12 ways to be a true evangelical
“Evangelical. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, on Vizzini’s use of the word “evangelical.”
I’m an evangelical.
I love the things that evangelicals hold dear: the joyous transformation of personal conversion, the centrality and supremacy of Christ, the power of the gospel, the authority of the Bible, and the call to evangelism and making a difference in society.
At its best, evangelicalism offers an extraordinary and compelling vision for life and faith. There are more than 600 million evangelicals worldwide; more if you add Pentecostal and charismatic movements that hold the same convictions as those who call themselves evangelical.
But “evangelical” has become a dirty word in many circles. It’s become associated with a wide range of negative ideas and themes, especially, but not only, in the United States. There are many examples. Promoting partisan politics. Fearing cultural change. Rejecting those who do hold to a rigid form of Calvinism. Embracing nationalism and sanctioning militarism. Encouraging racial and gender discrimination. Acting as moral police while avoiding real scrutiny. Equating white middle-class values and lifestyles with the gospel. Avoiding scholarship and independent thought. Conflating capitalism with the Christian good life. Being afraid of science and literature and higher criticism. Endorsing immoral politicians and forming questionable alliances for short-term social or political gain. The list is long.
In many circles, evangelicals are seen as jerks, or worse.
So, if you ask me what I mean when I say “I’m an evangelical”, I’ll need to offer some explanation.
If by evangelical you mean a certain kind of narrow, fear-based, exclusive, partisan, politicized, and combative faith, then, no, I’m not that kind of evangelical. But if by evangelical you mean a generous, inclusive, humble, and love-based commitment to people and the gospel, then, yes, that’s my kind of evangelicalism.
The Bible is the highest authority in Christian life; people need the salvation offered only through the gospel and person of Jesus Christ; and God calls us to proclaim Christ and his salvation in every way possible. But none of that needs to be associated with the problems I’ve just mentioned.
Some friends ask me, “Are you an evangelical?” Yes, I am, and a conservative one. But I have no time for some forms of evangelicalism that are combative, politicized, small-minded, and ungracious. I think being a conservative evangelical involves a commitment to Christ, evangelism, gospel-faithfulness and Scripture; and also to social justice, cultural renewal, racial and gender justice, ministering in the power of the Spirit, holistic ministry, political action, creation care, peacemaking, and reconciliation. This is a generous and embracing evangelicalism that is truer to the gospel and to the witness of Jesus.
In Inigo Montoya’s words, sometimes I feel like saying, “Evangelical. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”12 ways to be a gracious, just, humble, reconciling evangelical (not a fearful, moralistic, combative, politicized one). Click To Tweet
So, what does a generous, loving, humble, and holistic evangelicalism look like? Or, to put it more crassly, how can evangelicals avoid being fearful, moralistic, politicized jerks?
Here are 12 ways to be truly evangelical.
1. Grasp and respond to a fuller gospel
Evangelicals as passionate about the gospel. But, too often, the gospel is defined in a narrow or prescriptive way. We offer people a small 5-point gospel, or something similar. But that’s an inadequate or truncated version of the gospel.
Evangelicals must care about the whole biblical witness and the whole gospel. There is no gospel without the full biblical story.
God calls us to repentance and discipleship in response to a grand story. This is the story of creation, of biblical Israel, and of the Jewish Jesus. It is the story of God, from creation to the final rule and reign of Jesus Christ.
So, what is the gospel? The gospel is the climax of this grand, stunning, defining story—a story that spans history, from creation to the eschaton.
1 Corinthians 15:3–4 tells us that the gospel is “of first importance.” What is the gospel? “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” How does this gospel shape our lives? “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
God calls us to respond to the entire biblical story (creation to eschaton). In one sense, this whole narrative is both the story of Jesus and the gospel. But, in another sense, the gospel is the climax of that story, as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The entire, defining, biblical story describes our being. It frames our identity. It determines our purpose. It gives us our mission. And it reveals our hope. This story shapes our vision of community and mission. This grand biblical story must frame, infuse, and shape everything we say and do.
This so much more than a truncated 5-point gospel.
The gospel story extends from creation to the end of history and the consummation of God’s kingdom. We must be gripped by a vision of the whole biblical witness and story. At the same time, we must honour the climax of that story, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, the gospel calls us to attend to personal salvation and the restoration of all things in Christ. The gospel is an invitation to join the story of the triune God, of biblical Israel, of the Jewish Jesus, and of God’s reign. A great story shapes our vision for discipleship, mission, ethics, and community. And the gospel is the climax of that story.
A fuller grasp of the gospel leads us to care not only for personal salvation, but also for justice, creation, peace-making, reconciliation, and more. The whole biblical witness and story calls us to care for these things.
2. Let the Bible lead to a deeper love for Jesus
The Bible is crucial for Christian life. The Bible plumbs, measures, illuminates, adjudicates, enlivens, inspires, norms, and more. The Scriptures are the authoritative word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. They have absolute and final authority in all aspects of corporate and individual faith, ethics, conduct, witness, and theology.
Evangelicals must not shy away from biblical authority—we embrace it. Sadly, many western Christians have a declining passion for memorizing and contemplating and interpreting and applying Scripture. I find this deeply concerning. When I serve in Asia and Africa and Latin America, I see the opposite. People are passionate for Scripture. They devour and honor and memorize it. They interpret it contextually, while maintaining a conservative bias. And they apply it creatively and bravely. This is instructive for those of us in the West. We need a revival in our enthusiasm for Scripture.
But this isn’t about “falling in love” with Scripture. It’s about devouring Scripture as a means of knowing and adoring and following and loving and magnifying our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. Tear down false divides and really join God’s mission
The missional God has a missional church. The church does not have its own mission. God has a mission, and the church joins that mission.
But is that mission only about personal and individual conversion? Not at all. Since the mission of God includes the restoration of all things in fellowship with God, our mission must be integral and holistic. It can’t just be about simple proclamation or individual conversion. It includes those things but isn’t limited to them.
We join the messianic mission of the Son, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Such mission dismantles all polarities and oppositional binaries. We reject proclamation without social justice, or vice versa. We tear down false divides, such as evangelism–justice, sacred–secular, proclamation–action, practical–theological, Word–Spirit, and more.
True evangelical life and mission integrates proclamation, justice, healing, creation care, political action, signs and wonders, reconciliation, and human flourishing.
4. Welcome culture as a conversation partner
Sadly, evangelicals as often seen as fearing culture and cultural change. We treat culture as the enemy and act out of fear and defensiveness.
Let’s stop treating the culture as our enemy. Culture is our counterpoint, mirror, conversation partner, protagonist, foil, enricher, and more. We must be socially and culturally engaged since we are always culturally located. Being culturally engaged and located does not mean being socially and culturally reduced. Instead, we explore where society, culture, and theology have enriched, shaped, and shackled each other. Sometimes all these things are happening at once.
Evangelicals need to enter creative conversation with a wide range of disciplines. This is a two-way conversation. These disciplines include ethics, politics, philosophy, cultural studies, sociology, social theories, postcolonialism, gender and racial studies, cultural intelligence, aesthetics, creative arts, ecology, health, education, business and leadership studies, history, and more. The best kind of evangelical life see Scripture as its highest authority, but also explores how God is speaking to his church and his world through culture and a wide range of disciplines.
5. Seek discipleship in community
Evangelicals care about personal conversion. But often our discipleship is too individualistic.
Discipleship happens in community. Community is essential for changed hearts and churches. Churches must seek orthodoxy (renewed beliefs), orthopraxis (transformed practices), and orthokardia (renovated hearts). All three need to be dynamic, transforming, life-giving, and integrated. All three are about personal and corporate transformation.
The best kind of evangelical life refuses beliefs that are imposed and abstract. It rejects practices that are pragmatic and culturally reduced. And it denies spiritualities that are consumeristic and gnostic and individualistic. We need a different approach to discipleship. Jesus calls us to discover discipleship in community. God calls us into fellowship with fellow Christians, the gospel, and his sufferings, consolations, and hope. We share this vital fellowship with the Trinity, and with all God’s people. A common possession unites Christians. This possession is the divine life and grace offered us in the life, death, resurrection, and hope of Jesus Christ. We become disciples together—not individually or alone.
What kind of discipleship do we need? We can’t just focus on right belief or good behavior. If our goal is transformation and renewal, then we must strive after discipleship that is integrated, holistic, interdependent, missional, disciplined, renovating, revitalizing, prayerful, desirous, loving, gracious, hope-filled, and communal. This kind of discipleship only happens in community—and specifically in communities that join with God in his mission to love and restore and redeem the world.
6. Listen and learn from many voices
Lesslie Newbigin writes, “We need the witness of Christians of other cultures to correct our culturally conditioned understanding of Scripture.” It’s as true to say that we need the witness of Christians of other cultures, races, denominations, and genders to correct our culturally conditioned understanding of the gospel, the Bible, mission, discipleship, community, and much more.
Sometimes evangelicals are viewed as arrogant. For some, evangelicals appear to believe that they are always right and that they have nothing to learn from others.
It’s time to change that. We need to be open to the interpretations, lives, cultures, traditions, and views of others. This is about discerning God’s divine presence in community and conversation and church and world. This involves humility, listening, relationship, and prayer.
A worthwhile evangelical life happens when we are attentive to (and in conversation with) church and world. We pay attention to what God is saying to us through his church by listening to traditions, interpretations, cultures, ecumenical dialogue, World Christianity, global and local theologies, and “the least of these.” We notice what God is saying to us in the world by listening to philosophy, science, religions, cultures, worldviews, and more. God is not in all these things at all times. But he is often trying to speak to us in those places.
A life of discipleship is a life of humility and learning and embrace and openness. Attentiveness is required for such faith. So, we need a new kind of open, generous evangelicalism. This evangelicalism is open to learning from other church and theological traditions, and it looks for God’s work in the world.
A worthwhile, generous, broad evangelicalism grows out of conversation with many voices—including Euro-American, Majority World (Third World), Indigenous, First Nations, and diaspora (immigrant) voices.
7. Unite Spirit and Word and justice
Why are so many evangelical nervous about the work of the Spirit, and also about social justice? We need an evangelicalism that unites Spirit and Word and justice.
In Matthew 22:23–33, Jesus is engaging the Sadducees in a debate about marriage at the resurrection. He hits these religious leaders hard with these words: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” It’s clear that Jesus thinks that these religious leaders don’t even know what the Scriptures say about the resurrection, let alone the power of God to do supernatural, astonishing, world-transforming things.
Their errors of biblical interpretation and superficial, corrupted faith arise directly from the fact that they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. Yet, Jesus knew both. In verse 33, we see that the crowds were “astonished” (amazed) when they heard him (as in Luke 9:43 and Acts 3:10). Jesus had the ability to amaze with his words as easily as with his signs and wonders – both produced the same reaction. This is because Jesus walked in the power of the Word and the Spirit. We must seek to know both too.
Living in the power of the Word and Spirit isn’t just about biblical study and confidence in Scripture, or about signs and wonders and the gifts of the Spirit. Living in the life of the Word and Spirit is also about peacemaking and justice and the ministry of reconciliation. It’s about fighting injustice, confronting exploitation, caring for creation, welcoming the stranger, and seeing the Spirit in art and beauty and culture and creation. It is about confronting issues of race, prejudice, discrimination, and reconciliation.
Living in the power of the Word and Spirit is about expressing the fruit of the Spirit, being generous and content, caring for the poor and broken, and loving our enemies. Living in the power of the Word and Spirit is about embracing the radical social ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. It is about being a people who live lives (together and in the world) that alert people to the universal rule and reign of God. It’s about letting go of old dichotomies (Word–Spirit, sacred–secular, proclamation–social justice, and so on), and embracing the integral and integrative life of the Spirit. It’s about living in a posture of discernment and attention: keeping in step with the Spirit and walking in daily dependence on his leading and presence and power.
What happens when Christians embrace Word and Spirit and justice? God is glorified, lives are transformed, mission is accomplished, community is revitalized, and the church experiences, afresh, God’s empowering presence (his holy, purifying, true, emboldening, and transforming presence).
8. Be the church and stop with the partisan politics
God calls God’s church to be a distinct people, with a distinct ethic, a distinct story, a distinct peace, a distinct community, a distinct diversity, and a distinct witness. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “The first responsibility of the church is to be the church… The church doesn’t have a social ethic—the church is a social ethic.” Put another way, “The church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy.”
As the new humanity in Jesus Christ, our life together is political.
We’re not talking here about Republicans or Democrats or some other form of party politics. We’re talking about the politics of the realm of God. Together, as God’s new creation, we display a new and redeemed politic before a watching world.
Evangelicals are often too closely aligned with specific political parties. But no secular political party represents Christ. We should stop acting as though one is more worthy or godly than any other. Too often, we get caught up in the political concerns and spirits of our age. But, instead, we should show the world a new and redeemed politic by choosing to be the church.
We are called to be “alternative people” or “another city”, who practice a distinct Christ-honoring life together, ethic, witness, and politic. The church is salt and light, a “city on a hill.” The church of Jesus Christ is called to embrace a distinct social existence. This means that we reject violence, relinquish power, pursue holiness, embrace ethics, cultivate meaningful community, embrace missional presence, respect free association, and imitate the servant nature of Christ.
A faithful church abandons the reach for politics, power, influence, wealth, and prestige. Rather, it imitates the foolish weakness and scandal of the cross.
9. Pursue peace in a divided world
We are living in a divided and conflicted age. Evangelicals could contribute to this, or we could choose to be people of peace.
God calls the church to be a people of peacemaking and reconciliation. The Messiah is our peace, and he’s abolished the conflicts and enmities that divide people (Eph 2:11–14). Peace and reconciliation are at the very heart of the new humanity in Christ. Jesus calls his church to express peace and unity, as a peaceable community. And he also calls his church to be peacemakers in a world characterized by misunderstanding, war, hatred, and animosity.
Jesus Christ showed us what peacemaking looks like, by living a life of nonviolence, justice, peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Not only did his say “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,” he also showed us in his life and death what such peacemaking looks like (Mt 5:9). Love for enemies is the hallmark of discipleship. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 6:44–45).
God not only calls us to be peacemakers who love our enemies, God also gives us the ministry of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). God reconciles the world to Godself through Christ. God calls us to be ambassadors of Spirit-empowered reconciliation—calling women and men to be reconciled to God and to each other. The new humanity in Christ is characterized by reconciliation, peacemaking, and love for enemies.
10. Restore justice
Too often, evangelicals are seen as not really caring about justice. This can’t continue, without doing terrible damage to our tradition and our churches.
Restoring justice involves educating ourselves about injustices in our neighbourhood, society, and world. We must also educate ourselves about what it means to be a good and just neighbor for those exploited, on the margins, or suffering injustice.
Restoring justice involves talking openly and honestly about the issues. Talk about the injustices, deaths, discriminations, and atrocities. Talk about the lives and humanity of black and white and other people. Talk with people from right across the spectrum—black and white, old and young, poor and rich, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and women and men.
Restoring justice involves listening to the concerns and perspectives of others, even when these seem to address issues that don’t directly affect us. It involves standing up for the rights and wellbeing of others—even if their wellbeing or prosperity or flourishing seems only indirectly related to ours, and even when their wellbeing comes at our expense.
This is about walking in other people’s shoes. It’s about addressing contemporary and historical injustices, on behalf of others. We imitate the One who came into this world for our wellbeing—giving up his comfort, safety, power, and position. We follow the One who was wounded, bruised, rejected, and crucified for us. We imitate the One who restores justice in an unjust world.
Restoring justice also involves speaking and acting for justice. Restoring justice means addressing injustice head on. This includes addressing systemic and structural injustices. Sympathy must move to compassion, which must move to love, which must move to advocacy and action. Love without action is meaningless. Compassion without justice is hollow. Solidarity without advocacy is only half the picture.
We must not be silent in the face of poverty, exploitation, injustice, sexism, racism, misogyny, torture, hate, division, conflict, authoritarianism, etc. We must choose to speak and act, even when we know we will suffer the consequences.
This means speaking out on “Black Lives Matter”, poverty, climate change, war, consumption and consumerism, health issues, nuclear weapons, the Palestine/Israel conflict, white privilege, sexism, racism, systemic and structural evils, and more.
Silence speaks volumes. When you or I choose not to act, we are, in fact, taking a form of action. We witness to Jesus and his kin-dom, in our life together, and in our risky, prophetic, and just words and actions.
Restoring justice involves prioritizing the wellbeing and human flourishing of the poor, wronged, marginalized, and disadvantaged. This only happens when we prioritize and value their agency and voice and redistribute power and resources.
Restoring justice includes eradicating violence against women in society and the church. It’s about amplifying the voices and contributions of women in the church, and honoring and releasing their gifts.
Restoring justice means welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, the undocumented migrant, the refugee and asylum seeker, and the displaced.
Restoring justice is, fundamentally, about following a just God and being a just church. God hates injustice. God is just. The biblical story is one of a just and loving God reaching out to humanity to restore justice, wholeness, healing, and redemption. The church is an alternative community. God calls this church to embrace, proclaim, embody, and practice restored justice. We do this by practicing a restored ethic, a restored hope, a restored community, a restored peace, a restored truth, a restored love, a restored reconciliation, and a restored justice.
11. Care about creation and the environment
The church cannot join fully with God in his mission while it neglects its responsibility to God’s creation. And I see no way that we can be disciples of Jesus without a passionate concern for his creation, and a desire to heal the planet he gave us.
Evangelicals who care nothing about creation are denying the gospel and denying the full biblical witness.
Sadly, too much of the church sees little connection between discipleship and mission and creation care. And much of the church has little interest in joining with God in his mission to redeem and restore the whole of creation.
Creation care is missional. It’s essential to a missional church and theology. And it’s crucial to discipleship. Creation care is a gospel issue. The gospel calls the church to care for the world God has given us to steward well.
The world is watching. Do we exercise loving care of the planet? Are we concerned about those made vulnerable through environmental degradation and climate change? Do we engage in ecological responsibility and innovation? Do we cultivate sustainable practices and simple lifestyle? Do we testify to Jesus Christ through our caring relationship with humans and the planet?
Our care for creation can witness to Jesus Christ, his gospel and kingdom, and his restoration of all things.
The Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance organized the Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel in Jamaica in November 2012. After reflecting on Scripture and talking through the issues, the group wrote the following. Creation care is a “gospel issue within the lordship of Christ. Informed and inspired by our study of the scripture… Creation care is an issue that must be included in our response to the gospel, proclaiming and acting upon the good news of what God has done and will complete for the salvation of the world. This is not only biblically justified, but an integral part of our mission and an expression of our worship to God for his wonderful plan of redemption through Jesus Christ.
12. Seek a generous, humble, and loving evangelicalism
Evangelicals are believers committed to living and proclaiming the euangelion– the “gospel” or “good news.”
In this piece, I’m asking us to move from a narrow, fear-based, exclusive, anxious, partisan, politicized, and combative evangelicalism, to one that is generous, inclusive, humble, and love-based. This is a true evangelicalism, and a true witness to the euangelion.
This true evangelicalism honors what evangelicals have always said they hold dear: the power of personal conversion, the supremacy and Lordship of Christ, the glory of the gospel, the authority of the Bible, and our call to go into all the world and make disciples.
And this true evangelicalism grasps and responds to a fuller gospel story, which calls us to a prophetic, alternative way in the world. What is this way in the world? We let the Bible move us into a passionate love for Jesus Christ. We tear down false divides and join God in mission. We welcome culture as a conversation partner, and look for signs of God’s presence in the world. We seek discipleship in community, and live lives in contrast to the individualism and consumerism of our age. We’re humble enough to listen and learn from many voices. We unite Spirit and Word and justice. We reject partisan politics and abandon the reach for politics, power, influence, wealth, and prestige. Instead, we seek to imitate the foolish weakness and scandal of the cross. We pursue peace in a divided world. We acknowledge our sins and mistakes, and out complicity in injustices, and seek to restore justice to those who have been wronged. We care about creation and the environment. We grasp the power of the whole gospel to change the whole church, whole lives, and the whole world.
In the process, we discover that this generous, humble, and loving evangelicalism is also a prophetic, compelling, and biblical faith.12 ways to shape a generous, humble & loving evangelicalism, that's a prophetic, compelling & biblical faith. Click To Tweet
Graham Joseph Hill
Graham Joseph Hill (PhD, Flinders University) is Interim Principal and Director of Research at Stirling Theological College (University of Divinity) in Melbourne, Australia. He has planted and pastored churches, and been in theological education for twenty years. Graham is the author or editor of 6 books including Global Church (IVP, 2016), Healing Our Broken Humanity, (IVP, 2018, with Grace Ji-Sun Kim), and Salt, Light and a City (Cascade, 2017). He also directs The Global Church Project.
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