Evangelical isn’t a bad word – at least it doesn’t have to be.
By Daniel Ritchie
The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Clarion, its staff or the institution. If you would like to submit a response or an opinion piece of your own, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s all about Jesus. (As you feared, you can never escape the Children’s Sermon.)
I wasn’t raised in an evangelical denomination like the one that founded Bethel. For a hundred years, my family has served in Presbyterian churches as lay people, elders, pastors and missionaries. But as I hope you remember from CWC or Humanities, that “Christ-transforming-culture” model can easily become captive to the dominant culture. And so it was, that by the ‘70s our particular congregations realized they had more in common with evangelicals of all types than with the progressive Christianity of our denomination’s leaders. We were on the way out.
For me, coming to Bethel after an education in public schools and secular universities was liberating. Bethel faculty must write a faith-learning statement as part of their tenure application. We’re expected to bring our faith to bear on our scholarship and teaching. For me, those requirements to “take every thought captive for Christ” were more challenging and fulfilling than writing the PhD dissertation.
They still are. I know that every student at Bethel struggles with faith at some point – and some even lose their faith. But better far to be in a community where staff and faculty support our stumbling pilgrimage than in an institution that can’t even recognize the journey! Example: we just had Eboo Patel give a compelling convocation address on interfaith cooperation. Months earlier, when Eboo visited my secular, progressive alma mater, he encountered opposition over the very notion that religious identity should be recognized and valued. Who’s the proponent of diversity here?
The word “evangelical” has been injected with poison by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters. So have “conservative,” “Republican,” and a host of other useful terms. But let’s not pretend that the language and practices surrounding faith were healthy before 2016.
I’ve been a part of congregations that believe in justification by faith, the sufficiency of Christ, the unique triumph of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the final authority of the Bible and the priesthood of all believers. These beliefs, and the habits they give rise to, serve as Mark Noll’s description of the interlinked movements known as pietism and evangelicalism. But as my denominational leaders embraced progressive beliefs, my congregation was excluded from positions of leadership, thwarted in our attempts to serve, and often treated with contempt. It became clear that we needed to leave and find a more evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Our old denominational leaders responded by demanding millions of dollars as we left, and they’re currently trying to bring a sister congregation before the Supreme Court – all because we’d like to continue using our property. I think I understand the vision of “social justice” that motivates their sense of mission. But like the “diversity” of my alma mater and the terms used by Trump, it has become corrupt.
One of the greatest privileges of my life has been to take students to Britain and Egypt, where (among many other things) we encounter Christians who hold to evangelical beliefs like ours. Their practices and habits, however, are often different. This difference is challenging and liberating to us all. Recent theologians have written about the power of the Bible to translate the story of Jesus in amazing, culturally appropriate ways all over the world. That power – whether in scholarship, missions, campus relationships, or personal faith – can survive any corruption we bring. It can bring us to the living presence of Jesus, along with Bethel’s founders and alumni and students yet to come.