Look, we get it. We’re frustrated, too. Have been for decades, but yes, it’s worse now. When pundits talk about “evangelicals,” they don’t mean what we mean. When pollsters count “evangelicals,” they usually don’t count how we count. And when a supposed “evangelical leader” says something unbiblical, we, too, are tempted to tweet our disavowals.
Defining evangelicalism as a political movement is not new. When polls, politicians, and journalists see everything through a political lens, it’s not surprising that their main question about any group is “how will they vote?” Remember, the term took off in popular parlance in the mid-’70s because it was identified with Jimmy Carter’s successful presidential candidacy.
Still, there’s no denying that a groundswell of evangelical leaders are so frustrated with the politicization of the word and with so many nominal Christians described as “evangelical” that they’re giving up their efforts to reclaim the term.
“Let the political evangelicals have the term,” Northern Seminary New Testament scholar Scot McKnight blogged. “Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.”
Baylor’s Thomas Kidd gave the same advice: “Historians (including me) will keep on using the term ‘evangelical’ and examining what it has meant in the past. But in public references to ourselves, it is probably time to put ‘evangelical’ on the shelf. … [J]ust identify with your denomination. (For me, that means Baptist.) Or you can tell people you are a follower of Jesus Christ, or a gospel Christian.”
Back in October 2016, Alan Jacobs urged, “Don’t abandon ‘evangelical.’ Steal it back.” A year later, he lamented, “I’d like to steal it back, but I may be forced to let it go.” The ahistorical, politicized definition was just too strong. Others are coming to the same conclusion. Witness, for example, Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changing its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship.
You would expect that a magazine that for six decades described itself as “a magazine of evangelical conviction” would be desperate to convince great evangelical minds like these to keep the identifier. Indeed, we do still like the term—and stand by our 2006 “Save the E-Word” editorial and the other defenses we’ve written over the years.
But truth be told, we’re fine with true evangelicals trying to find another word to describe their commitments to biblical authority, the centrality of Jesus’ work on the cross, sharing the gospel, and other tenets of the faith—so long as they keep those commitments.
Our worry is that explicitly rejecting evangelical as a label is likely only to exacerbate the problems without actually solving anything.
How polls count you
Don’t stop calling yourself “evangelical” because you’re frustrated with the polls. Many of the best surveys do not even ask if you’re an evangelical; they ask what church or denomination you affiliate with. Then there’s coding that sorts answers into “evangelical,” “mainline Protestant,” “black Protestant,” and other groups. Answering “Baptist” won’t necessarily change what the survey calls you. Weird quirks of this approach: you can’t be an evangelical who attends a mainline or black Protestant church. But when the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey asked respondents what wording best described their religious identity, choosing among phrases like born again, Bible-believing, charismatic, theologically liberal, Mainline Christian, and others, mainline-affiliated Christians were more likely to choose “evangelical” than evangelical-affiliated Christians!
Surveys that use self-identification rather than church affiliation rarely ask, “Are you an evangelical?” Rather, because pollsters like to use the same survey question over many years, they ask one that’s been in use since the 1970s: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again, or evangelical, Christian?” Those comfortable saying “no” to the evangelical part for linguistic reasons may balk at rejecting the “born-again” part. After all, didn’t our Lord command “you must be born again”?
Other surveys count evangelicals by asking questions of belief. Barna Research has used a nine-question test; Lifeway and the National Association of Evangelicals have recently introduced a four question test. Unless you’re so upset with misuse of the term evangelical that you’re going to deny things like “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,” you’re going to be counted as an evangelical.
In short, it’s not so easy to avoid association with the “evangelicals” you think misrepresent the movement. Nor is it praiseworthy. Again, we don’t care if you’d rather call yourself a Baptist, a Christian, or a born again Bible believing theologically conservative Jesus follower. We do think that impulse to break with other Christians because you disagree with them represents some of the worst tendencies of the evangelical movement, not its best.
The tragic glory of Christianity is that Jesus chose really sinful humans to be his body on earth. We will be scandalized by each other until he returns to fix things. In the meantime, we’re supposed to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. The apostles saw church members mistreating women (Acts 6), so they ordained seven men to correct the matter. Paul thought Peter and other church leaders were being racists (Gal. 2), so he confronted them. The Bible commands that false teachers, imposters, and lazy Christians be admonished, corrected, and separated—but it never counsels walking away in disillusionment or self-righteousness. Likewise, evangelicals who publicly repudiate the identifier may be tempted toward even larger personality cults than the evangelical movement has encouraged—hero worship is a frequent false hope for the disillusioned (1 Cor. 1:12).
Again, there may be better words to describe the Jesus-loving, Bible-toting, reconciliation-seeking, scandalously human movement we still love. Early disciples were called followers of The Way, the sect of Nazarenes, and no doubt other things before “Christians” (probably a pejorative term!) stuck in Antioch. And it may be that “Christian” is the best way to identify ourselves to our neighbors. But let’s not imagine that such a word will be untainted by scandal, nominalism, and false identity. None of us is the solution. We are the problem.
Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today. For more, see Evangelical Distinctives, editor in chief Mark Galli’s ongoing series about how CT defines evangelical.
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