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On being an evangelical

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V I E W P O I N T 

Recently I was involved in a group reading through The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersections of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism. It seemed the right time for me to reflect more deeply on what this means to be part of both communities.
Personally identifying with Anabaptism was and is easy.

When it came to evangelicalism, however, I feel like Nathaniel: “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).

For many, “evangelical” has been weighed down with the connotations of extreme beliefs and politics. To publicly identify as evangelical, you might as well be wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.

This book club inspired me to recognize that ‘evangelical’ is bigger than these connotations. Evangelicalism means more than that, has more history than that, and includes more people than that.

I have come to believe that there are gifts within evangelicalism to share with the rest of the world.

To me, that primary gift is the calling and responsibility to share and care for the gospel.

However, to recognize one’s own gift is not the same as assuming nobody else has gifts. Instead, it is an invitation to know who we are, what we have to share, and be excited and humbled by what others generously offer to us.

The apostle Paul, when writing about the church, talked about how each member had a different gift meant to be shared for the good of the whole community (1 Corinthians 12:14–21). Although Paul was talking about individual members of the church community, analogy can be made between the collective members (different movements, etc.) within church history. ¹ In relationship with other traditions, each has unique gifts to share and receive in turn.

No tradition is the “be all and end all,” but each still has a gift to offer. “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14-21).

I myself have received from evangelicalism: I came to know the story of Jesus, the value of the Bible, and a relationship with God through the ministry of evangelicalism. This is no small thing.

Still I can’t talk about the gifts of evangelicalism without a serious engagement with the sins of our community – for example, imperialistic mission or oppression of LGBTQ people. Furthermore, it seems to me our sins are not an aberration or accident, but a deep misuse of our greatest gift.

When evangelicalism began, it had a simple mission: to introduce people to a personal relationship with Jesus. Instead of a head with doctrines filled, it focused on a heart strangely warmed.

At the same time, scholars in universities, in resistance to church control, began to critique orthodoxy. Is the Bible reliable? Do old doctrines still make sense? Are miracles real?

Evangelicalism became deeply afraid that scholarly skepticism would lead to a loss of belief, that a head full of questions would mean a heart cooled down.

Out of this fear, evangelicalism chose to withdraw from “the world” – culture, politics, scholarship, science. Evangelicals across denominations adopted deep strategies of control, for the most part, to care for the gospel. Their dogmatism appeared like faithfulness, but deep down was fearful authoritarianism.

As I puzzled to understand this history, Scripture helped me see it spiritually.

After leaving Egypt, the people of Israel are asked to trust the Lord to lead and protect them. Over time, external threats intensify until Israel caves under the weight of their fears and ask for a king.

God is clear that such a request is not only a rejection of him but is counterproductive: the security they seek will become insecurity; the liberation they want will become a new oppression.

It seemed to me that dogmatism is to evangelicalism what choosing a king was to ancient Israel. Just as Israel’s choice came to be a source of suffering, so too, evangelicalism’s adoption of dogmatism has arguably done more harm than good.

The impulse to conserve your tradition is good. However, like many things, through excessive fear, you may destroy what you were trying to protect.

All of this has affected our ability to steward our gift in two ways.

First, this dogmatism has led us to believe that we have a gift to give, but nothing to receive; a belief that closes down our community to humble self-correction.

On the other hand, people who have deep sorrow over the harm our arrogance has caused are in danger of denying evangelicalism has any gifts at all.

Neither of these options are helpful.

Rather, what we need as evangelicals is an invitation to appropriate self-confidence: we have gifts to share, we have gifts to receive! Let us gladly recognize and steward the gifts of our traditions while simultaneously being open to receiving God’s manifold gifts from whatever neighbours they come.

Isaiah Ritzmann

is a member of WMB Church, Waterloo, Ont.


¹ I want to recognize this extension of Paul’s analogy from the individual to the
group is itself a gift from Roman Catholicism, in particular Pope John Paul II.

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