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Rob Bell on what the word ‘evangelical’ really means

Speaking on the Premier Christianity podcast (download it here), Rob Bell told Sam Hailes why he believes the roots of the term ‘evangelical’ are “in resistance to corrosive powers of violent empire”

I was speaking in a synagogue recently and during the Q&A someone asked a question about ‘evangelicals’. And I said “you know where the word evangelical comes from, right?” I swear to you the entire synagogue said “no”. So I did a brief history of the word evangelical on the spot – it was a Roman military propaganda term. Caesar had conquered a new territory, had enslaved a new group of people, had probably crucified the resisters then sent out an ‘evangelical’ - a good news announcement - that another tribe had been conquered.

The first Christians took this Roman military term and they co-opted it to say “no, the world is not made better through coercive military violence. It’s made better through sacrificial love.” Caesar isn’t remaking the world. Jesus is how you remake the world.

The roots of the term ‘evangelical’ are in resistance to the corrosive powers of violent empire. So how did a word that’s origins are in resistance to empire get co-oped by people who are so deeply entangled with empire? It’s all upside down.

My experience is when people see where the Jesus story comes from, what it was saying to the world at that time, who people understood him to be – people say ‘we could use some more of that in the world!’

Every time there’s a division in the first century and one group over and against another group, Jesus clearly and intentionally steps over those lines. ‘You can’t touch lepers’ – he does. ‘You can’t associate with tax collectors’ – he does. ‘You can’t have anything to do with Roman soldiers because they’re the root of our oppression’ – he has interactions with Roman soldiers in which he doesn’t say anything negative. In story after story after story he goes below whatever the labelling and categorising systems are – to the human underneath all of that. And he connects human to human.

There’s a shared humanity that trumps whatever ways we’ve cooked up to divide ourselves.

When the word ‘Christian’ becomes a whole new way to divide people, you’re violating the thing Jesus came to do, which was to awaken us all to our shared humanity. Even the Apostle Paul has this great line that “in Christ there’s a new humanity”. If you actually love your neighbour, who knows where that might take you?

Our ego loves to cling to titles and labels. I’m a ‘this’ and they’re a ‘that’. I would argue that part of the death and resurrection at the centre of everything Jesus is inviting us into, is your ego is dying to all those things that puffed you up and made you feel better than others. You’re connecting with your brothers and sisters at the soul level. We’re all humans and we need to take care of one another.

Hear the full interview on the Premier Christianity podcast

Click here to request a free copy of Premier Christianity magazine

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