Evangelical: Good Adjective, Bad Noun

Like many of you, I bounce back and forth about my feelings toward the term “evangelical.” When someone asks if I’m an evangelical, I usually panic before pretending to get a text.

But some less-panicked thought has landed me at a solution. To make things even better, it’s grammar-based. Here it is:

I’m an Evangelical Anglican.1 But I’m not an Anglican Evangelical.

The distinction, of course, is which word is the noun and which is the adjective. For “Evangelical Anglican,” all the parts of speech are in their proper place. The noun is Anglican. That means the core of my beliefs are all of the lovely things that come with Anglicanism: the primacy of scripture, the thirty-nine articles, the creeds and councils, the writings of the patristic fathers down to the Inklings, and the worldwide communion stretching from North America through Africa to Asia. This post isn’t designed to convince you to become Anglican.2 I just want to point out that the noun part of “Evangelical Anglican” has a lot of depth.

As the adjective, “evangelical” adds flavor and emphasis to this depth. Rather than alter the substance, it informs the way I enact the substance. For instance, “evangelical” conveys that I really believe my faith, and that I think everyone else should, too. It says that, in addition to my corporate faith, it’s also important to have a personal relationship with God. Finally, it communicates a need for reform–to wake up the nominal and the sleepy within my faith community and call them to put their faith into action.

Now let’s swap the words to “Anglican Evangelical.” This implies that being an evangelical is my core religious identity, and that Anglicanism happens to be the wrapping over it.

The problem here is that evangelicalism doesn’t have much content on its own. As I’ve already argued here–and as many more educated and qualified people have done before me–it’s pretty much impossible to pin down a definition of “evangelical.” Most of the traditional definitions are little more than vague attitudes and emphases floating in the ether.

When these are part of something larger, that’s fine. But when these preferences are on their own, there’s not really any there there.

And that can lead to problems.

Noun-evangelicalism is like a balloon. It floats on its own for a while, but eventually it has to come down somewhere. Sometimes it lands in a good place. Like what happened with Billy Graham. Or many of the para-church ministries surrounding me in Colorado Springs.

But sometimes it lands in, say, a conservative political program. Or a faux-academic progressive fad. Or a politician. Or a cable news broadcast. When the evangelicals’ righteous passion to share their convictions with gets attached to these things, trouble follows.

[insert perfunctory 2016 election references].

My point here isn’t that you should all become Anglican.3 I’m saying that all of us uneasy evangelicals should keep our parts of speech in their proper place. Don’t just be an Evangelical all on itself. Be an Evangelical Something. Presbyterian. Catholic. Baptist. Root yourself in that particular tradition, and keep a larger appreciation for the church as a whole–both around the world and through time.

When you have this substance at your core, evangelical convictions are wonderful things.

Sincerely,

Your friendly neighborhood Evangelical Anglican

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1  Technically, I prefer the term “Evangelical Anglo-Catholic,” but that would take me way too far afield for this post.

2  That’s for my other blog, “39 Things I Love about You”

3  But you really should 😉

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Photo by Mariano Mantel

One thought on “Evangelical: Good Adjective, Bad Noun

  1. Abby Dewsnap

    Reading this from my office at a para-church ministry based in Colorado Springs. It got a little meta there for a second.

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