What's in a Name
This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact the Tim Geddert.
by Tim Geddert
Many Mennonite Brethren would claim to be “anabaptist” and “evangelical". Others identify with one label more than the other, either because we really do have diverse convictions, or because we don’t all use the labels in the same way. At Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, we have explicitly stated: "We give witness to a biblical theology that is both anabaptist and evangelical.” In what follows, I will capitalize these words when using them as labels or naming a movement and leave them uncapitalized when naming tendencies, emphases, or theological convictions.
What is an evangelical? Many churches use the word Evangelical in their name, frequently to distinguish themselves from others sharing a denominational history but perceived to be either less conservative or less missionary-minded. Other churches, though not using “Evangelical” in their label, claim close affinity with those that do. Many are members of the National Association of Evangelicals or Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Many biblical scholars associated with evangelicals participate in the Evangelical Theological Society. Some claim “Evangelical” is properly used to label a movement starting in the 1940s as a reaction to fundamentalists perceived to be anti-intellectual and overly critical of any who deviated from some very narrowly-defined doctrinal convictions.
We will likely never reach agreement on just how “Evangelical/evangelical” should be used. The word itself derives from the Greek “euangelion” which simply means “Gospel” or "good news". Perhaps it is appropriate that no group or coalition has so far succeeded in claiming ownership of the word. What then is a North American Evangelical? I use the word to label those persons, churches, or associations where the following emphases are highlighted:
– Conversion, understood as a conscious personal choice, occurring when specific steps are taken: repentance; placing faith in Jesus' atoning death; receiving Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.
– Biblical Authority, often linked to specific claims about the nature of Scripture (as inspired and infallible) and to specific emphases in interpreting Scripture (leaning heavily towards a literal interpretation and a direct application, with minimal allowance for translation into a new cultural situation).
– Discipleship, often understood primarily as personal sanctification, practicing spiritual disciplines, etc.
– Evangelism, understood to focus primarily on saving "souls", so that their eternal destiny will be heaven and not hell. (Note: There are encouraging signs that many Evangelicals are moving towards a more holistic Gospel!)
– Church, viewed as having the primary role of leading others to faith and supporting individuals in their personal walk with God.
– Doctrine, strongly emphasized and often defined in detail (in general the movement is quite defensive when new ways of reading Scripture or understanding biblical truth are proposed).
Not all who claim the name Evangelical necessarily endorse all these points equally strongly, but I think they define what can fairly be called “evangelical” in a North American context.
The term “Anabaptist” (re-baptizers) was not chosen by, but rather used against, some radical reformers in the 16th century. Their primary goal was to established “free churches” (in contrast to the “state churches” of their day). In defiance of governmental and territorial claims, they emphasized that “church” is for committed disciples of Jesus only.
We now know that many streams of radical reformers existed in the 16th century and only some shaped what later became the “mainstream” of the Anabaptist movement (one such stream became known as Mennonites). Many who associate with Anabaptism today would view the following three themes as particularly central to, and perhaps uniquely understood within Anabaptism.
– Discipleship, viewed as the essence of Christianity, and defined more broadly than personal sanctification; it is concretely practicing the ethics of Jesus in daily life;
– Believers Church, understood as central to God’s mission and consisting of those freely joining themselves with others practicing faith and discipleship (church is a covenant community, not a support group for individual piety);
– Love and Nonresistance, viewed as the heart of Christian ethics and implying a counter-cultural alternative to the world’s ways of opposing evil.
For centuries Anabaptism was viewed by mainstream churches in Europe as a curious, isolated, and often misunderstood sect. In the last 70 years cultural (and even political) engagement has increased dramatically. Through increased contact among denominations and theologians (and also because we all read the same Bible!), some of the basic tenets of Anabaptism have been embraced by theologians and leaders in widely diverse church traditions.
Being both Anabaptist and Evangelical
Mennonite Brethren from their very inception in 1860 in the Ukraine were shaped by the “anabaptism” of their Mennonite history and the “evangelicalism” of German Lutherans and Baptists around them. To be both evangelical and anabaptist means we recognize areas of compatibility between the two movements (e.g. lived faith; a strong Biblicism) and avoid those extreme emphases of each movement that are clearly incompatible with the other. Evangelicals who strongly endorse right wing politics – uncritical defense of capitalism and militarism, strong defense of gun laws, capital punishment etc. – or whose theology borders on Fundamentalism, or whose understanding of the
Christian faith is extremely individualistic, cannot consider themselves anabaptist. On the other side, those whose emphasis on counter-cultural peacemaking/pacifism is so extreme that individual personal faith and Christian evangelism are considered unimportant, and social activism overshadows all other Christian concerns, cannot consider themselves evangelical. Such extremes skew our denominational identity and work against our desire for a healthy unity within diversity.
On some issues we will need to find an appropriate balance: Christian faith is both personal and communal; Christian responsibility includes both evangelism and social activism. On some issues we can welcome the “tug-of-war” between those who think we have gone too far one way and those who think we have gone too far the other way.
At Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary our faculty has diverse emphases and sometimes, convictions, but we all affirm our anabaptist and evangelical identity. Our goal is to shape Mennonite Brethren students to join us in forging our denomination’s anabaptist/evangelical identity. And our goal is to shape our non-MB students, regardless of denominational affiliation and theological convictions, to understand both “streams” and incorporate the best of both into their own convictions and ministry priorities. We do this by teaching and modeling a holistic Gospel that is both personal and corporate, evangelistic and peace-making, grounded in orthodox Christian faith and open to new ways of understanding and embodying the Gospel in the contemporary world.
Tim Geddert, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.