EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on Ron Sider’s blog. Subscribe today!
Why would I continue to call myself an evangelical when 81percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who is a racist, violates women, lies constantly, ignores (and makes worse) the environmental crisis, tries to undo a law that expanded healthcare for 20 million Americans, and gave a huge tax cut to the richest Americans while trying to cut effective programs for the poor? To make matters (much) worse, many prominent evangelical leaders uncritically support President Trump as God’s anointed.
Many Christians who have long identified as evangelicals and many millennials who grew up in evangelical congregations now consider the label evangelical irreparably toxic. To vast numbers of people both inside and outside the church, it means “Religious Right,” homophobic, anti-science, anti-immigrant, racist, and unconcerned about the poor.
I have struggled with this issue for the last three years. Some of my good friends have stopped identifying as evangelicals. I must confess that in spite of my many decades of strong identification as an evangelical, there are times when I think that it may be time to use a different word.
But then I remember the long, distinguished history of the term. I recall the fact that the word essentially means a commitment to Jesus’ gospel. I ponder the fact that we need some label to distinguish theologically liberal Protestants from those who remain committed to the central beliefs of historic Christianity. And I note the fact that many millions in the United States and 600 million around the world in the World Evangelical Alliance still want to use the label evangelical.
When asked to define what I mean by the word evangelical, I say that we need to look at the three most important times in history when large numbers of Christians gladly embraced the 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.
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. We should respect church history, but church tradition is not an equal source of authority alongside scripture.
When I say I am an evangelical, I mean to embrace the Reformation teaching on sola gratia and sola scriptura.
The revival movements of the 18th and 19th century (e.g. John Wesley’s Methodist movement) also identified as evangelical. Wesley emphasized a living personal faith over against a dead orthodoxy and a passion for evangelism. Wesley also insisted on “social holiness,” opposed slavery, and promoted justice in society. Wesley’s movement led to the conversion of William Wilberforce who led the decades-long movement in Great Britain that finally ended the slave trade and slavery itself in the British Empire.
A major part of the evangelical movement in the U.S. in the 19th century was a continuation of Wesley’s evangelical movement: sweeping revival movements, a passion for evangelism, and a strong commitment to social justice. In the mid-19th century, thoroughly evangelical Oberlin College (where the famous evangelist Charles Finney was a professor for half of each year) was a center of opposition to slavery, the emergence of an evangelical women’s movement, and a passion for evangelism. Oberlin’s students led evangelistic efforts among Native Americans and then stood with them to try to force the U.S. 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 second major 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. That is also central to what I mean by calling myself an evangelical.
The third historical period when large numbers of Christians felt it important to call themselves evangelicals was in the 20th century. In the early decades of the 20th century and increasingly in subsequent decades, theological liberalism found powerful expression in many “mainline” Protestant churches. Prominent theologians rejected the possibility of miracles, denied the virgin birth, Jesus as the only way to salvation, even the deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Also, 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 liberalism. At first, these folks called themselves “fundamentalists” (i.e. people insisting on the importance of central and historic “fundamental” Christian doctrines), but by the 1940s and 1950s, they increasingly preferred the label “evangelical.”
Tragically, in the earlier years of the “Social Gospel/Fundamentalist” debate, the theological conservatives reacted to the Social Gospel’s one-sided focus on societal 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 a major part 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 evangelicals reaffirmed the centrality of evangelism, but at the same time insisted (e.g. in the Lausanne Covenant, the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Concern, and the National Association of Evangelicals’ official public policy document, For the Health of the Nation) that social justice is also a central part of our biblical responsibility. And evangelical holistic programs embracing both evangelism and social action increased exponentially around the world.
When I call myself an evangelical, this third period where being an evangelical means embracing and insisting on the importance of the central doctrines of historic Christianity is also important.
To summarize, being an evangelical has historically meant: salvation by grace alone, not human works; the Bible as the final authority for faith and life; a living personal faith and a passion for both evangelism and social justice; and an affirmation of historic Christian doctrines. All of that, I believe is still very important if we want to remain faithful to Jesus and the scriptures.
And we need some label to identify that 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 should we allow one-sided, finally unbiblical people to distort the meaning and connotation of a great name? Of course, it is true that the harsh, narrow voices of the Religious Right (which largely neglect justice for the poor, racial justice, creation care, etc.) use the label. So do racists, people who miserably fail to respect and insist on the civil rights of gay people, anti-immigrant demagogues, and people rejecting the science of global warming. Unfortunately, it is also true that the popular media now often use the word “evangelical” in a way that leads many people in our society to think that evangelicals are people who embrace these unbiblical, unjust views and actions.
I acknowledge that as a substantial problem. Some days I wonder if it can be overcome, but I believe it can. Throughout my life, I have repeatedly discovered that the media are intrigued and ready to write about people like me precisely because we are evangelicals who are passionate about things like 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 political agenda that is concerned both with the sanctity of human life and family and racial and economic justice, peacemaking, and creation care; and modeling astonishing love even for those we disagree with the 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.
There is, of course, another option. We could join the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church. I have good Christian friends in both churches, and I am deeply grateful that evangelical Protestants in the last few decades have developed a much better understanding of the deep Christian faith of many Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. (Thank God for Pope Francis!)
And I regularly emphasize what we have in common (God as Trinity; the full deity and humanity of Christ; Jesus’ bodily resurrection; Jesus as the only way to salvation; the Bible as special authoritative revelation from God) rather than what divides us. But I cannot accept some of what Catholics teach (e.g. about the Pope, the Virgin Mary, transubstantiation) or what Orthodox Christians do (e.g. exclusively male priests). While thanking God for the wonderful expansion of ecumenical dialogue, understanding, and fellowship in my lifetime, I remain a Protestant — which is what the Christians have been who chose to call themselves evangelicals during the three great periods of history I have described.
Furthermore, there are vast numbers of Christians who call themselves evangelicals even though they do not want to be identified with the pro-Trump “Religious Right.” That is true of most of the 600 million Christians (a majority of whom are in Africa, Latin America, and Asia) who are part of the World Evangelical Alliance. It is also true of many millions of groups in the United States that I called the “evangelical center:” the National Association of Evangelicals which represents about 30 million American evangelicals; the most influential Christian magazine, Christianity Today; youth movements like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Young Life; the 140 or so colleges and universities that are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; huge relief and development organizations like World Vision, Compassion International and World Relief, etc. Obviously, I do not endorse everything all those groups do, but I am happy to consider myself a member of this large family.
I refuse to abandon a word that is biblical, has a wonderful history, and a large contemporary constituency simply because one-sided, misguided people also use the term. That is to allow confusion and disobedience to prevail.
I think a lot of younger evangelicals (especially perhaps Millennials) have already done many of the things necessary to correct a one-sided 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 know and practice the truth that evangelicals like myself, who do not believe that same-sex practice is biblical, must vigorously oppose mistreatment of LGBTQ people and insist on 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 that I have identified as central to those large groups of Christians who historically have called themselves evangelicals. To do that, we will need some label that distinguishes us from those Protestant Christians who abandon biblical authority, neglect evangelism, and abandon central beliefs held by all historic Christian traditions.
Is there any word that does that better than “evangelical?”