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Evangelical? What Do You Mean?

Evangelical? What Do You Mean?

By Mitiku Adisu 
Evangelicals these days come in so many stripes that it is getting harder to tell which of the many stripes one is referring to. What is obvious is that not every strand fits in the coat of many colors. There are for example those who call themselves “evangelical atheists.” These are the anti-evangelicals, so to speak, who not only claim God does not exist but aggressively seek to convert the world into believing thus. Now, theirs takes a lot more faith than simply believing a God that supposedly exists.

And then there are “evangelical” Lutherans [of America] who are debating whether or not to endorse same-sex marriage as long as [hear this] the relationship is “monogamous” and a “long term commitment.” No wonder European and North American Anglican and Episcopalian communions are undergoing a severe theological and moral crisis [or as some would have us believe, undergoing a “spiritual renewal.”]

Not to leave them out, there are the Baptists, the Presbyterians, Catholics [who see no need for the “evangelical” appellation] and the “against” evangelicals and the "feel good" crowd. Two other influential groups are the “progressive” evangelicals [the camp of Jim Wallis] and “conservative” evangelicals [Rick Warren]. The difference between the two is in the role they assign to government; both agree [the latter belatedly] social action is a necessary component of evangelization. Again, the latter would argue social action be left to the private sector; the former go further to involve government in effecting distributive justice, etc.

Hop across the pond to Europe and you discover Scandinavian evangelicalism today is not even remotely related to its past. It was Swedish evangelical missionaries at Imkullu who led the way over a century ago in the evangelization of our nation. We recall their effort produced, among many, the Oromo Bible translator Onesimos Nessib. Interestingly, the Scandinavians today have perfected a system that is so secular that it leaves little place for the Bible or for religious instruction. And they are satisfied with their state!

Are you an evangelical? What do you mean? It is when one is taken to task to explain one’s identity that one needs to rethink and clarify those original identifying parameters in the hope of reclaiming them from the hands of polemicists, merchants of “tolerance” and cultural exploiters—all those who want to impress their “personal rights” and the “pursuit of happiness” onto their hermeneutics and subject the community to their unstable whims.

Ethiopian evangelicals more than ever need to hone the meaning behind their identity first and only then seek to build alliances with others. Time may not be on their side as a generation of Ethiopians has come of age being fed values that do not necessarily comport with eternal truths or traditions. That is, seventeen years of being force-fed “the correct ideological line” followed by eighteen of “everything goes.” Add to this the proliferation of competing forces that require a spirit of discernment to even begin to make sense of them.

The one thing going for Ethiopian evangelicals is that their identity and mission is encapsulated in the local word wengelawian, which in effect means those of the Gospel or Gospelians, if one may say so. Now we have heard it said that euangelion is the root word for evangelical. The difference is that in the case of the latter the term has become so archaic that the lay person will be hard put to recognize it. One other resource for Ethiopian evangelicals is the possibility of discussing “evangelicalism” and its discontents within the immediate context of ancient Ethiopian Christian tradition. This could be a worthy assignment for seminarians and possibly to result in a fresh look at faith that could be shared with Christian communities around the world.

Before we end this session, we may want to rehash the basic elements of what constitutes an “evangelical.” It is no longer enough to simply refer “evangelical” in terms of “personal commitment to Christ and the authority of the Bible.” There are those who readily acknowledge these standards but mean the opposite in their interpretation of Scripture as pertains to sexuality, social justice, war and peace, the environment or origins. What further complicates matters is the fact of denominationalism in North America and Europe [Calvinists/Reformed, Low Churches, Methodists, etc.]

So, are there no non-negotiable essentials to what “evangelical” is? Would substituting the standard “evangelical” [wengelawian ወንጌላውያን] for mission-related denominations serve the long term well being of evangelical Christianity in Ethiopia? Are denominational prefixes there to serve interests of missionary groups more than to strengthen the unity of local Christians and churches? Should evangelical churches in Ethiopia enter into a pact whereby any external funding will be phased out on a sliding scale? That is where Ethiopian evangelicals have to sort out issues of concern to them and make their mark as they strive to shape a distinctly Ethiopian evangelicalism.

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Anonymous said…
Ethiopian Evangelicals more than anything define them seleves by how different they are from Ethiopian Orthodox believers. Overall they are not that comfortable with Ethiopian culture or identity. They are the least to involve in community affairs outside of their faith or political activity. At the same time their counter parts in the US are the most nationalists. The fact that Evangelicals are nationalists in the US does not seem to bother Ethiopians or wonder why it does not apply to them. Ethiopian evangelicals confuse issues of culture with principle of faith. By definition for them anything an Ethiopian Orthodox engages is sin and anything that so called Evangelicals do in the US is righteous. I would say Evangelicals in Ethiopia have developed a culture of ignorance.
Thanks Anon for the input. One could also raise questions similar to yours: Do Orthodox believers realize the common faith they share with Evangelicals in Jesus Christ and his Cross? Do you realize how far the nationalism of US evangelicals has led them away from the central focus of the church's mission [that is, preaching the gospel to make people true disciples of Christ?]

Concerning participation in society, it depends how you define participation. Evangelical churches have been engaged in all sorts of development work [from orphanages to health care to education.] We also have hundreds in positions of civil service, the military, politics,etc.

The irony is that very often we hear statements that decry churches involving in politics ["religion and politics should not mix"], etc.

One other thing to remember is that not all evangelicals think alike; I bet we could say the same about our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Your statement that "Evangelicals in Ethiopia have developed a culture of ignorance" might be true in some cases. God bless you.