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Speaking Out

Should We Still Be Called ‘Evangelicals’?

Maybe there's a better name in our polarized and politicized times.
Should We Still Be Called ‘Evangelicals’?
Image: Pearl / Lightstock / Edits by Rick Szuecs

Is there a better word to describe Christians who hold to the authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and practice?

Perhaps it is time for a new plural to capture the self-understanding of Christians, a different noun that embraces all believers and followers of Jesus, to which all evangelical theologies and denominations would belong comfortably. Can a fresh plural noun free us from negative typecasting in our cultural climate?

May I recommend a word to which evangelicals can’t say no if we are serious as Christians and still want to make sense of (and to) the world in which we live—all while reaching people with Jesus’ eternally saving message? A noun against which it is hard to push back while we press on to consistency in belief and authenticity of behavior?

Having celebrated the 500th season of the Reformation not too long ago, in the tradition of Luther, a man who did not possess the authority but sensed the responsibility to challenge prevalent theological sensibilities, how about a new noun? Place me among the biblicals.

The noun Christians carries emotional baggage outside the North Atlantic arc. In India (my birth-land), old and wrong arguments still generate convenient antipathy toward Christians as Western. That Christianity was non-Western from its inception and now has more non-Western adherents may help in retrieving the moniker first given to believers and followers of Jesus in the New Testament (Acts 11:26), but we are not there yet.

Martin Luther’s first use of evangelium in the 16th century yielded evangelical 100 years later during the Great Awakening. What a lofty term, creatively transliterated and naturally adapted from a compound word in Greek (eu+angelion), with goodness and gladness embedded in its very nature. It became quite well used in America in the 1800s, and 1976 was declared “the Year of the Evangelical.” Although content-filled to insiders, the noun was—and is—less offensive than Christian to non-Christians across much of the globe. On Villat Street in Aleppo, Syria, evangelical is beautiful to those new to churches and in economic need. The evangelical church there is the only church known to welcome all whom others reject.

In America, evangelicals has been polluted by harsh stereotypes—especially during recent election cycles.

Yet in America, evangelicals has been polluted by harsh stereotypes—especially during recent election cycles. Our sociological habit of labeling people—by generations (boomers or millennials), persuasions (Calvinist or Arminian), and colors (e.g., “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight”)—fixes unintended meanings of words in minds.

Biblicals does not yet permit the fallacious appeal to the emotion of non-evangelicals. It does not arouse competitive understandings against an apparent, right-leaning vote-bank. It can gather the many consonant and dissonant streams of evangelical Christians, and it applies to all generations, persuasions, and ethnicities who believe and follow their Lord Jesus Christ in both personal conversion and public expression of biblical convictions.

It certainly requires personal and public adjustment. Let me (over)simplify the linguistic tradeoffs with a chart:

Evangelicals vs Biblicals

Options Pros Cons
  1. Historically sufficient
  2. Theologically rich
  3. Geographically embraced (i.e., where Christ’s church is growing)
  1. Contemporary mis-understanding
  2. Sociologically poor
  3. Marginalized where Christ’s Church is declining
  1. Less emotionally charged (at present)
  2. Naturally aligns evangelicals
  3. Reasonable potential for acceptance
  1. Neologism to accommodate cultural environment
  2. May take time for mainstream use

I hate to think about losing the word evangelical. Since it essentially refers to those who subscribe to the person, work, and mission of Jesus as the gospel, evangelical is what I am in theological identity. It is also what I am in personal purpose—sharing God’s good news of eternal salvation secured in the Lord Jesus, who offers it to all humanity. I am an evangelical Christian.

At the same time, I loathe using this word anymore in the US, my adoptive land. A myopic sentiment has been growing in America for several decades. Evangelical has come to mean much it is not. This wholesome description of Bible-believing (but not Bible-thumping) Christians is defined politically as anti-people, anti-progress, anti-science, and so on. Several sectors of the public have become anti-evangelical even as evangelicals are accused of being against everything.

We could drop evangelicals as a noun in highly politicized America, where church attendance stagnates. And we could still retain its wonder and truth in the rest of the world where the church is multiplying—and where believers have few qualms about the term’s biblical content and expectation.

Maybe using the term biblicals would permit self-identification without embarrassment or misunderstanding anywhere. It could generate confidence among followers without fear of a media environment that employs straw man arguments and flawed research. It would hopefully last a while, for at least a few decades or so.

Perhaps evangelicals will survive misuse and misperception to eventually return us to its original range of meaning. For then we could distance ourselves from political evangelicals to the redundant biblical evangelicals. Eventually, as necessary, we shall sever that misperceived word from the principal principle and simply be called the biblicals. Whereas the noun evangelical is used to refer to a specific person, biblical is still strictly an adjective . But we can collectively be called biblicals. This uncountable noun, like other tricky ones, discourages the use of a singular epithet, at least for the moment. It could help clarify to all that among the biblicals are many evangelicals of compatible, if different, persuasions. It will really take some getting used to … like most adjectives turned into nouns. Hopefully not another 500 years.

A postscript to friends (not enemies) of evangelicals, committed to believing the gospel, loving Jesus and following the Bible: What do you think? Shall we just wait it out? I look forward to your insights and opinions at ramesh@rreach.org.

Ramesh Richard serves as President of RREACH, a global proclamation ministry, and professor of global theological engagement and pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.

[ This article is also available in Português 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

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