represent something entirely different from its original meaning.

Like many others, I have been appalled at how the word evangelical has been misused by those who equate the profoundly beautiful truths Jesus embodied with a far right political philosophy that seems to endorse the pursuit of money, power and racial division.  In its latest deeply distressing iteration, this has extended to the minimalizing of sexual harassment and violent behaviour towards women and even children. Some days it seems that the good news of Jesus Christ has been supplanted by a divisive and dangerous agenda as espoused by those who have the biggest mouths and most clogged filters. Now it has gone beyond the tipping point. In light of the fact that so many so-called evangelical leaders have chosen to stand with racist, misogynist, arrogant liars as the men [and it is almost always men] they choose to lead their country, it’s clear that we have moved into deeply dangerous territory.

That these people have been allowed to represent the Jesus I follow in a way that I and many others do not in any way stand for, is for me at least, intolerable. I believe that this is also true for the majority of Christians, certainly the ones I know. If that is the case, it’s time to stand for what and who we believe in, and to push back against the colonization of our faith by those who have such a shallow understanding of what that faith truly means.

If our theology is subservient to any political ideology that disavows the standards that Jesus sets us, our theology is wrong Click To Tweet

We must recognize that despite the many good works still going on, the mental image we carry when we hear the word evangelical is now vastly different from what the majority of the world thinks when they hear it. Thanks to the actions and words of those we have allowed to devalue and demean our faith definition, it has in fact become an offensive label to many. This is because of the way it has been used by some to support deeply flawed political positions and to bash people over the head with a “we’re right you’re wrong” attitude on a number of social issues. As a result, every reliable survey published in the last ten years such as ‘Hemorrhaging Faith’ and ‘Unchristian’ has shown that millennials and others are rupturing out of the church. Much of the reasoning for that can be put down to the fact that they want to follow Jesus, but simply refuse to align themselves with the sort of people who support pedophiles and sex predators, just because they come from the right political party.

I believe in freedom, justice, grace and the dignity that Jesus showed to the most wounded of people. I believe we are called to stand with the oppressed and the poor and to speak words of truth that shed light on why we act the way we do, words and actions that point the way to a beautifully restored world that is to come. I don’t believe in judgement, hypocrisy and double standards, particularly when it comes to how we label people or the way we treat those who are the most vulnerable in society as the “others”. I most certainly do not believe that there is any way those who say they stand as leaders of the life-changing faith I am part of can endorse this kind of behavior in the name of political ideology. If our theology is subservient to any political ideology that disavows the standards that Jesus sets us in terms of justice, grace, acceptance and love for the poor, our theology is wrong.

If those leaders and others who put ideology over good theology continue to apply the word evangelical to themselves, yet by their words and actions directly contradict who we are called to be, then we will either drive over the cliff or someone will have to wrestle the driver from the wheel. Those of us who are still true to what that word originally meant now have no choice but to either speak out vociferously against those who defame the true character and intent of what evangelicals are called to be, or to abandon that word and find another. I recognize that for many people who have spent much of their lives being very happy to be defined by that term, this is a difficult thing to hear and consider. Yet we must remember that the word evangelical is not a Bible-based word, it’s a culture-based one, designed as a container for a broadly accepted faith and theological position that was first used in the mid 1700’s. That position is not the one this is being widely misused now.

The truth is that we haven’t changed and nor has God. The label has, but it’s just that, a label, not a Biblical phrase or directive. When it’s correct and useful, use it. When it no longer describes what’s inside the container, discard it and find a new one. And to do that, we simply have to go back to scripture and see the world through a Biblical, not political, lens; one that calls us to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God”1Micah 6:8.  He is a God of love, beauty and grace, not hatred, ugliness and division.

And anyone who thinks otherwise, simply doesn’t know what it used to mean to be called an evangelical.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Micah 6:8