For the last two years I have been steadily and carefully evaluating every aspect of my faith and my politics. For a long time I clung tightly to the labels “evangelical” and “Republican,” perhaps mainly because they were all I had ever known, but also, I found them useful to try to build bridges during difficult conversations. I could say things like “I’m a lifelong (evangelical or Republican), and I know that you know it, but here’s something that I’ve recently learned, that adjusted my position.” I thought that continuing to claim those labels would give me some cachet, some credibility with my listener, as if I had something valuable to say despite differing with their own interpretation of those labels.
But I abruptly realized this week that I’m actually quite done with both labels.
I’ve been reading the book “The Other Evangelicals” by Isaac Sharp, which as the subtitle says, walks through the “Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians―and the Movement That Pushed Them Out.” Over the last year, I’ve read probably two dozen books that detail some aspects of the history of evangelicalism, and this book basically wraps up all that history into one fairly dense and incredibly thorough summary.
Here’s the basics that I’ve learned.
The pure-as-the-wind-driven-snow concept I have long held about evangelicalism is, to put it very mildly, total whitewashing. Oh, and literally “white.” The history of how we got to modern (even pre-Trump modern) evangelicalism is actually rather pocked with quite a bit of mess, a lot of it wrapped up in racist, segregationist, and outright pro-slavery theology. The ways that evangelical leaders have put fences around which people are allowed to claim the label “evangelical” have been outright harmful in many cases.
I understand that how we got to a given set of beliefs doesn’t necessarily define the rightness of those beliefs. But it should nonetheless inform our assumption about whether those beliefs are inherently trustworthy. When a system of thought has its origins in very ungodly actions and practices, it deserves extreme scrutiny.
In a nutshell, once my “evangelicalism is perfect” mental structure cracked, it fell apart fairly quickly as I encountered fact after fact after fact that eroded the previously-perfect foundations in my mind.
I know that’s a pretty bold set of statements without much detail, and I’m usually MUCH more careful to source such statements, and for that I apologize. But there’s no way I could do justice to hundreds of hours of podcasts and thousands of pages of very well-sourced descriptions of how evangelicalism came to be in a short blog post like this. I’ll just have to refer you my suggested reading list on the blog, and let you do your own research. I honestly do not expect to convince you or anyone else here: I’m simply explaining how I have arrived at some conclusions for myself.
Now, none of that has to do with the actual principles of evangelicalism itself. So let’s think about those for a minute. There are a lot of quite varied ideas about what defines evangelicalism, but I think a useful one is George Barna’s survey in 2007 that asked nine questions, including these six that I agree with:
- have they made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today
- is their faith very important in their life today
- do they believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians
- do they believe that Satan exists
- do they believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- do they describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today
But I have problems with these other three:
- do they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior
- do they believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works
- do they assert that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches
Here’s why I have trouble with those:
- I no longer believe that the evangelical idea of “heaven” is accurate to what the Bible teaches; from what I see in scripture, the righteous will eternally and bodily rule and reign with Christ on a new Earth, not in some disembodied heaven;
- I no longer believe that ONLY those who accept Christ during their physical lives will be saved, but instead I believe that the Bible more fully teaches that ALL shall be won to God through His infinite and sovereign grace, as He restores all of Creation to Himself, though many will be restored to Him after their death, even if it takes a long time; and
- I no longer believe in Biblical inerrancy. Yes, I would technically say that I agree that “the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches,” but what it teaches and what it literally says are often two different things. Most people who would answer that last question affirmatively believe that the Bible is wholly without error, and every word is literally true. I find that to be unsupportable for quite a few well-documented reasons, both internal and historical. So I would decline to agree with that question because I believe it has implications with which I cannot agree.
So according to Barna, I cannot call myself an evangelical. But so what?
I’m not sure that label “evangelical” is really still completely relevant to my – or anyone’s – religious beliefs anyway. I find that today it is no longer a marker for purely a set of doctrinal understandings. Of those who claim that label today, a majority don’t even attend church more than a few times a year, but instead they consider it a sociopolitical label that is remarkably synonymous with “right wing white Republican.” I cannot claim that position in any way at all.
So when you put all this together, I find that I cannot consider myself an evangelical, and even if I did agree with all nine points without reservation, I no longer have any desire to be associated with the “evangelical” label in any way, shape, or form.
So what am I doctrinally calling myself, these days?
Great question. I really don’t know. I suppose if I had to put a cheap label on it, maybe a progressive Christian. But even that label has problems.
So perhaps the best description for myself today is simply one who strives to fully and accurately represent Christ to those around me, to whoever hears my voice or sees my actions. There’s no single word or label for that any longer – even the 2000-year-old label “Christian” has been so abused by those especially in the Republican party that I often don’t really want to use it. Maybe someone needs to reclaim these labels, but at the moment they’re too toxic and not worth my energy to defend. “Christ follower” may be the simplest label, if anything.
As to being considered a Republican, well, quite simply I have removed myself from the Republican party with my county voting rolls. Much as with evangelicalism, I no longer want to be even slightly associated with what the Republican party has become. I am still a fiscal conservative, but as one who is now openly LGBTQ affirming, not anti-abortion, increasingly skeptical of the extreme 2nd Amendment positions taken by NRA-funded politicians, anti-racist, pro-CRT, extremely “woke,” anti-Christian-nationalist, and in favor of much better care for the poor and needy than the Republicans have ever demonstrated, I cannot find much alignment at all with that party. I have deep concerns about some things that the Democratic party is doing, but not enough to participate in the highly toxic content from the Republicans.
And what is true of me in religious terms is also true politically: I want to see our political system represent the way of Christ, reaching out in love to those around us, loving our “enemy,” seeking to live at peace with all men, and neither party is doing a particularly good job of that, and I have no energy to try to challenge my former party’s failure to uphold what it used to at least claim to value. So I’m an independent, I suppose. I’ll stand outside the party and watch it self destruct, and perhaps that’s for the best.
So, why bother with a label at all? If I’m not happy with “evangelical” or even “Christian,” why not just skip it altogether, and live my life serving the Lord and not worry about what to call myself?
Well, I still do think that labels may have some value. Focusing on my faith instead of politics for a moment, I’d suggest that labels are inherently useful for interacting with people in an early development stage of Christianity, who simply NEED labels.
The book “Faith After Doubt” by Brian McLaren postulates four stages, approximately as follows:
- Stage 1: Simplicity (dualistic, black-and-white thinking; everything must have A SPECIFIC answer)
- Stage 2: Complexity (still focused on dualistic/black-and-white thinking, insisting that there is a specific right and wrong in every case, but also admitting the need to have greys in many instances)
- Stage 3: Mystery or Perplexity (realizing that some questions simply have no answers, or at least no single answers, and maybe or maybe not being okay with that lack of certainty)
- Stage 4: Harmony (being completely okay with being anywhere on this spectrum as needed at a given moment or for a given topic)
I think I’m in stage 3 or maybe early stage 4. Most of my family and former church friends are in stage 1 or 2. They seem to NEED a well-defined black-and-white. Most of the folks on social media debating religion are stage 1, really needing strict simplicity. Some of them are in stage 2. But all of them seem to need to know how to categorize you, to know what your label is, or you can’t be part of the discussion. “I don’t believe you’re an evangelical” or “You’re not really a Christian” is something I see fairly often, when someone isn’t sufficiently locked in to exactly one point of view and clearly identifiable with some label.
So while I’m okay with no label for my own thought processes – I’m actually happier that way – I don’t think we can throw them away. So that leads me to want to find some label that I can use for conversation purposes, even if I don’t ever really think about it in my own headspace, other than trying to learn more about my history and the history of the church in America.
So with that in my mind for the last few days, I woke up this morning with what I might call a “Scripture mashup” from both Ephesians 5:31-32 and Mark 10:6-9 in my head, and it had the feel of what I call a “true dream,” something that I’ve learned to recognize as a word that the Lord dropped verbatim into my mind while I was sleeping, and is still utterly crystal clear when I awake.
With the background of Ephesians 5:31 (“31 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh“) I heard this:
“32 This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
And I heard the Lord tell me this too: “It’s not (just) about marriage. It’s about the church.“
Christians tend to use those verses during most wedding ceremonies. When we do, we often skip verse 32, or if we do include it, the idea is that “marriage represents the church, so know that this marriage is permanent and you can’t divorce your spouse.” I’ve never once heard it used to say “just like Jesus spoke against divorce in Mark, don’t divide the church.”
I truly don’t know quite what to do with this, because from my perspective, some segments of the church are clearly running off the rails of anything that looks like true Christianity. And perhaps that is why I’ve really been wrestling with this idea of abandoning the “evangelical” label. I want to see the John 17 “one Body,” but some segments of the church are deeply opposed to others, even to the point of labeling each other non-Christian or apostate or heretical. The whole mess seems un-solvable, and I fail to understand how we could ever possibly be one, even as Jesus and the Father are one.
But at the same time, I don’t feel like I can continue to be associated with the divisive people. Perhaps that’s in line with Titus 3:9-11: “9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are useless and worthless. 10 Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a person has deviated from what is right and is sinning, being self-condemned.“
So I shared some of these thoughts with some friends, and I was reminded that our job isn’t to fix the church. Instead, it’s “fixing our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) and becoming more and more like Him. As we each individually become like Him, we become more like each other too, and that oneness will work itself out as we pursue Christ and Christlikeness.
Also, I’ve found that people really haven’t valued my long history with this or that label. Isaac Sharp, in “The Other Evangelicals,” shows how once any part of your personal doctrine or practice deviates from what constitutes modern evangelicalism, you’re immediately an outsider. Even if you agree on 95%, that 5% makes you untrustworthy, even someone to be avoided as a danger to the “true” faith. The same seems true with right wing politics. Fail to toe the party line, and you’re an outsider, a “Republican in Name Only” or “RINO.” So there seems to be little value in holding on to those labels – especially since I’ve deviated so far from them by this time.
So at this point, I guess really I’m fine with completely abandoning those labels, or really any others too, and simply moving on with God, day by day, topic by topic, doctrine by doctrine, political issue by issue, and satisfy myself with simply doing my best to accurately represent Christ to those around me. If they’re not comfortable with my lack of labels, maybe that’s a good thing after all, because maybe it will create opportunities for some interesting conversations.
As I said before, I don’t write this to persuade anyone else. I write it to share my own process and journey, and hope that it proves valuable to others who tread the same path.
If these things catch your attention, I’d love to discuss them with you. Find me on Twitter as Crucible of Thought (@CrucibleOfThght), or respond with a comment here.