Paul was an evangelical, then he was saved

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Creative Commons: Billy Graham in Duisburg, summer 1954

How long will it be before I can say I’m an evangelical without adding a qualifying phrase? The word “evangelical” now has varying meanings in different crowds. Previous generations joked that an evangelical was someone who liked Billy Graham. By this definition, Paul was certainly not an evangelical.

So if I say, “Paul was an evangelical, so he was saved,” I better explain myself. And, no, the title is not entirely clickbait. Let’s start by explaining our conditions.

What is an “evangelical”?

I adopt the label in its most common use, the Bebbington quadrangle. He said that evangelicals subscribe to at least the following four values:

  • Biblicalism: high regard and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a focus on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of mankind
  • Conversionism: the belief that lives are to be transformed through a “born again” experience and an ongoing process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts

In short, I’ll call it “theological evangelism.”

Today, the term “evangelical” has a much wider range of connotations. For some, it simply means “white Protestant”. Jonathan Merritt summarizes the situation,

Because they cover a range of denominations, churches and organizations, there is no single membership statement to define identity. Accordingly, individual observers must decide how to define what makes someone or something evangelical. For the pollster, it is a sociological term. For the pastor, it is a denominational or doctrinal term. And for the politician, it is synonymous with white Christian Republican.

This post will refer extensively to evangelicals subculturewhich is an amalgamation of the various descriptions above.[1] From this point of view, “evangelical” is an amalgamation of theology and sociology. Talking about evangelicals, then, is just talking about a nebulous composite figure who may or may not have a genuine faith, who may or may not be an active member of the church, and who may or may not read his Bible.

In reality, evangelical churches are made up of all of these types of people.

Paul started out as “evangelical.”

Tim Gombis’ Power in Weakness is a provocative little book that will undoubtedly cause readers to re-examine their own evangelical background.

Contemporary readers are inclined to equate “Pharisee” with “non-Christian cleric”. Whatever a Pharisee is, “Christian” is the contrast. Paul did not think so. Gombis reminds us: “Paul remained a Pharisee after his conversion” (15). Paul even declares: “I am a Pharisee. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6).

It speaks of more than mere doctrine. As summarized by Gombis,

The resurrection, for the Pharisees, pointed to this larger national scenario of economic, political, and religious restoration of God’s promises to the patriarchs and to Israel through the prophets. (16)

Paul’s zeal for God far exceeded that of his peers (Ga 1:14). Gombis writes, “He longed to see the word of God promulgated in the people of God. In his mind, his motives were pure! (20). Formally, Paul belonged to the “evangelical” tribe of his time.

Likewise, Paul adopted some of the same traits that we find in the evangelical subculture today. It was when I read the following quotes that I immediately thought of several important camps and organizations within evangelicalism.

I will highlight two observations that jump out at me in particular. First, Gombis says of Paul,

What he thought was zeal for God turned out to be a passion for tradition, for his own ideological tribe. Paul’s experience reveals the possibility of confusing loyalty to human traditions or commitment to group identity with allegiance to the one true God. (25)

Too,

Paul was convinced that because he was true to his inherited framework of thought and set of practices, he was clearly pleasing the God of Israel…. We may confuse our membership in a denomination or our commitment to a theological tradition with loyalty to Christ. (26)

When not to imitate Paul

Second, consider the behavior that such confusion elicits in Paul and evangelicals today. States of Gombis,

Additionally, because group cohesion is fostered by criticism from others, when group members speak constructively or sympathetically about rival groups, they are viewed with suspicion. Perhaps such people lack fidelity! (26)

He is even more direct when he adds,

On the one hand, this group loyalty shows us in the identification with a well-known figure, a famous pastor…. Destructive tribalism develops when we find ourselves belittling others, regularly criticizing them, or even attacking them out of loyalty to a person, organization, school of thought, or theological tradition. We must be alert to the temptation to build a ministry identity around an individual or ministry organization. (27)

In this environment, what results? So much effort is put into “maintaining the image” (27).

Check out a recent Twitter post of an email (below) explaining what happened when an application was interviewed for acceptance by Bethlehem College and Seminary.

I am not going to dissect this email in detail. It would take too long. Apparently, agreeing with the school’s statement of faith is not enough. Applicants must also agree on subcultural personalities, books, and debates.

Likewise, I myself was fired last year from The Gospel Coalition newspaper Themelios because I criticize the theological methodology of the founders (not their conclusions) regarding the subject of women in the church.

Several takeaways

I emphasize these things for several reasons.

1. We all need to be aware of how we look like Paul before to his knowledge of Christ. Do not despise Paul so much that his testimony ceases to be a tool of correction for us.

2. Gombis’ analysis helpfully demonstrates how we absorb the worst aspects of evangelical subculture while excusing it because we claim to have an evangelical theology.

3. I urge people to consult Gombis’ book if you want to seriously consider a different approach to following Christ and leading his people. One of his key ideas is that we must have converted ministriesnot just converted hearts, minds, policies and private lives.

Gombis will help readers “think about how you can live [your] weaknesses and make them markers of your identity” (99). In doing so, evangelicals can embrace “cruciformity” in the pattern of Christ.


[1] For example, when I belonged to the IMB, I often told people that I was “Southern Baptist” by theology, not by culture. This will make sense to most people who have spent a lot of time in the southern United States.

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