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“How much longer are you going to keep calling yourself an ‘evangelical?’” a friend recently asked me. “Don’t you think it’s time to give it up?”
I’ve wrestled long and hard with this question. Over the years, the word has become so entangled with right wing politics, its meaning anymore is confusing at best. It’s a label that now gets attached to the most active religious supporters of Donald Trump, particularly white conservative men who played a significant role in getting Trump elected and, according to pollsters, are quite happy with the president’s job performance.
So if this label is so confusing and problematic for so many, why hold on to it? Has the label outlived its usefulness? This is the key question of Richard Mouw’s newest book Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos Press). Dr. Mouw has long been a mentor of mine through his writing—a trusted voice of wisdom when it comes to bearing the title “evangelical” and living it out with humility and grace. Restless Faith is vintage Mouw. With typical wit, incisiveness and charity, Mouw explains how he has always been a “restless evangelical” (that’s what he wanted to title the book), not ever fully at home in the more politicized brand of U.S. evangelicalism, and yet he still believes the label is worth embracing. Part of this is due to Mouw’s own vow of stability to the movement, in a similar way Benedictine monks pledge to stick with a monastic community through good times and bad. But it’s also because Mouw still believes in what the word “evangelical” stands for at its core.
I hadn’t thought about it as a vow of stability before, but maybe there is something like that in my own relationship to evangelicalism. I became a Christian through an evangelical parachurch ministry, Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). And it was through FCA that I found my way into the Reformed Church in America, where my newfound faith was nurtured and formed in the biblical story. Evangelicalism drew me to the living Jesus, and it called me to a life of discipleship that was intentional and had a profound impact on every aspect of my life. So like Mouw, I’ve got some history here. The notion of a vow of stability resonates with me. “There is much to consider in deciding to break that vow,” Mouw writes. I think I understand.
But it’s got to be about more than just loyalty to the past. That wouldn’t be reason enough to stay with the label. Mouw would agree. As I consider why I’m still self-identifying as an evangelical, it is also because I believe in the heart of evangelicalism. The word “evangelical” is derived from the Greek word “evangel,” meaning gospel or good news. While the precise definition of evangelical is up for debate, Mouw looks to the British historian David Bebbington for the most succinct and clearest description of evangelicalism. In a book published in 1989, Bebbington proposed a four-part definition, which has become known as “the Bebbington quadrilateral.” It identifies these four distinctively evangelical emphases: (1) belief in the need for conversion—making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; (2) embrace of the Bible’s supreme authority—the sola scriptura theme of the Reformation; (3) emphasis on a cross-centered theology—at the heart of the gospel is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary; and (4) insistence on an active faith—not just Sunday worship, but daily discipleship.
Now even if you don’t self-identity as an evangelical, you may affirm these features, or at least aspects of them. What makes these distinctive to evangelicalism, Mouw asserts, is that they are singled out as key theological basics and given primary emphasis.
This past Friday I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Mouw over coffee. We were both attending a conference celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Canons of Dort at Dordt College (he was a plenary speaker), and he was gracious enough to give me some of his time. In a moment of vulnerability, I confessed to him: “I’m just not sure where I belong. I’m not conservative enough for some people, and not progressive enough for others. Where do I fit? Did you ever feel that way?”
He leaned in and smiled. “I always felt that way. I still do. Maybe now more than I ever have. That’s why I use the words ‘restless evangelical.’ And yet I keep holding on, even as I seek to build bridges. It’s not easy. And it can feel lonely at times. But this may be just the kind of evangelicalism that we most need right now!”
As I’ve reflected on that conversation, his phrase “kind of evangelicalism” has stuck with me. The kind of evangelicalism I encounter in Mouw is not just about the substance of his conviction; it’s also about the way he holds these convictions. And this is what draws me: a kind of evangelicalism that is both convicted yet humble, robust and generous, open-hearted and curious, faithful to the past’s legacy but always restless and willing to be self-critical. Richard Mouw embodies this kind of evangelicalism, and I’m grateful for his witness. It’s this kind of evangelicalism that I think I’m willing to stick with and keep wrestling to hold on to.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.