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 ...

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