Is the label “conservative-evangelical” a stumbling block?

Evangelical Times have published this article by Mike Judge explaining why he’s no longer using the term “conservative evangelical.”

There were a couple of things that I found interesting in the article, not least that he is himself drawing the boundaries for who belongs to the tribe quite tightly. Mike identifies himself as Reformed in terms of doctrine and complementarian but also adds in:

“I’m … a Cessationist, and a Creationist… I proclaim the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. I defend the independence of local churches. I’m pro-life and pro-marriage.”

This is interesting because I would suspect that there are  quite a few people who would not categorise themselves as “conservative evangelical” who would strongly uphold life, marriage, the exclusivity of Christ and indeed the independence of the local church. Meanwhile, the label has been so strongly associated with evangelical Anglicanism that I find it hard to see independency as a defining characteristic of it.  Mike says that he is “a creationist”, I am too but many within the reformed constituency are not. Indeed, Young Earth Creationism is probably a rarer beast within the reformed/conservative-evangelical constituency than we might like to admit.  Meanwhile he adds that he is “a cessationist” whilst many conservative evangelicals are not (including me).  I guess this just highlights one danger with labels which is that it presumes a one size fits all attitude.

However, my main interest in the article was the main reason given by Mike for disavowing the title

“The term is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, it is too closely linked with politics. Here in the UK, one of our major political parties is named The Conservative Party. Similar parties exist in other western nations under different names. Political conservatives hold to a certain set of economic and social policies.

I’m not saying those policies are right or wrong, good or bad. I’m sure you have your own opinions about that. My point is that when most people hear the word ‘conservative’, that’s what they think about. They think about politics. And I don’t think it’s wise to link the gospel with partisan politics.”

I want to push back on that argument for two reasons. The first is that bluntly, I’m rarely in the business of describing myself as conservative Evangelical when out on the streets of Smethwick sharing the gospel or talking to my neighbours. Even the word “Evangelical” would have little salience amongst them.  I suspect that if people outside of the church associate me or my church with any particular political strand then it has little or nothing to do with the label I use. 

Rather, the term tends to be used within church contexts as a kind of imperfect shorthand to let people know roughly where you sit on the theological spectrum.  It does enable you to identify with people and views as well as to distinguish yourself from others. It’s important then to remember that the word “conservative” does not stand alone, is not equal to “evangelical” and is certainly not modified by “evangelical.” I am not an evangelical conservative (that would be Jacob Rees-Mogg), I’m a conservative evangelical with the emphasis on the latter word.  In this case, the word conservative is used in contrast with liberal. I’m conservative towards the evangel/Gospel/Bible.  It means that I’m not willing to play fast and loose with my interpretation and application of God’s Word.  Oh I may think that God’s Word itself is radical and that may lead to me taking radical, counter cultural views but that’s the point, the authority lies with God and his word, not me. 

Of course it’s imperfect because it only deals with one finite issue.  It doesn’t actually tell you what I think about the gifts of the Spirit, church polity or style of worship.  It doesn’t tell you which Bible translation I prefer. And that can be a problem if people build a wider stereotype of who is caricatured by the label.  The risk then is that people do associate conservative-evangelical with social class, a tendency towards cessationism, hymns & Stuart Townend and the ESV but I think that can be overcome with greater description.  It is also possible that opponents will use the label pejoratively but hasn’t that always been the case about every label selected.  I mean, you and I are unlikely to be using the words “liberal” and “open” positively. 

My second issue with Mike’s argument takes us back to my earlier comment that

“I suspect that if people outside of the church associate me or my church with any particular political strand then it has little or nothing to do with the label I use.” 

You see, there’s a reason why people associate evangelicalism with the right-wing of politics. It’s that so often, despite the best efforts of some decidedly left leaning brothers and sisters, the public policy issues that we tend to be most associated with also tend to be those associated with the right-wing of politics and not merely with The Conservative Party but with one particular strand of it. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You see, Christians do have strong views about issues such as marriage, human sexuality and abortion arising from what the Bible says about ethics. Furthermore, the pressing need to share the Gospel means that we are going to say things about free speech and the right to cause offence that will chime with libertarian arguments. 

However, part of the challenge may be that these tend to be the only things that we are known to have a common and consistent position on. We classify these things as above party politics and other things as risking us getting into political territory. Those issues tend to be associated with liberal and socialist (left-wing) positions.  Now, that’s not a comment on what is right or wrong. Though I would suggest that it is possible to see issues such as poverty, the environment and justice as things that God’s Word has something to say about without having to agree to specific policy platforms. Indeed, I suspect that at times when people hear me talk about race and immigration, stewardship of God’s creation and concern for the poor that they might then assume that I am an enthusiastic, card-carrying member of the Jeremy Corbyn fan club when nothing could be further from the truth.

Truth be told, people have a good idea of what position we conservative-evangelicals are going to hold on multiculturalism, climate change and lockdowns before we open our mouths. It’s not because of the labels we use, it’s because of the twitter accounts we follow and share.

I think that what is more problematic is the way that we have at times come across in terms of tone and posture.  It is fascinating that to illustrate Mike’s article, the ET used an image emblazoned with the word “Woke.” I was encouraged this week to see an article by Graham Nicholls on the Affinity website warning us about the dangers of using the word Woke pejoratively as part of a culture war. This is a point I’ve been trying to make for some time.

You see, marriage, sexuality, the unborn, the environment, provision for the poor matter because God loves us and in his word shows us what it means to live well in his presence on his earth. Those things matter because when we get them wrong, it’s evidence of the decay and destruction that sin brings. Which means that our priority when addressing those issues is not to win a culture war and not to condemn and destroy others. “Our battle is not with flesh and blood.”  Rather our concern is to offer out compassion, mercy and forgiveness through the Gospel. This means that if our conversations on those issues don’t take people to Jesus then we are wasting our time.  So, if we don’t want to be mis-identified then I would argue that we need to worry less about the labels we use and more about the content, tone and posture of our words and actions.