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.