Don’t give up on “evangelical” too quickly

I’ve recently heard quite a few people explain why they no longer like to refer to themselves as “evangelicals.” The label has come to be associated with all sorts of things that people find objectionable or just plain bothersome. As TC explains in his recent post, he’s not excited about the term because he thinks that it has become a term of exclusion – determining who is “in” vs. who is “out.” Others object because of its association with biblical literalism, conservative (Republican) politics, a particular social agenda, middle-class white Christianity, and so on. Given all of this baggage, many people are ready to jettison the term and find some other way to describe themselves.

While I can understand the sentiment, I’m not about to give up yet. I think “evangelical” is a powerful word with a long history that accurately captures much of what I want to affirm. Here are just a few of my reasons for holding onto this word:

  • It contains in its very root an affirmation of the “evangel,” the Gospel. Thus, it has its center where it belongs.
  • It has a long and proud history dating back (at least) to the Reformation as a declaration of those who were rising in defense of the Gospel, into the 18th century Wesleyan revivals as a description of those who affirmed the life-transforming power of the Gospel, into the socially active evangelicalism of the 19th century and its affirmation that a Gospel-vision must include the whole world, and finally into the 20th century with the rise of neo-evangelicalism and its affirmation that you can be theologically conservative while remaining actively engaged in the world.
  • I know of no other term that can adequately pull together the unique combination of influences that make up evangelicalism: pietistic, puritanical (in both its best and worst senses), revivalistic (also in both its best and worse senses), activist, etc. There’s good and bad in all of these influences, but if you’re and evangelical (even if you prefer not to admit it in public), they’re all a part of your background. And, the term “evangelical” has long been used to describe people who stand within this broad stream of influence.
  • It has global significance. There are Christians around the world who openly affirm their “evangelical” identity. Even though the term has become problematic in certain Western, particularly American, contexts, it still accurately portrays the Christian identity of a wide swath of global Christianity. Indeed, a think many of the criticisms of “evangelical” reflect a historically and globally limited perspective on what the term actually means.

I’m sure I could come up with a few more if I really thought about it. But, those are the most important reasons for me. Sure, “evangelical” comes with quite a bit of baggage in many places. But, can you think of any religiously meaningful term that doesn’t? And, I’m not going to give up on a theologically meaningful, historically significant, and globally vibrant term, just because people today misconstrue, misunderstand, and misuse it. As Roger Olson recently said,

I don’t give up on good labels easily; I prefer to try to invest them with positive meaning rather than simply discard them because of misconceptions in the popular mind.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 26, 2010, in The Modern Church and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Just want to say Amen to your last bullet point. I frequently get told what an evangelical is by Americans and don’t recognise the description, despite being a fully paid up evangelical by anyone elses standards.
    And your second point is key, root identity in history not in the divisive hot button issues.

  2. Marc,

    I don’t want the burden of that baggage. Am I allowed to do such?

    • I completely understand. This is definitely something that I have wrestled with, as I’m not too keen on much of the baggage either.

      On the one hand, I would say yes, you can definitely do this. To some extent, this is just a matter of weighing the baggage against the benefit. And we can certainly differ on the relative weights of each, which would lead us to draw different conclusions on whether the label is worth salvaging. So, if you’re really just rejecting the label because of the negative associations in the popular culture, we’re in the same ballpark. I’ll still differ because of the reasons that I gave in the post, but I’m okay with the conclusion.

      On the other hand, too often it really seems like people are doing more than just rejecting the label; they are actually rejecting part of the evangelical community itself. So, we refuse to be called evangelicals, because we don’t want to be associated, for example, with right-wing, conservative, white, southern, evangelicals. But, like it or not, they are a part of the evangelical community. We can’t simply reject them without also rejecting part of what makes us who we are (even if we don’t like it). To me, that seems similar to saying that I don’t want to be called “Cortez” anymore because I’ve decided that I don’t want to be associated with certain family members anymore. That’s not how it works. That entire community plays a role in defining my identity as a Christian. So, unless I’m willing to reject that identity (which is actually what is sounds like many are doing), I should be very careful about rejecting the community that helped shape it.

  3. I recently read J.R. Daniel Kirk refer to himself on his blog as a “non-conservative evangelical.” I kinda like this title because it distances from some of the baggage that “evangelical” can bring but it also retains the positive aspect of the label.

    • Something like that may indeed be helpful. I’m not sure that I would go with “non-conservative,” though, because it covers too much territory. “Conservative” gets used in theological, political, social, and fiscal arenas, among others. In which of those am I intending to affirm that I’m not a conservative? And, of course, even inside of those arenas, there are some issues on which I’m conservative and others that I’m not. So, to me at least, “non-conservative” begs the question of “non-conservative” with regard to what exactly? (I have the same frustration with “postconservative.”)

      I suppose that if you really were non-conservative in all these areas, then the label would serve just fine. Or, maybe if you were just less conservative in most of these areas than your average evangelical, then it might still fit. In the latter case, though, you’d still probably be more conservative than many other people, so maybe “less-conservative evangelical” would be better than “non-conservative evangelical.”

  4. “Non-conservative” is too negative to be a good handle to meaningfully describe ones basic theological outlook when joined with “evangelical.” It still operates in the domain of being against something, which is the problem that folks often have with evangelicals in the first place.

    I can understand not wanting baggage, but you can’t always manage how others perceive you, regardless of how imaginative you are with your moniker. Why not just say, “I’m Baptist,” or “I’m Four-Square,” or “I’m non-denominational” (i.e. confused Baptist)? That way you identify yourself with the concrete folks with whom you minister, serve, worship, etc.

    • That’s another good reason not to go with “non-conservative” and it’s probably why some prefer “postconservative,” though I don’t find that much more helpful. I freely use both Baptist and evangelical to describe myself, since they each capture different aspects of my Christian identity. They both have plenty of baggage, of course. But families are like that.

  5. Ok, I concede that “non-conservative” is not the best qualification of evangelical. Though, I’m a little less concerned with bringing in political and social baggage with the term, one would think “evangelical” would keep it in a theological sphere, but who knows. It’s true I don’t like the idea of being defined negatively, though it makes one think about still being defined as a Protest-ant. My only point was that when I read Kirk refer to himself as a “non-conservative evangelical” I knew exactly what he meant (based on reading some of his blog) and I identified with it. That’s all. I agree that I don’t want to jettison the title evangelical, but I also don’t exactly want to claim to be something I’m not, so I’m open to other ideas.

    (Tony Campolo, for example, has joined with other Christians who can’t identify with evangelical any more and refer to themselves as “red-letter Christians.” While I appreciate the sentiments, this has many problems as well.)

    • Although “evangelical” probably carries more of a theological or ecclesial meaning in the circles that we typically run in, that definitely is not the case for people in general. I think most people hear social/political meanings when they hear the term (at least in America).

      And, yes, “red-letter Christian” has more problems that I’d care to name right now.

      • That’s a fair point. Unfortunate, but a fair point.

      • I just realized that in popular culture “non-conservative evangelical” comes close to being an oxymoron; it’s a little like saying “liberal fundamentalist.”

      • Yeah, but that’s part of the attraction. It’s saying that you can be evangelical (theologically) without signing on to other political or social agendas typically associated with American evangelicalism. It seems to me that the more theologically minded young people I interact with, the more I realize that there is a growing realization that we (and I do put myself in this camp) do not line up along the exact same theological lines as some of our forebears but we do desire to retain what we see as the important evangelical emphases: the authority of scripture, preaching the gospel, etc.

      • I can see how it might be a good discussion starter. People would be confused at first by how a non-conservative evangelical is even possible, which might open doors for a good explanation. Of course, that only works when you have time to explain yourself. But still, it could be useful.

      • Yeah. Basically, I agree with you that it’s not a good title, but I kinda like it as a concept. For now, I am still sticking with evangelical.

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