Evangelical: What’s in a Name?

Earlier this week, the USA Today asked the same question to us as a recent interviewer proposed to Barack Obama: Who’s an evangelical? From the article:

Who’s an evangelical? Until last year the answer seemed clear: Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and Biblical morality.
Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding toward the same linguistic demise that “fundamentalist” met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned.

These opening lines from the article expose the foundational error that causes so much ambiguity around the term evangelical–it claims that there are not only religious components to the term but also political and economic features. This is simply an overstatement. A much better definition of evangelical is someone with:

  1. A belief in the authority and innerancy of Scripture
  2. A belief in salvation through faith in Christ alone
  3. A belief in the expectation to share the gospel with others

Though these spiritual convictions have economic and political implications, those are derivative issues. As a result, the article points out the confusion that mars the country on the topic:

Although 38% of Americans call themselves evangelical, only 9% actually agree with key evangelical beliefs, says research firm the Barna Group. In a surveys of 4,014 adults nationwide, conducted over four months in 2006, “one out of every four self-identified evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior,” says George Barna.

How you see “evangelical” depends on where you stand, says the Rev. Mark Coppenger, founding pastor of the Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and former spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Coppenger still calls himself evangelical “to distinguish myself from the more liberal mainline Christian groups.” But, he adds, “I’m more inclined to call myself a ‘Christian,’ ‘Bible believer,’ ‘Baptist,’ or ‘Southern Baptist.’ “

My expectation is that the confusion will continue to grow in direct proportion to the amount of biblical illiteracy that pervades society. This is just the beginning.

The solution of some has been to come up with alternative terms, as you can see in this video parody:

So, should we continue to use the term evangelical, even with all its cultural baggage? I think, at least for the short term, the answer is yes. If the ones who truly embody what the term means reject its usage, then the only ones who will be left using it will be those who continue to distort its meaning.

However, we can never forget that the name we are battling for is not the name ‘evangelical’ but the name of Christ.


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