I frequently use the term “evangelical” and no doubt create some ambiguity in doing so. I do so because I think the term has validity and also because I want to send a signal to some folk that some terms are above being hijacked for special purposes. I think “evangelical” is one of them.
As I listen and read today, “evangelical” applies to people who are:
· Gospel friendly
· In the tradition of the Reformations (evangelishe = a German particularity)
· Adherents to a certain doctrinal confession
· Participants in an experiential form of Christianity
· Being born again
· Dissenters and non-establishment church members in British religious history
· Different from those in many Catholic and Orthodox countries
· And believers with the ardor of Christian evangelicals whether the situation is even religious or not in nature (e.g., “he went about his task with an evangelical fervor”)
Then, there are those who capitalize “Evangelical” to denote an identifiable movement in Christian history, almost like a new “pan-denomination.”
For the record, in Christian usage “evangelical” literally means “good news of salvation.” It’s a biblical term. I use it in a particular way: to denote any professing Christian who defines faith in the context of Scripture, who understands Jesus Christ as a unique union of God and humanity, and who holds to the necessity of conversion and vital Christian experience and witness.
I happen to believe that “evangelical” legitimately applies to groups or persons in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox categories, regardless of race, gender, lifestyle or socioeconomic status. First and foremost, I use the term adjectivally, spelled with the lower case. I believe it is possible to experience Christianity in its fullness: for instance, to be socially activistic, sacramental, politically liberal and “evangelical.”
I have met conservative evangelicals, moderate evangelicals, liberal evangelicals and neo-evangelicals. Republicans and Democrats in the United States can be evangelicals, as well as New Democratic Party members, Progressive Conservatives and Liberals in Canada. What they all have in common is a passion for the good news in Jesus Christ.
There is another distinct usage that I want to comment upon. When one capitalizes “Evangelical,” it takes on another usage.
This “Evangelical” denotes part of the coalition of churches, associations and denominations that were spawned by the Evangelical Alliance of the mid-19th century. It became fashionable to be part of an international coalition, to be in the doctrinally defined wing of major denominations: Evangelical Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Disciples, Baptists and so on.
Anyone who has studied Evangelicalism knows that Evangelicals think that the capitalized term is more useful than the older denominational labels. I once asked Carl F.H. Henry, who was devoted to the term “evangelical,” what a “non-evangelical” might be, and after a long pause and frown, he said, “probably overly sacramental or liturgical.”
How did a good term fall into such a troubled usage?
More theologically conservative folk used to like the term, until the doctrinal controversies at the beginning of the last century. Then they shifted to “fundamentalist,” which seemed to have more shape to it. “Evangelical” seemed to be a weasel word.
More theologically liberal folk concluded that being “evangelical” was retrograde culturally and akin to behaving like a fanatic. So “evangelical” slipped from general English language usage for a while.
With the growth worldwide of independent missions and doctrinally and ethically conservative educational institutions, the term “evangelical” began to make a comeback. Add to that the engagement of evangelicals with culture and ecumenism and the uplift in evangelical educational expectations, and evangelicalism returned to decent discourse.
The clincher came in the United States with the election of Ronald Reagan as president on the coattails of the “Evangelical” united front: Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Southern Baptists, organized Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Calvinists and Arminians, Universalists and Adventists.
Strange that, as one interprets the re-emergence of “evangelical,” it is marked mostly by cultural manifestations rather than by its doctrinal or religiously experiential identities. A whole new phenomenon has arisen in political evangelicalism that is identified with anti-abortion, opposition to same sex unions, anti-big government, anti-socialism, anti-Islam, racial profiling as well as pro-individualism, pro-capitalism and various degrees of neo-nationalism.
Some genuine “evangelicals” are embarrassed by some or all of these labels.
I’m not ashamed of my “evangelical” inheritance, and I am categorically unwilling to have a simple adjective turned into an exclusive and sometimes coercive proper noun. I celebrate those of you who are “gospel-friendly” people of many different stripes.
At the same time, I call upon those who have built high fences with capital letters to take another look at the adjectival use of “evangelical.” And be charitable.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.