Who Gets To Decide What an Evangelical Is?

posted in: Conversation, The Bible | 1


Two breaking news stories today thrust the questions of “What is an Evangelical?” and “Who Gets to Decide What An Evangelical Is?” into the national spotlight.  First, a number of notable evangelical leaders published a letter challenging the prevailing mainstream media notion that Donald Trump represents evangelicals.  (For the sake of full disclosure, I added my name to this petition without the tiniest hesitation).  Secondly, TIME ran an article about Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and their pending dismissal of anyone who does not affirm a traditional Christian view of marriage. Ed Stetzer was quick to opine on this TIME article on the Christianity Today website, emphasizing that:

[A traditional view of marriage] is what Evangelicals believe and those working for Evangelical organizations are, not surprisingly, expected to align with the beliefs of Evangelicals. … It’s not only ok for IntervarsityUSA to acknowledge their beliefs and make such beliefs part of their employment policies, it’s crucial.

While the issues of who becomes the next president of the United States and our theological convictions about marriage and families are undoubtedly important, the deeper, underlying issues of how we pursue discussing these questions on which we are deeply divided is a much more pressing one. What kind of witness do we bear to the watching world? Which is more important ideological purity or love for our brothers and sisters in Christ (regardless of whether they agree with us)?

I am especially disturbed by the way that IVCF is handing this matter. I have been impressed in the past, with not only of the diversity of IVCF’s staff, but also their organizational commitment to understanding and cultivating diverse perspectives. Not even a year has passed since IVCF entered a conversation with Black Lives Matter at their prominent Urbana conference.Why would a Christian organization thrust internal dissenting voices upon the sword (in this case an economic sword, of dismissal from their jobs)? I think Ed Stetzer is completely wrong. It is not nearly so clear-cut what an Evangelical is today. As both of the above stories indicate, evangelicalism is in a deep identity crisis — and I would argue it has been for years. But how do we decide what it means to be an evangelical? It’s fascinating to me that in the same breath, Jesus referred to himself as both the way and the truth.  I’m increasingly become convinced that the way we hold our convictions is just as important as the convictions we have.
Fundamentally, the question of who gets to decide how to define evangelicalism is a question of power. Donald Trump sweet talks some Evangelical leaders, likely giving them assurances that if he is elected they might have some sway with him, and these evangelical leaders who can command large audiences, say that Evangelicals stand behind Trump, and the media broadcasts these assertions. If Ed Stetzer is correct in his reading of the IVCF situation, he is saying that those who have defined evangelicalism in the past have the power and the authority to dictate what an evangelical should be.
The problem with both these scenarios, is that Jesus named these sorts of uses of power as “the way of the Gentiles” and clearly emphasized that it should not be so among his followers. The Disciples James and John wanted to sit in the positions of power and to be arbiters of what was good and true, and Jesus shut them down immediately. (Mark 10:35-45). It’s fascinating to me that in the early centuries of the church many deep conflicts were resolved, not by Christians drawing (literal or economic) swords against one another, but by Councils that brought diverse-minded groups of Christians together for conversation and to be present to another and to truly hear their diverse perspectives and to discern together in conversation how the Holy Spirit was moving in their midst.
YES, these are important matters and YES, we should have carefully-reasoned convictions about them. BUT, most importantly we must work from a deep Christ-like love for our all our brothers and sisters that does not seek to lord it over them (or thrust them upon our theological or ideological swords), but to be present with them and to hear the whispering of the Spirit in the voicing of their dissent. Jesus’s disciples, after all, spanned the ideological spectrum within Israel from Simon Zealot (who desired to see Rome overthrown) to Matthew the tax collector (who worked collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire). A similarly diverse group today might include ardent Trump supporters and progressives who would prefer a candidate like Bernie Sanders.  AND YET, Jesus’s prayer (John 17) was that his disciples, and the ones who would come after them, would be one, as he and God the Father are one.
Conversation is difficult in this era of Western Culture. We’ve inherited the many-dimensional fragmentation of modernity (fragmenting people from places, fragmentation of “races,” and economic classes, fragmentation in so many people’s experience of family, the fragmentation of so many social groups that in past generations gave form and meaning to life.)  And as life fragments in so many different directions, we find ourselves moving faster and faster, and grasping at so many shortcuts to try to maintain a semblance of order (shortcuts like the appeals to efficiency, quantifiability, and predictability that comprise what sociologist George Ritzer called the “McDonaldization of Society”). These conditions aren’t exactly ripe for the patient work of conversation. It’s much easier to brandish swords and to demonize those who don’t agree with us.
Just as Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us, so too our primary calling is to be present with our sisters, our brothers, and all those who surround us. Conversation is the way in which we learn to hear one another’s stories, and to enter in patient love to their joys and their pains. Our churches would do well to teach us that God alone is sovereign, the One who is worthy to wield power and authority. God does not need us to wield the sword on God’s behalf. Rather, perhaps the most important thing that a church might do is to create a space in which its members can learn to be present to one another and to listen to one another in the humble, gentle, and patient way of Jesus.  And in learning to be present in conversation to one another, inevitably failing many times over along the way, we are being formed to similarly enter peaceable conversations with our neighbors and others around the globe.
The world is watching… What kind of Christ will we embody before them? THIS is a much more pressing question than that of who gets to define evangelicalism.


As I was writing this post, IVCF has made a statement noting that “We’re disappointed that Elizabeth Dias’ (TIME) headline and article wrongly stated that InterVarsity is firing employees for supporting gay marriage. That is not the case. In fact, InterVarsity doesn’t have a policy regarding employee views on civil marriage.” It is unclear to what extent the TIME article was misleading and to what extent this statement was merely spin control on IVCF’s part. Regardless, my larger point about how we handle disagreements within Christ’s Body still stands.

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C. Christopher (Chris) Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is co-author of Slow Church and author of the new book Reading for the Common Good. Chris and his family live and work as part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near East Side of Indianapolis

One Response

  1. Suzanne Burden
    | Reply

    Chris, I very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post. It seems we have reached a place in general where thoughtful dialogue and grace and civility are eschewed in favor of complete avoidance of conversation altogether. There is so much fear. I am encouraged by The Colossian Forum in Grand Rapids and their new curriculum The Colossian Way which combines spiritual practices in community with honest dialogue, holding to truth in love. They have started with sexuality and origins: hot buttons for sure. Peace of Christ to you.

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