Thomas Renz writes: Labels can be powerful – and problematic. When we use a label to define ourselves, we generate expectations in others which we may or may not be willing to fulfil. In the USA the term “evangelical” has become so highly politicized that some who used to think of themselves as evangelicals have dropped the label as a self-designation. For them the name has become toxic, referring to a culture from which they want to distance themselves. But while some who affirm evangelical faith feel alienated from the evangelical subculture around them to such an extent that they wonder whether they should still use the label (e.g., Craig Keener), others who have left their evangelical subculture and strongly disagree with some positions widely attributed to evangelicals are nevertheless keen to retain the label “evangelical” for themselves (e.g., Jayne Ozanne).
Many of us have a strong desire to allow people to choose their own labels but there is perhaps also a growing recognition that as a means of communication the meaning of words cannot be privatised. For example, some “feminists” (another contested label) observe that allowing biological males to claim the label “woman” for themselves changes the definition of what it means to be a woman for everyone. Labels are powerful and therefore contested.
Labels cannot be owned, Humpty Dumpty notwithstanding.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
The words are not in charge, but neither is the speaker. Meanings arise and evolve in a network of relationships and, as the producers of dictionaries recognise, are ultimately a matter of usage, something which is often context-dependent. The use of the word “evangelical” in US political contexts has only a tenuous relationship to its use in the UK. Usage in secular media often fails to differentiate between “evangelical” and “evangelistic,” employing both indiscriminately for anyone enthusiastically promoting an idea – any idea. The link with the evangel, the Gospel, has been completely lost.
Arguably the most influential definition of Evangelicalism is one offered by David W. Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989; London: Routledge, 2003):
There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.
This quadrilateral goes with basic beliefs without which there may be some vague evangelical culture but not what Bebbington calls “Evangelical religion.” These are beliefs which many Christians who do not call themselves “evangelical” might also affirm, in which case “evangelical” is a matter of emphasis on these basics. They can be readily identified with reference to the Basis of Faith of either the Evangelical Alliance or, especially within the Church of England, of the Church of England Evangelical Council. The numbers and broad cross-section of self-styled “evangelicals” these organisations represent gives weight to the definition of “evangelical” they suggest. Size matters, because ultimately the meaning of a word is a matter of characteristic usage and characteristic usage is a matter of frequency and frequency is a matter of numbers.
But there is another usage that is prominent within the Church of England. Many within our churches who do not think of themselves as “evangelical” have little understanding of what the term means for those who self-identify as evangelical. For them, “evangelical” refers to “happy-clappy” or “low church” and this can be a problem for self-styled “evangelicals” because while the categories overlap, they are not identical. While I count myself an evangelical in terms of the basis of Faith of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), I am neither particularly happy-clappy, nor particularly low church. If in our parish I called myself an “evangelical” without further explanation, I would generate false expectations or unnecessary fears because I do not minister within a “happy-clappy” or “low church” setting and have no wish of seeing the church changed in this respect.
My little difficulties are nothing compared with the serious issues now faced by those who self-identify as “inclusive evangelicals” or “accepting evangelicals” – those who were upset when the CEEC resolved to supplement their Basis of Faith with Additional Declarations taken from the Constitution, the second of which reads
We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.
Evangelicals who want to change the traditional understanding of marriage as being between “one man and one woman” to include other arrangements or who want to be accepting of sexual activity outside marriage as defined here cannot be members of the CEEC and if evangelicalism is their home (and especially if they don’t have another home to go to), they are understandably upset about being shown the door. Their argument would be that evangelicalism is a broad tent that already includes a diversity of views on secondary matters.
And this is the difficulty for evangelicals of various stripes would likely agree that the question of what we think about same-sex relationships is less important than the question of how and why we have come to our view. In this sense it is a secondary matter. Evangelicals
receive the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as the wholly reliable revelation and record of God’s grace, given by the Holy Spirit as the true word of God written. The Bible has been given to lead us to salvation, to be the ultimate rule for Christian faith and conduct, and the supreme authority by which the Church must ever reform itself and judge its traditions (CEEC Basis of Faith).
“Accepting evangelicals” who continue to affirm this wholeheartedly are in more substantial agreement with “CEEC evangelicals” than, say, “CEEC evangelicals” are with non-evangelicals who reject same-sex relationships because they are disgusted by them. But equally, if this is (in part) how they define themselves as “evangelical”, such “accepting evangelicals” would be in more profound agreement with “CEEC evangelicals” than with those who, while also contending for a change to the church’s teaching, implicitly or explicitly reject our need to submit to the Scriptures as God’s word. Precisely because our attitude towards the Bible is more fundamental and so more important than our attitude to same-sex relationships, it is incumbent that evangelicals stand together here calling ourselves as well as others to repentance.
It is surely evident that while there are those who honestly believe that the Scriptures allow for sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman, the clear majority of evangelicals and non-evangelicals, both scholars and other Bible readers, do not think so. This is why the clear majority of those who call themselves evangelical are unable to support a change in the church’s teaching, while the clear majority of those who contend for such a change do not hold to an “evangelical” view of Scripture as defined above. If the great schism within the Church of England is therefore about our stance to God’s revelation, those evangelicals who seek to revise the church’s teaching find themselves in the awkward position of having to call out the implicit and sometimes explicit disparagement of Scripture that is found among their fellow campaigners.
Those who subscribe to the Evangelical Alliance’s or the CEEC’s Basis of Faith would usually think of such a basis as a description of “mere Christianity” and hence as non-negotiable. But evangelicals do disagree on a number of other issues, obviously. Occasionally, disagreement has even been introduced on matters on which previously there was very widespread agreement. This may be true for the ordination of women and it was certainly true for annihilationism. Such stretching, however, occurred under the leadership of recognised Bible scholars who were in all other respects firmly in the centre of evangelical theology and outspoken about the need of the church to submit to its Lord who speaks to us through the Scriptures, e.g., Dick France and Tom Wright on the ordination of women, John Wenham and John Stott on annihilationism. The fact that these were or are recognised Bible scholars and teachers matters because of the central importance of the Scriptures for evangelicals. We acknowledge the temptation for all of us to use the Scriptures, in Luther’s famous phrase, as a wax-nose to support our own agenda. The careful application of reason as we interpret the Scriptures is therefore even more important when traditional readings are challenged.
It is perhaps a sense of contending together on the major (the creedal) issues that makes it so much easier to see ourselves as fellow evangelicals, even while disagreeing on the question of annihilationism or the ordination of women.
It is difficult to contend at one and the same time for the blessing of same-sex sexual relationships and for the authority of Scripture because those who seek to do so by and large find themselves with different, even opposing, “allies” in these two “battles.” But surely those who call themselves evangelical will consider the matter of submission to Scripture as of vital importance for the church. My reading of Scripture leads me to support the ordination of women but this does not prevent me from lamenting and decrying the disparaging way in which many within the Church of England, including clergy, speak of the apostle Paul, and if push came to shove I would rather be in a church that knows itself bound to the Scriptures but does not ordain women than in one that does ordain women because “we now know better than the authors of the NT.”
The hard question for “accepting evangelicals” is similar: would they rather be in a church that reads the Bible with the grain, knows itself bound to the moral commandments found therein (cf. Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles), refuses “to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written” or to “expound one place of Scripture” in a way that makes it “repugnant to another” (Article XX), and, wrongly in their view, enjoins Christians to refrain from sexual intimacy outside marriage between one man and one woman – or would they rather be in a church that is more accepting of sexual intimacy outside this context, happy to set aside Scriptural injunctions to the contrary?
If it is the latter, many evangelicals will find it difficult to accept their claim to being “evangelical” in any fuller sense of the word. I did of course make recourse to the Thirty-Nine Articles just now because I believe that being Anglican, in the classical sense of the word, is nothing other than one specific way of being evangelical. This is perhaps why I am not too bothered about having to avoid the “evangelical” label in some contexts where this could be misunderstood (as “happy clappy” or “low church”). I can wear the label “classically Anglican” and/or the “evangelical” label. At the end of the day, I want to avoid using labels in a possessive or polemical way. I much rather be understood. For that a common reference point is often more helpful than a label. Both the Thirty-Nine Articles and the CEEC Basis of Faith serve me well in this regard, even if there is of course more to being “evangelical” than doctrinal standards. There is indeed the desire to have the contours of one’s faith shaped fundamentally by the Bible, but also a focus on Christ crucified, a recognition of our need to be born again, and an urgency to share our faith with others.
I have no particular interest in denying the label to anyone. But I can see why, for example, David Robertson in 2014 confidently declared that Steve Chalke had departed from evangelicalism. And I certainly recognise that Republican “evangelicals” or “accepting evangelicals” who show little concern for the conversion of non-Christians, rarely extol the substitutionary atonement of Christ, barely urge repentance unless perhaps linked to their political agenda, and are coy in affirming the complete truthfulness and authority of Scripture, mean something rather different when they label themselves “evangelical” than I do when I claim the label for myself.
Revd Dr Thomas Renz came to England from Germany in 1993 to pursue doctoral studies and taught Old Testament and Hebrew at Oak Hill Theological College for 12 years before entering parish ministry. He has been Rector at Monken Hadley since 2012. His wife is a Modern Foreign Languages Teacher at St Albans School and they have two adult children.