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Several years ago I was explaining to a friend why I’d never been invited to preach in an acquaintance’s church, and never would be. “It’s because I’m not a fundamentalist,” I said. And it was true.

In that church a “fundamentalist” was one who believed not just in the “fundamentals” of the faith, but also in a cultural context that meant flat-top haircuts for men, koolots for women (if you don’t know what those are, just rest in the ignorance), exclusive southern gospel quartet psalmnody, and a dispensationalist, separatist, KJV-only identity. I am, for sure, not that.

The next week, though, I was registering as an observer for a liberal Baptist gathering, where I’d planned to write about the goings-on. Inclusive as they were, they tried to sign me up as a delegate. I tried to explain to the nice person at the registration table that I actually didn’t want to be a delegate because I wasn’t protesting the hegemonic patriarchal whatevers they were there to stand against. “You don’t want me signed up,” I said. “I’m a fundamentalist.” And it was true.

In their context, a “fundamentalist” meant anyone who believes the Scriptures were inerrant, the tomb was empty, and there is such a place as hell.

It seems to me the question of “evangelical” is similarly amorphous and contextual. I don’t mind saying that I’m an evangelical, and it’s true, but it’s mostly a tag for other Christians to know what kind of Christian I am, not a self-identity.

 I’m a catholic (small “c”) Christian. I’m a Protestant Christian. I’m a Baptist Christian. I’m an evangelical Christian. I’m a four-point Calvinist, complementarian, high-view-of-the-sacraments, ecumenism of the trenches kind of Christian. And the definitions can get a whole lot more specific depending on how much context the situation requires.

If I need to know whether or not we can work together on a church plant or an evangelism strategy, the definition of “evangelical” matters to me. The rest of the time, the ambiguousness of the term doesn’t bother me any more than the fact that both Kuyper and Moltmann are “Protestants” (whatever that means).

Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

More on: Evangelicalism

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