Ever since I knew what the word meant, I’ve been a proud, card-carrying evangelical—even when such a label hasn’t been popular.
Several years ago, I wrote a book that explored the questions that Jesus asked in the New Testament. It received mostly four- and five-star reviews on Amazon and glowing endorsements from evangelical stalwarts such as Joni Eareckson Tada and Jerry Jenkins. But one reviewer dismissed it with a single star:
Of all the books I have reviewed since starting my blog, this was the biggest disappointment. . . . I experienced a 350 page book that read like something written a generation ago directed at a narrow view of modern Evangelical Christians who would readily embrace the title of conservative.
While I won’t deny that this reviewer’s assessment stung a little, I wore his contempt at my “narrow,” “conservative,” “Evangelical” approach from a prior generation as a badge of honor.
If Paul could boast that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” I had every reason to brag about being—in a much smaller way—an evangelical of evangelicals. Though a Presbyterian by conviction, I was an evangelical by choice.
My young faith was strengthened through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and by authors such as C. S. Lewis and J. I. Packer. I pursued additional studies at the graduate school connected to Columbia Bible College. I have worked for D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Wheaton College, Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint radio ministry, and Christianity Today (“a magazine of evangelical conviction”). During our periodic discussions in the CT hallway about the frequently misunderstood “evangelical” moniker, I usually said the word didn’t need to be replaced, only refurbished.
It has an impeccable pedigree. The National Association of Evangelicals says, “The term ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning ‘the good news’ or the gospel.’ Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the ‘good news’ of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.”
Historian David Bebbington’s influential summary of evangelicalism has four points:
- “Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a ‘born-again’ experience and a life long [sic] process of following Jesus
- “Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- “Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- “Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity”
The word “evangelical” came to the fore in America following the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century, as many Bible-believing Christians opted for a public posture that affirmed the essentials of the faith while engaging the culture wherever possible. Christianity Today, founded 60 years ago by Billy Graham and edited at the outset by theologian Carl F. H. Henry, became the fledgling movement’s mouthpiece.
“Evangelical.” It’s a good word. But it’s no longer my word.
It has been damaged beyond repair—not by the culture, but by us. Ronald Reagan once said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic Party left me.” I feel the same way. I didn’t leave the evangelical movement; the evangelical movement left me.
The exit has been decades in the making. First came the battles over Scripture. Was the Bible inerrant (without error) or simply “inspired”? In 1997 Millard Erickson noted the rise of “the evangelical left” and a “postconservative evangelical theology.” So much for biblicism!
Once confidence in Scripture was undermined, all manner of heterodox or heretical doctrines bubbled to the surface, among them support for “gay marriage” and homosexuality as a mere “creational variance,” along with various forms of universalism.
Proponents moved left not only theologically, but politically, calling themselves “Red-Letter Christians” (asserting that Jesus’ words in the New Testament take precedence over all else) or simply “progressive evangelicals.” And such “evangelicals” progressively abandoned Scripture on whatever doctrine was socially inconvenient. As the satirical Babylon Bee wryly wrote, “Progressive Evangelical Leaders Meet to Affirm Doctrine of ‘Sola Feels.’”
Conservative evangelicals have been no less immune to the corrupting encroachments of culture. Driven by abortion and other issues, the Religious Right emerged, seeking to enact laws reflecting its vision of the kingdom. While much good has been accomplished—a reduction in abortions, for example—the movement’s bare-knuckle tactics and oft-harsh rhetoric have offended many. So much for activism!
The 2016 presidential campaign has brought out all the worst impulses of the evangelical left and right. Both sides justify voting for corrupt, morally compromised candidates with selective quoting of Scripture and thin-skinned invective aimed at anyone who disagrees with their apocalyptic assessments.
Long-held principles are out the window. More than 70 percent of white evangelicals, for example, say that politicians can behave ethically in office despite committing “immoral” acts in their private lives—compared with 30 percent only five years ago.
That’s not the evangelical movement I knew.
“Evangelical” no longer means what it used to. It’s time to retire this good word. For myself, from now on, I’m simply a Christian, saved by grace from first to last. There are several advantages.
First, I no longer have to explain that I’m “not that kind of evangelical.” Too many people define us by our worst representatives, assuming that evangelicals are just one political interest group among many. “Evangelical” has come to mean a limited expression of a single branch of the church universal at a particular moment in history. My faith embraces classic evangelicalism but doesn’t stop there.
Second, by simply calling myself a Christian, I’m able to distance myself from those who no longer represent me while entering deeper streams of Christianity that have flowed down through the ages. While my evangelical theology hasn’t changed, my focus has. Those who love the Christ who died for them and receive Him by faith are my brothers and sisters, whatever their tradition. Evangelicals are often accused of believing they invented the church an hour ago. Christians, however, know the church goes all the way back to the day of Pentecost.
Third, I believe that hard times are ahead for the churches of America. If persecution must come, I’d rather not face it for being an evangelical, but for being a Christian. As the apostle Peter said, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
So while I’m giving up my “evangelical card,” I’m definitely not giving up my faith.
Image copyright Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29 / Lachmann, Hans / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is editor at large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today. Stan blogs at www.stanguthrie.com. His latest book is “God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book.”