Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Words Matter - Why I Still Call Myself an Evangelical Christian

I have spent much of my life using and cherishing words.  I was a debater, debate coach, and debate judge.  I am a litigator, arguing cases before judges and juries because I think that beats dueling in the street.  I am a law professor who focuses on teaching bright students how to use words in the courtroom. I am a writer.  I have been accused of being a talker and an arguer.

Words matter.  If you don't know why you have chosen a particular word, you are at best sloppy and and at worst abdicating your responsibility as a user of the language.

Labels matter.  I don't want to call you something that you will not own.  Labeling someone because of a stereotype, a bias, a prejudice, or a misconception is dangerous.

I call myself a Christian, a Baptist, and an Evangelical.  Nowadays, I often find myself telling folks I am not "that kind" of Christian, Baptist, or Evangelical.  The fact is that people too often use words and labels without knowing - or, worse, knowing but not caring - what they mean.

There is an exceptionally well-written article you can read here that is, to me, tragic.  It discusses many important topics that go beyond the scope of this blog: the failure of churches to communicate the person and the love of Christ; the shallowness of what passes as Christianity; the misuse and misunderstanding of the power of music; and more.

But what is particularly tragic to me is that the articulate writer has chosen no longer to call herself "Christian."  Her choice is either because she has decided that she never was a Christian or because she is embarrassed to wear the label.

To be sure, there have been and continue to be a number of misuses of good labels.  There are countless abuses and downright outrages carried out under the names "Christian," "Baptist," "Evangelical," and many others.

I hope you will not judge me based on the evil and the stupid and the shallow that are done under the same labels I wear. I do not think ill of all football officials because of the call (not) made in the end zone of Monday night's game. I don't dismiss all musicians because Eminem calls himself a musician. If you are an actor, I bet you don't stop calling yourself one just because you see a Tom Arnold movie.
I choose to maintain the labels and to try to live up to what they mean.  Christians earned that name by mimicking Jesus, coming to be known in the early church as "little Christs."  "Evangelical" means "of or related to the teaching of the gospel of the Christian religion."  That everyone from Wikipedia to Bill Maher now attributes a whole host of qualities and sins to those labeled "Evangelical Christians" is not a reason, in my book, to stop using the terms correctly.

Baptists have always been a diverse group, so the label has constantly applied to a multitude of different ideas, groups, and even ideologies.  The old joke that a group of ten Baptists will guarantee that you have at least eleven opinions springs from experience.  So, you have Hardshell Baptists and Free Will Baptists and Primitive Baptists and American Baptists and Southern Baptists.  That Jerry Falwell called himself a "Baptist" when I was growing up meant little to me and my church - Falwell and Liberty University were not a part in any way of my little slice of Protestantism.  Southern Baptists in turn could be divided into groups like liberals, conservatives, premillenialists, amillenialists, tithers, non-tithers, and casserole lovers.  Over the last 35 years, the breakdown has been far more telling, as fundamentalists and moderates and literalists and progressives have taken over what it means to be a Southern Baptist.  Suddenly, Jerry Falwell is a Southern Baptist and I am not.

But I am a Baptist.  I treasure the traditional Baptist ideas of church polity, the priesthood of all believers, soul competency, the absence of any creed but scripture, and the organization of the church.  The genius of the Cooperative Program remains as a legacy, even if the Cooperative Program itself has been hijacked by those who no longer want to cooperate with me.  I do not own how many Baptists view women, exclusivity within the church, the role of the church in politics, who should be welcomed, race, war and peace, or the use of money.  But I am nonetheless a Baptist.

I am an evangelical.  Not in a political sense - the correct use of the term evangelism has nothing to do with my presidential vote.  Evangelism means the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ - not the marketing of any particular church, not a political agenda, and not a personal glorification campaign.  There are many means of evangelism, and you don't have to be a preacher or even like tent revivals to be an evangelist.  I view evangelism as the Christian's primary act of obedience to Jesus.  Social justice and personal responsibility and money management and feeding the poor are all critical, but they all stem from our responsibility to reflect and demonstrate the gospel of Christ, using words if and when necessary.  I heard someone say this weekend that our actions can shape our beliefs - I respectfully disagree.  Our actions spring from who we are and where our faith lies.  Who we are shapes what we do.  If it is backwards, then what we believed before we started acting was pretty weak.

I am a Christian.  I am old-fashioned enough to use words like "I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior" with no hint of irony or embarrassment.  But being a "Christian" is much more than a one-time act when I was eight years old.  I wear the label "Christian" because my goal is to be seen as a "little Christ."  If people see and hear and sense Jesus through my life, then I am a successful Christian.

I abhor many acts that are carried out in the name of Christianity, evangelicalism, and the Baptist Church.  I share much of the repulsion of the above-cited article's author at the shallow and self-aggrandizing messages - be they from music, books, soft-soap "worship services" in basketball arenas, TV, movies, or youth group meetings - that some pass off as  Christianity.  People like the author who fall for that tripe are heading for disappointment, disillusionment, and often (usually) a great fall.  And all the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to repair the damage.

The King, however, can repair the damage.  The King can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.  And that is why I am a Christian. 

Words matter.  Labels matter.  Even if the powers that be in the Southern Baptist Convention won't have me, I still attend a church that is "Baptist" in its theology, polity, and organization.  And even if the pop culture of shallow Christianity rages on, I still call myself an Evangelical Christian.  On purpose.

I am intentionally an Evangelical Christian.  Words matter.