Is it time to abandon the label evangelical?
It’s a question we have been asking for years. But especially after this election, many Christians who have long identified as evangelicals—as well as millennials who grew up in our congregations—consider the label evangelical irreparably toxic. Both inside and outside the church, it has come to caricature a Religious Right sensibility, and worse, a group who are homophobic, anti-science, anti-immigrant, racist, and unconcerned about the poor.
In spite of my many decades as an evangelical, I have recently thought that it may be time to use a different word. But then I remember the long history of the term, the fact that the word essentially means a commitment to Jesus’ gospel, and that we need some label to distinguish ourselves from theologically liberal Protestants.
For a proper definition, we need to look at the significant times in history when large numbers of Christians gladly embraced the evangelical label: the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Wesleyan/evangelical movements in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the evangelical movement in the 20th century.
The Evangelicals Who Came Before Us
Sola gratia and sola scriptura were the two key watchwords of the Protestant Reformation. Luther insisted that faith in Jesus Christ, not our good works, is the means of salvation (sola gratia). Luther also taught that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the final authority for faith and life. While we respect church history, church tradition is not an independent or equal source of authority alongside Scripture. To this day, the Lutheran Church in Germany is called “die evangelische kirche,” or the evangelical church. To say one is an evangelical is to embrace the Reformation teaching on sola gratia and sola scriptura.
The revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, including John Wesley’s Methodist movement, also identified as evangelical. Wesley asserted a passion for evangelism and a living, personal faith against a dead orthodoxy. He also emphasized “social holiness,” opposed slavery, and promoted justice in society. Wesley’s movement led to the conversion of William Wilberforce who launched the decades-long movement in Great Britain that finally ended the slave trade and slavery itself in the British Empire. The same movement led to a wide range of social justice campaigns in Britain.
The evangelical movement in the United States in the 19th century continued Wesley’s evangelical movement with sweeping revival, passion for evangelism, and strong commitment to social justice. In the mid-19th century, thoroughly evangelical Oberlin College—where the famous evangelist Charles Finney taught as a professor—served as a center for Christian opposition to slavery, the emergence of an evangelical women’s movement, and ongoing evangelistic efforts. Oberlin’s students led missions among Native Americans and stood with them to try to force the US government to keep the treaties it constantly broke. (See Donald Dayton’s Discovering An Evangelical Heritage.) The modern missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries flowed in a direct powerful way out of this evangelical movement. In this period when vast numbers of Christians called themselves evangelicals, the word connoted both a passion for evangelism and a commitment to work vigorously for justice in society. Those notions remain central to my conception of evangelical as I use the label today.
In the third period (the 20th century), large numbers of Christians called themselves evangelicals as theological liberalism found powerful expression in many “mainline” Protestant churches in the early 20th century and subsequent decades. Prominent liberal theologians rejected the possibility of miracles, denied the virgin birth, and even challenged the deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus. They neglected evangelism and focused on a “social gospel” concerned primarily or exclusively with justice in society. Christians committed to the historic doctrines of Christian orthodoxy rejected this theological position. At first, these folk called themselves “fundamentalists,” a term that referred to their commitment to central historic Christian doctrines. By the 1940s and 1950s, they shifted to the label “evangelical.”
Tragically, in the earlier years of the social gospel–fundamentalism debate, the theological conservatives overreacted to the social gospel’s one-sided focus on justice by embracing a one-sided emphasis on evangelism and foreign missions. But slowly in the 1950s, and then more vigorously in the next several decades, younger evangelicals insisted that biblical faith demands a strong commitment to both evangelism and social action, thus returning to the balanced position of much of 19th century evangelicalism.
Evangelicals in the later decades of the 20th century rejected the widespread embrace of universalism, a one-sided focus on social justice, and neglect of evangelism in the World Council of Churches and many mainline denominations. Instead they reaffirmed the centrality of evangelism but at the same time insisted that social justice is also a central part of our biblical responsibility. Holistic programs embracing both evangelism and social action—dual missions reflected in the Lausanne Covenant and the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Concern—increased exponentially around the world. When I call myself an evangelical, I also remember this recent period when being an evangelical came to mean embracing justice while holding to central doctrines of the faith.
How We Redeem the Label
What it meant to be an evangelical throughout church history is still relevant today. These distinctives remain important to our faith: salvation by grace, not works; the authority of the Bible; personal faith; passion for both evangelism and social justice; and commitment to historic central doctrines. We need a label to refer to this cluster of beliefs and practices. Perhaps biblical Christian would work, or small-o orthodox.
But the word evangelical is solidly biblical. It is simply the adjective derived from the Greek word evangelion, meaning gospel. Evangelicals are committed to the full biblical gospel.
Why allow people to distort the meaning and connotation of a great name? The harsh, narrow voices of the Religious Right used the label as they neglected justice for the poor and for people of color. Racists and homophobes and anti-immigrant demagogues called themselves evangelical despite their failure to respect and love their neighbors. The term also came up among those rejecting the science of global warming and the importance of creation care. Popular media learned from these examples that evangelical has often meant unjust and unbiblical.
This is a problem, but it’s one we can overcome. Throughout my life, I have repeatedly discovered that the media are intrigued by evangelicals who are passionate about economic and racial justice and protection of the environment. Leading with these concerns helps non-Christians listen to our conversation about Christ. Over time, we can help the larger society come to a better understanding of what an evangelical is.
Our central focus, of course, must be on faithfulness to Jesus and the Scriptures, not some label. Actually practicing holistic ministry that combines evangelism and social action; implementing a completely pro-life agenda that embraces both the sanctity of human life and family on the one hand and racial and economic justice, peacemaking and creation care on the other; and modeling astonishing love even for those we disagree with most strongly; --all that is far more important than “fighting” however winsomely for the label evangelical. In fact, it is the best way to redeem that label.
I see younger Christians already doing many of the things necessary to correct a distorted view of evangelicalism. They embrace racial and economic justice and creation care; they affirm the full dignity and equality of women; they take for granted that faithful Christians must embrace evangelism and social action; and they hold to a biblical sexual ethic while vigorously opposing mistreatment of LGBT people and defending their appropriate civil rights.
Millennials and all Christians who want to be faithful followers of Jesus must do that as well as affirm the beliefs and practices embraced by those who have historically called themselves evangelicals. To do that we need some label that distinguishes us from Protestants who abandon biblical authority, neglect evangelism and fail to affirm historic Christian doctrines.
I continue to believe that the word evangelical is the best label to do that.
Ron Sider is founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Actionand a distinguished professor at Palmer Seminary at Eastern University.