Evangelical-ish

In 2012 I wrote a blog post titled "Pentecostal and not Pentecostal" in which I attempted to articulate the ways in which I might be Pentecostal-ish. For those Pentecostals who would say that we are brothers and sisters in response I would say "amen!" but to those who felt that I didn't qualify I would say, "Peace be with you and thank you for your honesty." In many ways I feel like I've come to the same place with the word "Evangelical" in that I know there are Evangelicals who would say we are family and others who would say I don't qualify. 

"Evangelical" is a word with little shared meaning these days. As I've been reading through Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism it has become apparent to me that Evangelicals may be defined by a creed, or they may be defined as a cultural phenomenon, and that our problem frequently has to do with people using the same word to mean different things. We have no final arbitrator, no set confession, just opinions. If the Pope of the Southern Baptist Convention, Al Mohler, says that Evangelicals must affirm A, B, C, and D to be "true" Evangelicals, then he is defining the word by his creed (there goes sola scriptura) while if the public defines Pat Robertson or John Hagee as Evangelicals it may be that this is more of a sociological matter than a theological one. While Evangelicals have quoted David Bebbington's four criteria of conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism often this doesn't seem to satisfy everyone, nor has it captured the popular imagination.

Recently, I joined the United Methodist Church. We are Mainline, but there is an Evangelical element to the denomination since many of the practices and the piety have been influenced by Wesleyanism. While there is diversity within the United Methodist Church there is far less fluidity as to what it means to be Methodists, to be Wesleyan. Wesleyan theology is defined by several particular doctrines such as prevenient grace, conditional election, unlimited atonement, a strong commitment to both personal and social holiness (activism), and the often debated but practically embraced quadrilateral (for a great book on the subject see Don Thorsen's Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice). Members of the United Methodist Church confess a series of covenant affirmations and we tend to give our energy and resources to our denomination as a means of shared mission. In practicality, Methodists can be defined by creed, unique doctrines, and visible ecclesiological affiliation. While there are differences here and there as made evident both by the fact that there is more than one Wesleyan/Methodist denomination, and by our own internal struggles to remain the United Methodist Church, it is less confusing that the blob of a word known as "Evangelical".

Personally, in one sense, I see "Evangelical" in the way many German Lutherans appear to have used it: as a positive way of saying "Protestant". Protestantism is defined by disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicalism would be the same movement of Churches, but defined by the affirmation that our shared Gospel, rather than our shared Pope, unifies us. The Gospel Coalition and other similar Neo-Puritan, Neo-Fundamentalist groups like it may want to restrict the word Evangelical to something more specific, and they may want to define the Gospel as including a series of doctrines like inerrancy and complimentarian gender roles, but most Evangelicals would agree that something like the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is "the Gospel", i.e., it is the message that centers us. All other doctrines tend to explain and expound upon the Gospel. This will be unsatisfactory to many since this definition may allow Protestant/Evangelicals to hold to a wide array of heresies whether they be anti-Trinitarian, unorthodox Christologies, or the like, but I don't see any other way to get around the idea that to be Protestant/Evangelical means anything other than the bare bones and that we must work from there.

I willingly embrace the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. I'm not ashamed of Wesleyan particulars. Therefore, I consider myself a Wesleyan/Methodist "Evangelical" in that broad sense of the word. That said, if we are to speak of Bebbington's criteria I must object at various points because I find the quadrilateral to be both a better and more realistic approach to theologizing than biblicism; because I see the need for conversionism to be tempered by a commitment to disciple making (lest our goal be merely to gain a crowd); because crucicentrism cannot exist without resurrection-centrism; because social action cannot be purely pious and inward, but must have at its heart loving our neighbor as ourselves and caring for the least of these. Much "Evangelical" social action has embraced neither the care for neighbor nor for the marginalized neighbor more specifically. After several years of trying to better understand Evangelicalism and what makes one an "Evangelical" it is apparent to me that the word has value when broadly defined (Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited may be one of the most helpful in trying to define "Gospel" in a way that remains orthodox, but not sectarian), but I am more than willing to abandon it around groups of people who think it must mean inerrancy, or complimentarianism/hierarchialism, or this or that. If this means I am not truly Evangelical in someone's eyes, then oh well, qué será, será. On the other hand, to quote John Wesley, "If your heart is as my heart, take my hand." If we can work together as Christians who understand that our unity is layered then let us. If not, then may we peaceably work apart for the Kingdom.