Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

7 thoughts on “Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

  1. “And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.”

    There are other factors to be aware of with Evangelical Christians in the US. Some are what we would have to call eschatological or end times Christians. Christians ought to be living their faith out in their daily lives and trying to spread the Gospel, and not be worrying about or looking forward to the end of the world. Many Christians, both of the evangelical persuasion and some fundamentalists are Christian Zionists. Christian Zionism is the most vile heresy of our times. The Jews, be they atheists or Talmudists, are no friends of Christianity. As well, Jesus’ New (and everlasting) Covenant superceded the Old Covenant.

    • Larryzb, I’m no great fan of Christian Zionist theology and have posted about that subject on this blog, but I don’t go with your language (‘the most vile heresy of our times’ – really?) or attitude to Judaism. On the latter, Jesus was a Jew. Paul was a Jew .. Matthew, John, Mark, Peter, Mary. Especially in light of the unspeakably awful history of Christian antagonism towards Jews, language is important. Paul in Romans shows compassion, heartbreak and persuasion towards his fellow Jews. Nor would he recognise the new covenant as ‘Plan B’, scrapping ‘Plan A’ – there is one unfolding story of God’s redemption that goes back to Abraham.

  2. The term Simply Christian should ring a bell ! Great post and I appreciate the comment by larryzb.

  3. I think the issue is that it has no formally defined meaning that could be defended if needed. If you say your an evangelical and someone gets upset because they have an idea of what that is e.g. one of your 4 negative meanings above, then who are you to disagree. There is no body that speaks authoritatively for evangelicals, like what are you going to do, give them bebbingtons essay?

    I still use the label but only if I think it will envince a reaction that I want. Increasingly I just tell people I’m Presbyterian. I recon most churches
    Abeles evangleical would be better of saying they are ‘baptis’ or ‘assemblies of God’ or whatever.

    • Greetings Richie. Owning a confessional identity does have advantages – and a Presbyterian one does link into deep historical and theological roots that are often stunted in popular evangelicalism.
      While I’m not wedded to the term, it does for me still capture that ethos and commitment to the gospel and Bible that unites people from those different traditions in a way that no other word does. I’m sad to see it so devalued for that seems to reflect a loss of ‘unity in the essentials’ that characterised evangelicalism at its best.

  4. Patrick you are very kind. I think it’s been a very long time since anyone described me as ‘incisive’! Obviously PS only allows for a short article so there’s much more could be said on this, but here’s one additional factor that I think is worth mentioning that I decided not to include for reasons of space. Most surveys of evangelicalism in the US allow people to self-define as ‘evangelical’ or ‘born again’ or whatever. Some simply count the number of claimed members in denominations that claim to be evangelical (or fundamentalist). Inevitably this results in a significant inflation of the figures. The Barna Research Group take a different approach. They identify nine theological beliefs consistent with evangelical (and more generally historic (Protestant) Christian) belief and ask people if they agree or disagree. The end result is that this nine point evangelical community is only 8% of the US population and that while being more socially and politically conservative than the general population they are a lot less so than the larger group of self-defining evangelicals. (The research is here: Now that opens up a whole host of questions about the nature of evangelical theological education (or the lack of it). But that’s a conversation for another time.

    Greetings from Washington DC. We’ll be leaving here in a couple of weeks and moving to Bulgaria for the next three years. So if you ever find yourself out Sofia way let me know!

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