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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.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/19)