Confessions of a Reluctant Evangelical

“Just as I did not choose my blood family, I did not decide who would come into this space of grace and peace through Christ.”

Yet in all this, she also encouraged me to explore an alternative way of negotiating my roles as a woman. To honor all the complexity that was my mother, I claim the title feminist.

Among many these days, including women, feminism has fallen out of fashion; to many evangelicals it smacks of the worst of liberalism. After all, I am not my mother; I have a career I chose and was allowed (note that) to attend seminary and now to teach in one. Why not dump the label if I have to consistently nuance it and distance myself from those “other” women—or if they consistently distance themselves from me?

But I remain one generation away from those considered too emotional to participate in public life. More obviously, women around the world as well as within my own city continue to struggle against poverty, inequities, gender violence and sexism in myriad forms.

Although others fail to recognize its theological significance, feminism identifies a determination to name the dull, banal, sinful patterns into which we fell so long ago. As such, feminist writings and insights remind us to attend to these stifling effects on true unity that such patterns inevitably inflict.

Because I am an evangelical, I know that feminist intuitions can work to reroute humans out of the tired ruts of oppression, blame and isolation and onto the way of Jesus. Via a path lit by surprising texts from the Song of Songs to 1 Corinthians, we work out our partnership in service, love and witness in a kingdom unlike any other.

And lest we become too enamored by the label of being “oppressed,” evangelicalism reminds me that women are just as sinful and violent as men (albeit sometimes differently, given available weaponry). After all, “equality” cuts both ways.

In the current cultural climate, “Anabaptist” more readily seems likely to evoke the coveted dinner invitation. Like converts, my college community thought we had discovered true Christianity. Unlike countless other Christians asleep at the wheel of faith, we took Scripture seriously; among other texts, we read the Sermon on the Mount and sought to build our houses on obedience to Christ.

You can imagine our shock when those exposed to church history told us that the discoveries we had made about, say, nonviolent resistance to evil, simple living and discipleship had been adopted by Christians since the beginning, let alone that they were encoded in confessions of entire denominations.

Here, too, I would wrestle with the desire to remain unattached and unfettered by labels. While the broad descriptor “Anabaptist” honored my Catholic heritage while importantly redefining it, I particularly balked at joining a denomination. Aren’t they all merely institutions that stifle real faith?

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But eventually, I recognized that I needed a community of like-minded Christians who were given permission to cajole and wrestle my stubbornly selfish, fearful and violent self into God’s good kingdom.

I caved and eventually joined a Mennonite congregation, while still holding (sometimes reluctantly) to my evangelical identity. Why the need for both, especially if “Mennonite” now names a distinctive embodiment of faith to which I am deeply committed?

Indeed, many Mennonites shirk the label “evangelical,” especially as it often associates us with U.S. Christians who narrate their relationship to the nation-state quite differently than we do.

But most recently my tiny adopted tradition has become cool; nonviolence has become fashionable (and God help us if we so depreciate the cost of waging peace). We have too often forgotten the words of Menno Simons, the Catholic priest turned persecuted reformer from whom the tradition takes its name. He spoke famously of “true evangelical faith.” Most often quoted is this lovely yet challenging section explaining new life in Christ:

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Too frequently forgotten in this same work is Simon’s insistence on the cross as the source of our forgiveness, on the centrality of Christ for the newness of life that renders such self-offering love possible for even people like us.

Thus Mennos, like me, are indeed evangelical; if this isn’t good news, what is? We, too, rightly belong to the family of those who seek transformation by Christ through the Spirit, veritably exploding with this news of God’s reconciliation in word and deed throughout a troubled and troubling world.

Like other traditions that bring rich insights to our one table of remembrance and celebration, Anabaptists remind evangelicalism to reject a gospel that cleanly severs salvation from the embodied needs of us all but particularly of the poor, outcast, forgotten and suffering. Whoever claims such concerns are merely “social gospel” or “liberal” miss Scripture’s insistence that the gift of redemption extends through us to others who long for healing and hope.

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Meanwhile, at Fuller my Reformed friends niggle at me, warning me not to remake God into a tame deity rendered manageable by a limited vision of the atonement or by a cheap, hipster pacifism. They challenge me to consider how it is that I say I want to live as a resident alien and yet remain so clearly an American.

Our End: Accepting the Invitation to the Family Feast with the Crazies

I confess that I continue to wish myself into a family that never causes me mortification by association or dares to challenge my spirituality, ethics or politics. But of course that wouldn’t be family; it would be more like a country club, PAC or monochrome social network.

I continue to claim evangelicalism and celebrate Fuller’s insistence on shared lineage. But importantly I am also claimed by it, forced to consider how my Anabaptist and feminist convictions must shape my work and witness so that they are clearly tethered to Christ’s Word and Way.

Just as I cringe a bit at the bra-burning days of feminists, I also wince at some of my fellow evangelicals’ comments or thin theological grounding for moral stances ranging from economics to foreign policy to family life.

But as I experience repeatedly at this messy, wondrous experiment of extended kinship called “Fuller,” I need my crazy kin. Just as I did not choose my blood family, I did not decide who would also come into this space of open gifts of grace and peace through Christ. We all have crazy aunts and uncles (and of course, I am surely someone else’s ranting religious family freak).

Despite our sometimes tense and important divergences, we are all claimed by the good news of what God has done in Christ, enticed by what God reveals in Scripture and invigorated by the Spirit for engagement with a creation beloved by the One who created it.

In the end, being a Mennonite feminist evangelical might not get me that invitation to an intellectually stimulating dinner party of the hip and cool. But my hope is that each of these—particularly that pesky claim “evangelical”—forms me for the Messiah’s eternal familial feast.

In the meantime, I find myself circling back to this particular evangelical table called Fuller, hungry as I was so many years ago for friends who also commit themselves to a life formed by the strange and wonderful hope we have in Christ amidst a rather dark world.

To learn more about studying with Erin Dufault-Hunter and classes Fuller offers in theology, visit Fuller.edu/MAT.

Erin Dufault-Hunter teaches christian ethics at Fuller. She regularly speaks and writes on various aspects of our moral life, including sexuality, bioethics and diversity.