Sunday, September 18, 2005

Christian labels

I was pondering this post at the Sojourner blog. A Baptist pastor in the USA questioned what is meant by the word 'evangelical'. I wrote a few of my thoughts, saved in draft form, then forgot about it for six weeks...

The word evangelical seems to mean different things in different countries. In the UK it's primarily about an emphasis on Bible belief: more-or-less the opposite of 'liberal' when talking theology. However it's also used to describe a general style of worship, distinguished from 'traditional'. Although that one's a bit looser. To confuse matters further, some evangelical theology churches use traditional styles of music, and perhaps liturgy. And, of course, some much more liberal theology churches use modern upbeat music which has been written by evangelicals.

However on the whole, an evangelical British church is likely to be reasonably informal although the services may well include some structure such as liturgy. Members of such a church are likely to take the Bible seriously as God's word, applicable - at least for the most part - today, although they'll accept that there are often several possible interpretations of some passages. They're usually somewhat charismatic, at least in theology, but generally not pentecostal. Politically most evangelicals are somewhat left of centre, but not all.

In the USA the word seems to mean 'conservative' when referring to theology. Yet 'conservative' usually refers to sticking with the status quo, and evangelical churches in the USA tend to use modern music, not the sort that's been the status quo for the past few centuries. It also gets tied up in the so-called 'religious right' which as far as I can tell is an American concept, and not one I wish to discuss. At least, not today.

To add to general confusion he word 'evangelical' is sometimes misused to mean 'evangelistic'. Certainly the words have the same roots: ev/eu meaning 'good', angelos meaning 'message' or 'news'. But evangelism simply refers to telling people the good news about Jesus. Most evangelicals believe in evangelism, even if they're not very good at it. But there are some evangelists who are not evangelical...

Sadly, the evangelical movement of the 1970s (when I was a teenager) caused a lot of pain and confusion in the UK. We were repeatedly given an almost triumphalistic message by youth leaders:

Believe in Jesus, trust the Bible, read and study it every day, cling to God's promises, and everything will be fine. Thank God in all circumstances, never doubt, never despair, never give up.

That kind of thing, anyway.

Of course each of these exhortations is fine, and true, and backed up by Scripture. It's just that life isn't that simple. God doesn't always make things easy for us. Awful things happen to nice people. Christians fight, they sin, they reject each other, they hurt each other.

The other main emphasis - at least, in my memory of those years - is of the approachability of God through Jesus. And it's a very important point. God isn't remote, or a harsh judge waiting to condemn us.

On the other hand, some of the evangelical leaders tended to imply that the traditional church (mainly Roman Catholics, Greek/Russian Orthodox, and Anglican) were heretical because they focussed on tradition more than on Scripture. There was a lot of judgementalism in the evangelical movement in the UK, and a feeling of 'us and them'. We had the real truth, we were told, the traditionalists were missing the point. At best. Or even leading other astray deliberately.

Now nominalism in traditional churches is an ongoing problem. But it's not limited to the traditional churches, and - more importantly - the fact of uncommitted fringe members doesn't mean that the entire congregation or denomination is off the rails. God moves in mysterious ways, and it's certainly not for me to judge.

So am I an evangelical? Yes, in a broad sense. I do believe the Bible was inspired and is relevant today. I also believe it must be taken in context, with no single verse pulled out and turned into doctrine. If something is important to God, he'll have make it clear in more than one place. I'm not going to get hung up on head coverings or women leaders or what we do on Sundays, because those are fringe issues. My Anglican roots take me back to the Apostles' Creed as the basis of what I believe. Anyone who can say this and mean it is my brother or sister in Christ.

That's not to say that doctrine and theology are irrelevant. I like debate, and thoroughly enjoy the lively discussions we have in our church home group meetings. But I don't like being put in a particular Christian box, because I don't believe any single - ism has the whole truth. God is far bigger than we can imagine, and takes delight in his children from all backgrounds, enjoying many styles of worship. Whether we're singing traditional hymns accompanied by an organ (or even psalms a capella) or dancing in the aisles to upbeat contemporary music, accompanied by drums and rock guitar, we're all part of the huge tapestry that embodies the Body of Christ worldwide.

So if I must be categorised, I suppose I'd say I'm a broad church non-judgemental evangelical with some rather liberal leanings.

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