Rob Bell’s new video, reclaiming the word “evangelical,” and the choice between power and presence

“I’m an evangelical, and I believe in good news for everybody.”

Rob Bell was written off by many evangelical leaders years ago, so on the one hand, it’s kind of surprising he’d want anything to do with the term “evangelical” now. Yet he’s back on old form in his newest video, unpacking something he taught more than once in his Mars Hill days.

In short:

The term evangelical comes from the Greek word for “good news.” It was the term Rome used to announce each military triumph over their adversaries, as they proclaimed their version of peace on earth. Whether or not it was truly peace, Rob points out, depended on “which end of the sword you were on.”

The early Christian sect reappropriated the Greek word to refer to another kind of victory—Jesus’ triumph over death—and what it meant for the world. For them, “good news” was something that spread “not through coercive military violence, not through crushing your enemies, but through love.”

How a term once used by those who fed the hungry and welcomed outsiders in the name of Christ came to be associated with a mostly white American voting bloc advancing a narrow, exclusionary political agenda is indeed mystifying.

Some of us have wondered if it’s time we gave up on the word “evangelical.”

Others, like Brandan Robertson, have fought to hang onto the term. It’s not been an easy fight, as I’m sure he could tell you.

Some of us have settled into faith traditions that aren’t widely seen as “evangelical.” I’ve been a confirmed Episcopalian for more than four years now. But you almost never leave your past behind entirely. The baggage—good and bad—travels with you. I still value many things about my evangelical heritage. As Rachel Held Evans writes in Searching for Sunday, evangelicalism taught many of us to read the Bible. Granted, it didn’t always teach us to read the Bible well. But I might not have had the same understanding of and appreciation for the Scriptures if I hadn’t grown up evangelical.

Part of me would like to see the word “evangelical” reappropriated. It’s been done before—by the very first Christians, who stole it from Rome. Why can’t it happen again?

What would it take?

To start, those who wear the label “evangelical” (in particular, white American evangelicals) must learn the difference between power and presence—and decide which they really want. Because it can’t be both.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it embraced the pursuit of power—namely, political power—a pursuit, incidentally, that is nowhere encouraged in the New Testament.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it prioritized its own advancement over the good of others, when it stopped valuing others above itself.

Evangelicalism can find its way again—but it has to relinquish the pursuit of power. Relinquishing power doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, essentially repeating the fundamentalists’ mistake of the early 20th century. Christians are called to love, to serve—in other words, to be fully present.

Scripture puts no qualifiers or limits on who we’re called to love and serve—in other words, who we’re called to be fully present with. The pursuit of power is by nature an exclusionary path. Invariably, it’s about rival groups trying to defeat and displace one another. It’s about othering those you don’t like. It’s a zero sum game.

Choosing presence over power may or may not require rethinking some of your convictions. But whether you identify as conservative or progressive or somewhere in between, choosing presence over power certainly means rethinking what you do with your convictions. Do you use them to keep people out? Or do your convictions lead you to be fully present wherever you are, loving and serving all without qualification?

This, as Rob says, is what it means to be “evangelical” in the truest sense of the word. This is what it looks like to proclaim good news for everyone.

If, instead, you seek to coerce society into becoming more “Christian” through political enforcement, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you view your enemy, whoever you may think that is, as someone to be crushed or defeated or displaced—instead of someone to be loved and served without hesitation—you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you’re more interested in keeping the “wrong” kind of people out than offering the greatest possible welcome to all, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you think Jesus’ resurrection changes your eternal destiny only and not everything here on earth, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

Such a gospel is not “good news.”

There are some who would limit the term “evangelical” along narrow ideological lines. Their “good news” has more in common with Rome than Jesus.

I don’t know whether the term “evangelical” is worth salvaging or not. But I do believe that, as Rob says, “If it isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”

8 thoughts on “Rob Bell’s new video, reclaiming the word “evangelical,” and the choice between power and presence

  1. Thank you Ben for your insightfulness. I certainly appreciate it being an American Baptist in NH. I have always shied away from the term “evangelical” since I thought it was synonymous with crazy extremism religious fanatics, Now I understand it much better and will use it with the correct meaning and not be afraid of the term.

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  2. It is too bad religion ever got mixed with with politics. This has given Christianity a terrible name. We are told to , “…honor the emperor,” which is the opposite of what a lot of vocal Christians do. I see online many copies of the same video of Ben Carson being rude to our President, and a lot of Christians think that is great! Since when is being rude or embarrassing someone a Christian attribute?

    I think it is too late to reclaim the word “evangelical.” It is forever linked with ugly politics in the modern mind. We need a new word, like “humble” Christianity or “loving” Christianity.

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  3. I realized the ideas I had for a new name doesn’t evoke the meaning of evangelical. You say it means, good news. Well that is a cool and upbeat alternative, “Good News Christians.”

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  4. Come on, Ben. When you operate in such broad stereotypes about evangelicalism like “it prioritized its own advancement over the good of others” and “it stopped valuing others over itself”, you’re falling into so many of the traps you routinely criticize. Namely, you’re viewing an entire block of people with a they’re-all-villains sort of prejudice, and then roundly condemning them all based on said prejudice. That’s a rather un-Gospel attitude to say the least.

    Mainly, though, I find your complaints about evangelicalism amassing political power to be a bit self-unaware. Yes, evangelical culture is very well organized politically and fights for issues that evangelicals care about. But are you and your church subculture any different? I doubt it. For example, a quick glance through previous posts shows you advocating for issues such as greater carbon emissions control, legalization of same-sex marriage, and more open borders vis-a-vis the Syrian refugee crisis. I’m sure you’re happy when positive strides are made on those issues or others in Washington, but does that therefore mean that mainline Protestantism is “[prioritizing] its own advancement over the goods of others”? Surely not.

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  5. Pingback: yes, i’m an evangelical. | the WayWard follower

  6. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in November-December | Jesus Without Baggage

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