Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dear Conservatives, You Don't Own "Evangelical"

Conservative Christians really need to stop acting like they own the trademark on “Evangelical”, but more on that in a bit…

According to the law, if you own a trademark, you have to fight to keep it. In 1936 the Dempster brothers invented a better way to collect trash, trademarking it the Dumpster. Over time, “dumpster” became common for any large trash bin and the Dempster brothers did nothing to prevent others from using the name. As result, they lost their trademark rights. 

The Simpsons satirizes the genericized trademark issue when Bart finds bus driver Otto homeless:
Bart: Otto-Man? You're living in a dumpster?
Otto: No, man, I wish. Dumpster-brand trash bins are top-of-the-line. This is just a Trash-Co waste disposal unit.

Other companies successfully protect their brands: Xerox asks people to photo-copy not “xerox”, Google warns the media when they use the verb “google”, Johnson and Johnson changed its jingle from “I’m stuck on Band-Aids” to “I’m stuck on Band-Aid brand”, and who hasn’t been corrected when asking for a Coke when the restaurant serves Pepsi. The lesson is this: if you want to own specificity you have to actively protect against genericity. Aspirin, Escalator, Laundromat, and Kleenex learned this lesson the hard way.

Conversely, trademarking a generic word for a specific brand has its own complications. The law prevents a company that sells apples from trademarking “apple”, but for a company that wants to sell computers, “Apple” is no problem… (that is until you open an online music store that shares the name of The Beatles’ label.) You can trademark a generic word as long as the product has nothing to do with its common word meaning.  Thus we have Caterpillar, Time and Shell.

Trademarks aside, it is important to protect labels in general from becoming watered down or in some cases, super-specified. The Republican Party is an example of a group dealing with this tension—different factions want to pull what it means to be Republican in different directions. Libertarians, the establishment, neo-conservatives, and progressive Meghan McCains all want a narrower or broader definition of its party. The church has its own fun in trying to control its brand—especially with labels like Evangelical.

Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite writers and she recently wrote an article in the Washington Post about blogging as a progressive Evangelical. This twitter conversation happened shortly after with someone who read her article:

@rachelheldevans, based on all you embrace, what is the basis of your claim to be an evangelical? Upbringing?

@sarahflashing, 'Evangelion' is Greek for gospel. An evangelical is someone who shares the gospel. In that sense, I'm a proud evangelical! The good news is that Jesus is Lord.

Sarah was questioning her identification as Evangelical because in Rachel’s writing she challenges “the status quo regarding gender roles, women’s ordination, political engagement, biblical interpretation, LGBT equality, interfaith dialog, and the place of doubts, questions, and uncertainty in the life of faith.”  Rachel goes on to say, much to the chagrin of many conservative Evangelical leaders, the Internet has “decentralized authority that gives voice to dissident and minority voices that might not otherwise be heard.”

In the same way some Republican leaders get nervous every time Meghan McCain goes on Maddow, so too, some conservative Evangelicals get anxious when young women like Rachel Held Evans blog, or even worse, call herself a LGBT-loving-Evangelical in the Washington Post! The progressive Evangelical is gaining their voice and is increasingly questioning conservative Christians who think they own the trademark for Evangelical.

Equating Evangelical with Conservative Christian is not only unfair to all of us other Evangelicals, it’s not accurate. As Rachel points out, Evangelical is one who tells the good news of the Gospel. Many conservative Evangelicals have a litmus test of specific religious and social views you must confess to be an Evangelical. But other Evangelicals, such as myself, understand sharing the good news of the Gospel much more broadly. Here I lean on theologian NT Wright.

Wright argues that when Paul (a Christ follower and writer in the Bible, after Jesus) talked about “Gospel” he wasn’t talking about getting saved or even living in a way that we would call “religious”. He was talking about the celebration of a new king who would bring comfort and hope for the whole world. In fact, Paul stole the word from the Romans who used "gospel" as the news of, or the celebration of Caesar. For Paul, Gospel is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is here with us. Gospel is a royal proclamation aimed at challenging other royal proclamations.

It was subversive good news that upset the status quo. Paul was an Evangelical who made other Christian leaders (like Peter) a bit nervous when he said things like it did not matter if you were circumcised or not (the hot topic controversy of the early church). Paul was the Rachel Held Evans of the early church, pushing the bounds of what it meant to be Evangelical.

So, to my conservative Evangelical brothers and sisters… consider this your cease and desist notice for thinking Evangelical is exclusively yours. Don’t misunderstand me… I’m not claiming it solely for myself or for my vaguely progressive Christian friends. The thing that I’m not sure you get is that you can’t trademark God’s love. Good News isn’t a brand for you to control, deciding who is in and who is out. God’s grace is not a private club… that’s Augusta National Golf Course.

Evangelical good news can’t be contained, it’s found…

It’s found in radical justice for the oppressed.
It’s found in recovery from addiction.
It’s found in a crack in the darkness of depression.
It’s found in hearing “you belong and you are loved,” regardless of who you love.
It’s found in service that touches your life in a moment of greatest need.
It’s found in a listening ear and an open heart, willing to bear your burden.
It’s found in the shedding of divine blood.
It’s found in love and forgiveness in the blood that sings humanity’s brokenness.
It’s found in remembering there is no salvation until the collective suffering of all of God’s people is relieved.
It’s found in the message inscribed by God on our heart, forever changing us and how we see the world and others.

Good news cannot be contained, trademarked, branded, or rebranded. It is not conservative, moderate, or liberal. It is bigger than we are. It is the goodness from which we emerged, which God proclaimed was our essence. In that sense, we are the good news. And in sharing our lives, we are Evangelical, sharing that good news.


  1. Thanks for this, Andy!
    I think as well that conservative evangelicals' can't claim the name Evangelist for their own. Though, I feel our political dialogue shapes the term. It's not like it's s denomination... more like a political party.

  2. The problem here is not the definition of Evangelical, but with an understanding of what the Gospel is. And that's something neither you nor Mrs. Evans nor any of us other souls walking the face of the earth at this moment get to define.

    That's something that was defined for us nearly twenty centuries ago and handed down to us in the Holy Scriptures in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. (see I Cor 15). Unless you are proclaiming THAT as Good News you are no Evangelical.

    If you have a problem with that, you'll have to take it up with the Author of Scripture and not sine imaginary diffused authority like Mrs. Evans.

  3. Evangelical is a theological term. It is not a political term. When the message of redemption and its implications are reinterpreted according to progressive goals tjen by definition the message moves from God and His church to a message controlled by politicians, makong ot imto a civil religion. Such reframing has always beem treated as heresy. This is seen in the altered "atonement" of Hegel and Marx where the church serves the state and society as a quasi-public institution. That framework is the progressive framework, whether done fully or partially.

  4. Political dialogue and our need to segment everyone into voting blocs (i.e. the soccer mom) has co-opted theological language that needs to be reclaimed. My theology is shaped by my Wesleyan interpretation of Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, my experience of the Spirit and God's gift of reason. In turn, my theology has shaped how I see the world; it has shaped my political views. I am progressive politically because my theological lens has shaped my politics this way. Jesus and his politics didn't fit the mold of populous religious leaders. It is dangerous to dismiss a progressive Evangelical voice by saying that it is not a faithful voice of the church.

    @Kamilla, I haven't read 1 Corinthians 15 as I cut it out of my Bible. (That was a joke.) 1 Cor 15 is exactly what the Gospel is. I think I covered that when I said "Gospel is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is here with us." I'm guessing where we disagree is what implications that has on who we are called to be as Gospel sharers or Evangelicals. I have learned to hear the Gospel as a subversive message of love that often upsets those with power, much like the life of the Christ did in Jesus. It is a message that begins with grace, ends with grace, and grace all the way through. Through the life and teachings of Jesus we see what the Gospel is not... It is not news delivered through the sword. It is not news that shuts out the poor or the outcast (in fact, they are the ones who are first and who come to the banquet). It is not news that keeps records of wrongs, but responds with love and grace. It is not news that can be co-opted by Pharisees or other elitest sects, it cannot be contained. It is news that cannot be sold by money changers or executed on a cross. The good news is Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. The Spirit has been poured out on us on Pentecost and is still pouring today, calling us to embody this good news as we are broken and poured out for one another.

    1. I was referring to Mrs Evans' truncated definition of the Gospel in her twitter exchange with Sarah Flashing.

      The true subversion and message of love is one that tells us to go and sin no more. It is not one that confirms us in our sinful identities. Go and sin no more applies to the Gossip and the miser just as surely as it does to the homosexual who cries for the legal sanction of "marriage". While it keeps no record of sins for which there is repentance and forgiveness, it does without doubt or apology tell you that unrepentance will surely send you to hell.

      You are absolutely right. The Good News can not be co-opted by the Pharisee. And that applies whether he wears the clothing of a conservative or a progressive-liberationist.

    2. I guess we just differ on the way we read and interpret Scripture. I happen to think Rachel's definition of Gospel as "Jesus is Lord" covers it (so did Paul in Romans 10 btw).

      I agree with you that "go and sin no more" is a message of love. I just don't see homosexual relationships as sin. I also can't agree that unrepentance surely sends you to hell. I believe hell is a real place, I just don't believe anyone is there because I believe God's love wins in the end.

      Jesus didn't have much to say about condemning people to hell, well, other than those who were busy doing the condemning: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matt 23)

      So I'm cool if we can just agree that we have clearly been formed in different ways and read and interpret Scripture differently. For example, I know that you know all the goto verses that tell you that homosexuality is sin... and I know you have probably already heard the response I would give you to all those verses. So let's just skip all those keystrokes and agree to keep sharing the Gospel that the Spirit has given each of us to share... even if it does seem like a completely different language. Peace.

    3. Your disagreement is not with me. It is with the Church and the Spirit who has been guiding her for about 2000 years.

  5. Please issue a similar "cease and desist" order to all liberals who use the term "evangelical" as if it were a dirty word.

  6. I question Rachel Held Evans' claim to being an evangelical based on her clearly inclusivist stance on salvation as well as her dubious handling of scripture. She is well outside the realm of historical evangelicalism in her red-letter, hierarchical approach to scripture reading(as is any other Christian who reads scripture similarly) and her inclusivist position on salvation places her well outside of orthodoxy. Jesus came to save sinners (that's all of us. but not all are ultimately saved) but he didn't eat with the tax collectors and sinners because he wanted them to find contentment in their lifestyle but because they weren't well and in need of a physician. Read Mark 2:17. "Jesus is Lord" is the good news, indeed, but what it means that Jesus is Lord is far more than an identity statement. A relationship with Christ as further explicated throughout the pages of scripture calls us to a changed life. I'll never suggest a sinner of any type can't be saved, but its not the churches job to redefine what sin is or isn't...scripture has done that for us. Progressives in the church are a new breed and yes, I am staking a claim on the term evangelical. And if there's a problem with that, know that you're doing the same in your attempts to redraw the lines. Your more inclusive approach is no less a pursuit to claim the trademark.

    1. Sarah, thank you for your response. There was a time in my life where I would have agreed with you, but now I disagree with just about every part of what you wrote.

      At the foundation of our disagreement is the way we read scripture and our definitions of words like historical, orthodoxy, sin, salvation, evangelical and your belief that Progressives are a new breed in the church. Bottom line, you want to draw the evangelical circle narrowly, and I want to draw the circle much wider.

      Wikipedia's article "Evangelical" has a great summary of this tension:

      "Typically, members of the evangelical left affirm the primary tenets of evangelical theology, such as the doctrines of Incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, and also see the Bible as a primary authority for the church. A major theological difference, however, which in turn leads to many of the social/political differences, is the issue of how strictly to interpret the Bible, as well as what particular values and principles predominantly constitute the "biblical worldview" believed to be binding upon all followers. Inevitably, battles over how to characterize each other and themselves ensue, with the evangelical left and right often hyperbolically regarding each other as "mainline/non-evangelical" and "fundamentalist" respectively."


    2. Andy, so you also believe inclusivism is compatible with evangelicalism? This hasn't been historically the case. If you want to identify yourself as a Christian inclusivist we can debate that in the pages of scripture, but progressives want to identify an Evangelical inclusivists there is history to contend with. At its root, evangelicalism believes in the necessity of preaching, hearing and responding to the gospel which is why missions/evangelism isn't considered optional.

  7. A person I respect a great deal in the Rocky Mountain Conference said I couldn't be an evangelical because I am a Methodist. Wonder what Big John Wesley would have said to that ?

    Just as we can be various flavors of progressive, we can also be various flavors of evangelical -- contingent of course on a few core ideas being constant (and I do not see the core ideas being a tome.)

  8. An Evengelical is someone who shares the Gospel of Christ with non-believers--those who do not have a relationship with Jesus. Most people do not know/ reject the meaning of this term and deminish its true meaning.Knowing this, it means that each and every one of us are to participate in sharing the truth. The whole Gospel is not to be taken literally but also as a literary work. (Exegesis) I am a faithful member to a Methodist Church but found evengelism from the Baptist Church--something we were missing. Baptists do it well-- though they are not perfect. They forget alot, too. No group can claim evangelism for themselves since it is a part of ministry to the world.