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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.
Thanks, Brian, for sharing your thoughts and wrestlings and current conclusion (and Dr. Mouw’s, too).
Thoughtful and heartfelt, Brian. Many, many of us face that difficult question. Thanks.
This post was vintage Keepers. Wise. Balanced. Insightful. Thank you, Brian!
Totally agree with this. Thanks so much for writing it and highlighting Restless Faith.
Brian, thanks for your thoughts and Dr. Mouw’s thoughts on this. I probably haven’t wrestled “long and hard”, but have wrestled with it. The major issue for me is not necessarily how I identify with “evangelical”, but how to my colleagues and friends identify with it. As a professor at a large state university, I am in daily contact with people who have a decidedly negative view of what “evangelical” means. While we might disagree with that negative view, there is little doubt in my mind that the fundamentalist wing of the evangelical community has contributed strongly to that perception by adopting positions that are more based on politics than scripture. (Yes, I know that’s a loaded statement.) I am increasingly distancing myself from the term because using the term introduces huge barriers to conversations with the non-Christian community in which I work.
Thanks Brian. I remember growing up in the 50’s and 60’s when the Christian catchword was that of being a fundamentalist. They were considered the very conservative branch of Protestant Christendom. At that time, Wheaton college (where I grew up) was considered a fundamentalist school. Fundamentalists held to a strict literal interpretation of Scripture. And the application of Scripture was demonstrated by such practices as – no movies, no alcohol, no cards, no dancing, no smoking, etc. etc. I think Calvin College at the time was a close kin to the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists were generally proud Republicans and found the Democrats to be either Catholic or worldly. And yes, Catholics were worldly too.
But have you noticed that the “Fundamentalist” label has pretty much disappeared? No one wants to be characterized as such any more (not even Wheaton College). Maybe in its place the newer Christian catchword is that of being an evangelical. But already, like the fundamentalists of the past, evangelicals are gaining a bad reputation, especially in their ties to President Trump. In our culture, both fundamentalists and evangelicals are viewed with suspicion. The time may be coming when even “Christians” will be lumped with fundamentalists and evangelicals.
Hello Everybody (and Brian),
While at Western Seminary (washing dishes at the Community Kitchen a noon), I went to the beautiful, functional (new) library at WTS.
A new title caught my eye: Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting Badass Christianty, by former Hope instructor Miguel A. De La Torre.
Whoa! He names names, a scathing rebuke to the “evangelicals” who have given almost blanket support to the Republican standard-bearer.
A sample: “The Jesus of the US of A to whom Donald Trump and his apologists bend their knees, can never save the disenranchised who are consigned to the underside of whiteness. The crucial first step toward saying “yes” to God, yes to salvation, yes to liberation, and yes to our communities is to say “no” to oppression masked by a nationalist Christianity draped in the Stars and Stripes” (p. 13).
We need to join with a truer brand of “evangelical” that is good news for the poor, the captive, the prisoner, the marginalized and oppressed.
The term evangelical strikes me as fluid, or certainly contextual: in some places I will be read as an “evangelical” because of my beliefs; elsewhere I can be vaguely progressive because of my politics. To the extent that Evangelical has a meaning, it points to a community, both the one that shaped us — a community of memory if you will, and the present social community — a society. One may belong to one and not the other, or to both.
Among the Dutch, the Evangelical were those who left e.g. PJ Zondervan, or Calvary Undenom and RBC both out of then Calvary Reformed): they were “methodists” then “fundamentalists,” then ‘thank-G– I’m not one of them’ they’re from Iowa (Wisconsin, or Ottawa County).’
Because the term “evangelical” can sometimes describe our own history it comes with this internal turn that can distract. John’s account (ch 21) come to mind where Peter wonders “what about him (the other guy over there — John)?” And Jesus response clarifies what matters, “You are to follow me.” (vv. 21-22). I wouldn’t worry about Evangelical as much as I would worry about the following part. There’s plenty to be done.
Brian my friend. Thank you for sharing.
As you know I grew up in the Washington DC area – politics was the “Industry” of the town. The church I attended found it hard to preach the word while sidestepping the divisional nature of politics, but that was the case with all of us that lived in the area, both at work and in neighborhoods. I found common ground with people in the other party because we both agreed on common facts and finding some middle ground – in the Episcopal church of my youth, it was termed “Via Media” but that denomination has been taken over by the left and has driven the denomination into schism with power politics from the church leaders.
I have often heard people say that if your beliefs are in lockstep with either party, you probably have not wrestled with the issues enough to come to your own intelligent conclusion. Keep your brain engaged – keep in the word and find your own path. May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ guide your heart and mind.