Evangelical Anabaptist. Catholic Anabaptist. Pentecostal Anabaptist. I have used all these phrases in different contexts to explain my identity as a follower of Christ.
In those sentences, the first word serves as an adjective – it names an attribute of the noun, in this case “Anabaptist.”
The main word – the noun – is what is most important and what defines my theological identity: Anabaptist. The other words (evangelical, catholic, pentecostal) only highlight attributes or ways of being anabaptist.
Some attributes highlighted when we use the word “evangelical” today have been present in the Anabaptism movement since it originated in the 16th-century. These attributes include:
- Authority of the Bible.
- Personal commitment to Christ.
- Proclamation of the gospel.
Words for changing contexts
However, I think what we mean by “evangelical” has to be defined by the context in which it is used. It is not the same to speak about “evangelical” in the 19th-century as it is today. And it is not the same to say “evangelical” in Switzerland, for example, as it is in Colombia, my home country.
For many years, I spoke about myself as an evangelical Anabaptist in Colombia. It was a way of facing religious persecution and finding unity with other churches that shared the same evangelical values.
However, several years ago, when our local congregation was planting a new Mennonite Brethren church in Bogotá, the word “evangelical” had changed its meaning slightly. From my perspective, it was used to identify churches that promoted an individualistic spirituality, a kind of faith that was over-focused on right doctrine, and that were generally averse to social concerns.
Therefore, although many Mennonite Brethren and Mennonites in Colombia kept using “evangelical” as an adjective, I decided to stop doing so as a church planting strategy. My new local congregation, Torre Fuerte Iglesia Cristiana Hermanos Menonitas (strong tower Christian MB church), did not use “evangelical” as an adjective and I did not encourage its use with the new members.
Today, the religious context in Colombia has changed again.
Some Mennonites and MBs who used the adjective “evangelical” in the past have decided to avoid it because of the way in which our Colombian society currently defines this word. In Colombia, “evangelical” is often used to refer to non-Catholic churches that identify themselves with the extreme political right. Many of these churches explicitly support political parties or political leaders, creating some form of Constantinianism. Evangelical churches in Colombia – generally – are interested in imposing their ethics on other citizens, regardless of the faith (or lack of faith) of those citizens, and are known for their opposition to the peace agreement between the former Colombian government and the revolutionary army of Las FARC.
This new characterization of evangelicalism makes it problematic for many Anabaptists to call themselves evangelicals even though their commitment to the three principles above remains.
That is a picture from my global south context. Of course, such examples are limited and always open to several different interpretations – which, in effect, is a great Anabaptist way of perceiving a given reality.