Because First Things is well-known for the highest level of discourse on the subjects it considers, I’m a little surprised to find myself here. For the last 5 or 6 years I’ve mostly been known for causing mayhem in the evangelical blogosphere, so when I received an invitation to spread some of that content here as a representative of the “evangelical” viewpoint, I was sort of stunned.
And part of the reason I was stunned was that I had to ask myself, “am I an ‘evangelical’”?
I mean: of course I consider myself a Christian, and I begrudge some people that title for various theological and sociological reasons, and of course I would count some people out of that circle (and some of them would object). But “evangelical”? What on earth is an “evangelical”?
Back when I was in college, these two Scottish lads (Charlie and Craig Reid) sort of appeared on the radio with this bawling-awesome march/anthem/ballad called “I’m gonna be (500 miles)”, and it’s a song that you have to hear to appreciate. It’s a reckless love song, lyrically and musically uncomplicated by anything but a clear enthusiasm for the person they were singing to. As I recall (and of course the internet helps me remember this very clearly) the last half of the first verse goes like this:
“If I get drunk, well I know I’m gonna be I’m gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you
And if I haver up, Yeah I know I’m gonna be I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you”
and the refrain goes like this:
“But I would walk 500 miles And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles To fall down at your door”
Just to be clear, I don’t think that being an “evangelical” is about being someone who goes out and gets drunk and starts “havering” for any reason. But I bring up the Reid brothers and their song because they sort of did what they did (and they are still doing it in spite of my lack of patronage over the years) with a gusto that the name of their band proudly underscores: they are the Proclaimers.
So let me say this: I wish that, rather than being called “evangelicals”, we as a body of people who have been somehow tangled together by various sociological and loosely-theological ties were instead called “the Proclaimers”. It would make who we are and what we do so much more obvious and simpler — and it would take all the obscurity of the word “evangelical” out of it.
Someplace c. 1531 (if m-w.com can be trusted for this sort of data) being “of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels” was tagged “evangelical”, and it was a label applied to those who became Protestants (by anathema, if we still hold a grudge, which I admit I do), and eventually also to “Fundamentalists” by the end of the 19th century, and in some later cases even to those whose only key relationship to the Christian faith is an ardor for evangelism, or the bringing in of new people whether they believe what Carl F. H. Henry, J. Gresham Machen, C. H. Spurgeon, John Owen, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, and Augustine, and for that matter Saul of Tarsus, believed or not.
And in saying that, I’m voicing some trepidation for being brought to the table here at First Things as an “evangelical”. I’m not a big fan of the circus that occurs under that tent — nor am I a fan of the amount of real damage that gets done to the actual Evangel “evangelicals” are supposed to believe in because of the inordinate number of add-ons that now come with the title.
For example, if I’m an evangelical, which local church should I join? It worries me that, on the one hand, being an “evangelical” would seem to rule out certain local-church options for political reasons (would an evangelical join a church which is too small to influence local government?) and on the other hand, it still would give me no clear reason to join any church in particular (would an evangelical join a church where it’s not clear that belief and baptism are necessary for being part of the body?). For that matter, is being united to other believers for reasons other than to get a certain mix (either left or right) in the Supreme Court or in Congress or a certain man in the White House a central issue?
So since the question is being asked here, and I’ve been invited to give a few hundred words on the subject, I for one have no idea what it means to be an “evangelical”, but I do know that Jesus Christ died for all manner of human hubris in which we have replaced God with other saviors. Jesus Christ died to save sinners, Paul said to his young student Timothy, among whom I am the greatest — the Headmaster and Ringleader. And it’s in his patience and lavishness to save me that the whole world can see what kind of Savior and God he is.
And I would walk 500 miles, and then I would walk 500 more just to be the one who walked 1000 miles to say that, well, wherever it is you are right now. I want you to know me as a Proclaimer for that Jesus, because He’s the one who matters to this sick world. I’d chuck the title “evangelical” in a second if it gets in the way of that.