Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Evangelicals Need a New Definition

And maybe even a new name.

I once asked a group of Catholic friends how they defined the term evangelical, and they saw it as identical to fundamentalist. Each one had a story of an evangelical cousin or uncle who hammered them at every family gathering, insisting that Catholics were on a sure pathway to Hell. For these folks, evangelical brought up descriptors such as judgmental, condemning, and mean.

If I’m reading the political pundits correctly, evangelical is a term that refers to a block of USAmerican voters that conflates nation and religion, lining up with the extreme right of the political spectrum. Evangelicals appear to hold a great deal of power in making or breaking particular political campaigns.

I’ve heard others say that evangelicals are the folks who hold to a wooden and hyper-literal view of all aspects of the Bible, see the theory of penal substitutionary atonement as a theological hill to die on, and have a clear understanding of who is in and who is out with God.

I am saddened by what I see in these descriptors. If these are what define evangelical, then I don’t want to be one.

But none of these are proper definitions of the word. The word evangelical comes from a Greek word (used in the New Testament) that means good news. When Jesus, in Mark 1:15 says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” the term “good news” utilizes that Greek word.

It’s actually an ancient term with military implications. After a battle, a runner would leave the front lines and bring news of the outcome to the military leaders. If the battle had been won, then it was good news. The messenger was the good news bringer. The messenger was the person who bore witness to the good thing that had happened.

This meaning is at the heart of the word that we now call evangelical. To be evangelical is to be the bearer of the same good news that Jesus brought: That the kingdom of God is at hand. It is to speak of a reality that has already come to pass. Keeping in mind that those folks who don’t like the idea of God’s rule and reign (perhaps like the army who lost the ancient battle) might not hear the message as good news, it is proclaimed nonetheless because it is believed by the messenger to be true.

The message granted to us is not one of political power or domination; it is not about who has been assigned to heaven or to hell; it is not license to stand in judgment over anyone. It is a message that is intended for the good of all, and it is one to be both proclaimed and demonstrated.

If the earlier definitions I offered hold sway, then I suggest we find a different word with a proper definition. It would be a shame to lose a word that is rich with meaning and purpose, but it might have to happen. There is some biblical precedent for such a change: The ancient Hebrews became Jews; the followers of The Way became Christians. It has happened before.

I don’t have a replacement term. But maybe one might emerge if we Christians, rather than being known by our political preferences, or by our tendency toward judgmentalism, or by our rigid theologies, we were known by our love. I wonder what would happen then. Maybe those who are impacted by that love would hear that good news and offer a new name to us.

Let’s give it a shot.

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