Friday, August 28, 2009


I don't know if anyone has been following the Guardian's Comment is Free - Belief series where Adam Rutherford (an editor of Nature journal) has been attending an Alpha course and writing up his reflections. Adam is a convinced atheist, but he has a fairly good understanding of Christianity, and he gives a fascinating and fair appraisal of the course, whilst remaining utterly unpersuaded.

Anyhoo, this week, instead of going on the Holy Spirit away day, he goes and interviews Nicky Gumbel. The whole thing is interesting, but one bit that jumped out at me was where Nicky says the following -

'This may sound pernickety but I wouldn't describe myself as an evangelical. These are labels, which I don't think are helpful. If I was going to use any label it would be Christian, and if you push me any further I'd say I'm an Anglican - that's the family of the Church that I belong to. There's nothing wrong with any of the other labels, but if you have any of them I want them all. If you're going to say, 'I'm Catholic, liberal, evangelical…' let's have them all. But I wouldn't want to isolate one of those. Personally I think labels are terribly unhelpful because they enable you to dismiss things.'

So there you have it. Nicky Gumbel, perhaps one of the most influential people in 'the evangelical' world, says he wouldn't describe himself as an evangelical.

This is pretty much where I am. Labels such as 'evangelical' have become unhelpful, if not completely meaningless. To those outside the church, 'evangelical' either mean nothing, or it means 'fundamentalist'. To those inside, again, it either means 'fundamentalist' (to those on the liberal/progressive/radical wing) or it leads to endless and tedious discussions of 'what sort of evangelical' you are (open or conservative, charismatic or not) etc, etc. Typically, this search for increasing definition is, as Nicky says, either so you can be dismissed, or so you can be proved to be not evangelical enough or the wrong stripe of evangelical.

So I am a Christian. I realise this 'label' has its own baggage, but it's good enough for me. If pushed further I would say I am a stumbling, faultering, trying to be follower of Jesus. Somewhere down the line, I am an Anglican. I am glad to see I am in the company of such a wonderful and humble Christian man as Nicky Gumbel.

See the full transcript of the interview here


Anonymous said...

good to see some more blogging. At times, as you know, I can get frustrated at labels. However, labels, particular for those within the church can be a useful way of clarifying where we stand theologically.... the danger of moving to a middle common denominator is that we lose some theological distinctiveness. The reluctance to take on labels can stem from a reluctance to 'exclude' others... however as Miroslav Volf has so eloquently shown (exclusion and embrace) to really embrace someone is to be honest about differences. The danger of losing all labels is that we follow an extreme postmodern condition which does not confidently want o ally itself with any truth claims. As followers of Jesus CHrist we need to follow and ally ourselves with the apostles teaching and not not simply go with the zeitgeist.

You raise a valid issue, but in my opinion Gumbel and McClaren seem to be taking things to far.....

Anonymous said...

I would also want to say (and this would support your position) that the zeitgeist of modernity is one which seeks to put everything in boxes and have it all sewn up.... I would want to pursue a middle line which recognizes that all theology and christian praxis stems from a worldview, to label these worldviews is to enter into real dialogue.... and can help include those who use different symbols and language but follow a similar story, but also exclude those from the fellowship and leadership roles those who follow idolatrous worldviews which distort christian theology and praxis...

Jon said...

I am not arguing for losing all labels, that would be to end all language and communication. I am thinking here especially of labels such as evangelical, liberal etc. I agree that they can sometimes be helpful, but only for those who have agreed on their meaning, but this is rarely the case. For the most part they are unhelpful. Rather than clarify and offer theological distinctiveness they are reductionist and lack nuance. The use of a label such as 'evangelical' is no guarantee of following the apostles teaching.

Too often these labels are used to dismiss, to shortcut discussion and avoid listening. This is the last thing Volf would be advocating.

I agree with the first part of your second comment. On the worldview stuff, I see where you're coming from, but I suspect that most people have a hotchpotch of worldviews which escape easy labelling. For example, a Christian may be influenced by a Marxist worldview, but it may only be the part of Marxism which is concerned with alieviating poverty (which thereby agrees with the biblical worldview) and not the athiest part. It cannot be written off by labelling it Marxist.

The discernment of those suitable for leadership should be based on orthodoxy and orthopraxy, both of which take listening, conversation and relationship to appreciate. I don't think this process should be shortcut by the use of labels, especially when they are applied by others.

So I agree with Gumbel and McClaren on this issue, but it is good that we can be honest about our differences.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the response.
A number of follow up comments spring to mind.
Labels like 'evangelical' can lack nuance. However, to refer to being 'Christian' simply exaggerates the problem.
I would not equate the 'apostles teaching' with evangelicalism, However I do think that the confessional evangelical route is more faithful to it than many other theological traditions.

Labels can hard to pin down but this does not make them useless. For a theologian to describe themselves as 'charismatic', 'liberal' gives a signpost to what they believe....

You rightly say that discernment for leadership is to to find those with orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This begs the question, whose 'orthodoxy'... from what theological tradition is something deemed orthodox.

Surely the rejection of labels, becomes a kind of labeling in itself.

In a world where we live with the relics of CHristendom the word Christian has become distorted from apostles teaching. ie. (and i'm making the stats up here) 50% of UK citizens may describe themselves as Christian. It is neccessary, at times, to offer other descriptions of how we are using the word CHristian...

you can obviously tell them i am missing out on the theological interaction at college...

Missional-Neo-Calvinist- Charismatic with a Seatbelt-Christian

Jon said...

Well, yes I admit that 'Christian' has it's own baggage and requires nuancing, but that is where further conversation comes in. If people want to know what kind of Christian I am then they can ask and I will do my best to describe it using words appropriate to that context. If people want to judge my stripe of Christianity by 1 or 2 or 3 word monikers then, frankly that is there problem.

Of course you think that confessional evangelicalism is more faithful to the apostles' teaching than other traditions, and the Roman Catholics think that they are, and the Eastern Orthodox think that they are. The truth is that each tradition is probably more faithful in some areas than the others.

Of course, what is 'orthodox' and who gets to define it is a massive question. I'm not sure we will ever be able to entirely pin it down. I would want to say something like, that which has been agreed upon by the largest possible groups representing the different traditions of the church. The creeds of the councils of the first 5 centuries, that sort of thing. If you want to call that 'lowest common denominator' then fair enough. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Anglican church was that it wasn't confessional. The history of confessional protestantism shows that the search of tighter and tighter definitions leads to fragmentation. I am ecumenical at heart so I want to find what I have in common with Catholic, Liberal, Orthodox, Evanglical, Charismatic. Anyway, I'm digressing.

I was waiting for the 'rejection of labels' being a label itself thing. I think this is probably only true for those desperate to label people. If people want to do that without getting to know me - again, I'm comfortable with that.

We must all be able to choose ourselves how best to describe our Christian faith. For some people this is more important than others and this probably depends on personality type. I think there is something important in finding our identity in Christ not in a particular label. For me at the moment, Christian will do. I sometimes toy with saying 'I'm a follower of Christ', but this can sound either pretentious or cult-like.

If people ask I can say 'I grew up in an evangelical, baptist church, I was zapped by the Spirit in my teens, I have been massively influenced by John Wimber, I'm an avid Tom Wright fan, etc, etc' This is my story. But why should I reduce my story to a proposition just because someone wants to pigeonhole me?

Anonymous said...

interesting conversation.... as much as I would love to witter on about this I need to turn my attention to my upgrade, we should discuss it over a pint and pipe sometime... i know we have discusses this several times in past but i think this conversation has shown that we both feel striongly about respective positions

Jon said...

yes, definitely. I was really speaking from a personal position about where I am at the moment, and not meaning to be too general about the use of labels. Hope I didn't come across too strong.

I hope everything goes well with the upgrade. I'm sure you will have no problems.

take care,

AJ said...

It seems there are two perspectives playing out here: labels as (1) a restrictive structure and (2) a defining framework. And, of course, each is really just looking at the same question from a different side: the glass is half full/empty sort of thing. To me, it seems you agree on the underlying dynamics but disagree on the cost-value benefit. Is this true? If so, then we can probably just say that our own positions will differ according to where we see the intersection of restriction and definition. Or more simply: you've both got good points and I doubt I could further the discussion in a helpful way.

Now, my real question is with the root of it all: the label 'evangelical'. For all the things it might now connote, it seems to me the animating centre is still obvious: evangelize. That is, to say you're evangelical is to identify your own foundation as gospel proclamation, as the inbreaking of God's kingdom in Christ and the impetus to spread, teach, and disciple this. And while there is the risk of being amassed under the idea of 'conservative', 'fundamentalist', etc., in my opinion the distinctive of gospel proclamation still outweighs the risk of misrepresentation. But again, I suppose we're back to the cost-value situation, and I reckon that you, JT, find it too costly (or risky) to go with?

Jon said...

Yes, AJ I think you have done a great job of summing up the discussion. You are very wise.

And yes, I think you are right to emphasise that what should be at the heart of evangelicalism is gospel proclamation, and I would want to whole-heartedly affirm this (although I would probably want to add 'in word and deed). But I would also want to affirm some things in non-evangelical traditions that I think we may have got missed out on and could learn from. (This is what I understand by the phrase 'open-evangelical').

Sadly, as you know, the meaning of a word depends on its usage and not on its etymology. In many contexts, especially outside the church 'evangelical' has come to mean something more akin to 'narrow fundamentalist'. This is a shame, as I think the word has been hijacked, but I can't be bothered to claim it back.

Perhaps, and I hope this doesn't sound dishonest, the way I would choose to describe my Christianity would depend on who I was talking to. Amongst folk, like you and Jon, who understand 'evangelical' in its best and broadest sense, I would be happy to affirm my evangelicalism. In other contexts I would prefer to just say I'm a Christian and give further description if asked. I'm sure we all do this to a certain extent.

Thanks for the comment.

Jon said...

'we may have got missed out on'!!

that is what happens when you lose a comment and try and rewrite it quickly.

AJ, I think your comment highlights why I found Nicky Gumbel's words so interesting. As Mr Alpha, I can hardly think of anyone who is more passionate about the gospel and seeing people come to know Jesus, and yet he says (admittedly to an athiest for an article in the secular Guardian) he wouldn't describe himself as an evangelical.

Jon, I refer you to ASBO Jesus' cartoon which I blogged here

AJ said...

JT: all very true. The way in which terms are used is frustrating, misleading and, all too often, unfair. I think what I kick against is the feeling that we're pushed this way and that by other's connotations of our words. But, alas, this cannot be helped this side of Babel's reversal.

Perhaps we should all learn from Swales and adopt an indecipherable language!

Polemic said...

Interesting debate. Polarising the argument:

On the the one side there is the argument that cultural values are of the utmost importance and we should take the role of the apologist for those aspects which we don't agree with.

On the other side there is the argument that personal values are more important and taking we should take the role of accepting the mistakes that have gone before in the tradition.

I think everyone finds their own balance between the two extremes whether it is an ecclesiastical matter or not.

Good Luck Jon, I hope you find a balance that suits you.