ON USING THE WORD "EVANGELICAL"
By Dr. Riley B. Case
The word evangelical is not in great favor these days. Progressives, both secular and religious, accuse “evangelicals” of neglecting the poor, being literalist, judgmental, hateful, spreading racism, homophobia, classism, colonialism and just about every kind of “ism” there is. To make it more dramatic C. Kratzer writes: “There is no greater and deceptive evil wielded upon all the earth than right-wing conservative evangelical Christianity.” It is no wonder that even evangelicals these days are reluctant to claim the word for themselves. Tom Lambrecht of Good News suggests maybe we should use the word “traditionalist.” One of the latest to defect from the word, Evangelicals for Social Action, has now changed its name to Christians for Social Action. As a result those who favor historic Methodism presently are tending to self-identify not only as “traditionalist” but also “orthodox” or “conservative.”
That is too bad because traditionalist and orthodox and conservative don’t do a good job of describing evangelicals in the church. For one, they are not Methodist words and don’t do justice to American Methodism. Early American Methodists were hardly traditionalists; they were anti-establishment if anything. They were republican in matters of politics and favored separation of church and state; their message of unlimited atonement undermined the Calvinism and colonialism and the established culture of the eastern seaboard. They were a bottom up religious force and at least for their first 75 years could identify almost no one in their ranks best described by the word “traditional.”
Nor were they “orthodox,” at least in their doctrine of the church and of the sacraments. While they held to the orthodox teachings of the historic church they added all sorts of unorthodox features to American Protestantism such as the altar call, the gospel song, and the emphasis on conversion. Nor were they “conservative.” They were rather reformist, taking stands against slavery and alcohol and gambling and supporting a simple lifestyle. Both whites and blacks gathered in their camp meetings and they used women from the beginning as exhorters and, in the case of Methodist Protestants and Wesleyan Methodists, were ordaining women in the mid-19th century.
The word “evangelical” in its European sense is often used as a substitute for “Protestant.” It is associated with Christ’s atoning death for sin and with justification by faith instead of the sacraments or good works as the way of salvation. It is also associated with affirming the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. What the Methodists in America added to the word “evangelical” was the importance of a conversion experience. They took with seriousness Wesley’s admonition: “you have nothing to do but save souls,” which they understood to mean conversion.
Almost all of the Protestant groups in the 19th century in America claimed the label “evangelical.” The recognition of sin, the necessity of an atoning cross and the importance of justification by faith were confessed not only by Methodists and Baptists but also by Congregationalists and Lutherans and Mennonites and Presbyterians. Still it was Methodists and Baptists, with their bottom-up approach to faith, that dominated the field. In the May 1856 issue of Ladies’ Home Depository, a major M.E. journal of the time, an article assessing religion in America divided the nation religiously into three groups: evangelical, unevangelical and Roman Catholic. Evangelical church members totaled 4,056,000 while unevangelicals totaled 236,000. Not knowing where Roman Catholics belonged, the magazine article simply separated them into the different category. When “adherents” were added to the figures the article credited Catholics with 2,200,000 adherents, the Methodists with 6,000,000 and the Baptists with 5,000,000. Everyone else trailed far behind.
It was only with the introduction of religious modernism in the latter part of the 1800s that there was a religious challenge to evangelicalism. Modernism undermined the authority of Scripture, substituting reason and experience as rival authorities. It also questioned the reality of Original Sin and the Blood Atonement. It depended on sociological and psychological understandings of humanity (thus eliminating sin) and sought to redirect Christian teaching toward the effort to establish a this-worldly kingdom of God under the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. This kingdom would be attained not through the power of the cross but by human (political and economic) effort and social planning. Methodist leadership (and to a lesser extent UBs and EVs) succumbed quickly to the effort to replace evangelicalism with modernism. By the mid-1920s every single Methodist seminary in both the north and south churches had declared for modernism. Evangelicals were re-labeled “fundamentalists” and were dismissed as dying relics soon to pass from the religious scene.
That, of course, did not happen. By the end of W.W. II modernism was collapsing to be replaced, at least in the progressive world, by other theological and ideological fads (such as liberation theology). Meanwhile, evangelical faith was reviving through persons like Billy Graham, through the rise of many para-church groups, the establishment of evangelical seminaries, the proliferation of missionary activity and the explosion of church growth around the world. Within Methodism, renewal groups tapped into the evangelical faith of ordinary church members. In the larger world Methodism was still associated with evangelicalism.
Evangelical – Of or having to do with the Protestant churches that emphasize Christ’s atonement and salvation by faith as the most important parts of Christianity, as the Methodists and Baptists. (Thorndike Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary, 1958).
Today around 30% of Americans are classified as “evangelical.” That is something like 100 million Americans. For many of us the numbers and percentages seem inflated. One Baylor study found that 20% of those who self-identify as evangelicals don’t attend church. Others have a half-hearted faith. Still, whether we want to use the label or not, there are a lot of evangelical Christians both in America and around the world who are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.”
Who are these people, these “evangelicals?” They are basically the common ordinary people who occupy not just the pews of American churches, but those of churches world-wide. They are the schoolteachers and the farmers and the laborers. They are seldom found in the centers of power. They are not often in the board rooms of large corporations; they are not among the wealthiest 1% that people speak of often; they are not found among the faculty of major universities; they do not populate the pages of People magazine, or Town and Country, or Fortune. They will not be found on Time magazine’s list of the 100 World’s Most Influential People (no Christian leaders this year, not even the Pope, though there were five persons known for their advocacy of LGBTQ “rights”). Evangelicals are scarce among the staff of mainline church bureaucracies as well as among bishops, at least in America. Evangelicals are not represented well in the media, nor in Hollywood, nor among the persons who write the scripts for the movies and TV shows that feature zombies and aliens and sexual promiscuity and guns and violence (when is the last time you remember a TV show in which evangelicals were shown in a positive light if, indeed, they are shown at all)? Evangelicals are not among the people these days who increasingly use God’s name in vain on public television or anywhere else for that matter.
Evangelicals live in a big tent. Included as evangelicals are those who are white, black, Asian, Native American and Hispanic. Also included would be groups like fundamentalists, dispensationalists, restorationists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Amish, and even charismatic Catholics. Within the big tent evangelicals have family squabbles over Calvinism, the time of the Lord’s return, over the place of women in the church, over the sacraments, over church government, over politics and just about everything else. But what unites them—love for Jesus Christ and the gospel—is greater than what divides them. They are united on their emphasis on the family, on outreach to the least and the last and the lost. Evangelicals support community institutions and are basically patriotic, no matter what country they live in. Evangelicals are those who week after week worship and pray for the needs of the world. They send missionaries; they are missionaries. Evangelicals stress moral living. In matters of human sexuality, they believe in the historic Christian position of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness (which may be the biggest reason they are disliked and accused of being hateful and homophobic and judgmental).
What about evangelicals and the poor? In many places, in Haiti and the Congo, in America’s inner cities and in Appalachia, they are the poor. Evangelicalism has always been a religion from the bottom up, not the top down. What about evangelicals and racism? Privilege? Self-righteousness? Evangelicals would like to inject the word sin in these discussions. We live in a fallen world; we confess we sometimes do not understand our own blind spots. But we also believe we are restored in repentance and forgiveness. We also believe we can grow in grace.
Will words like “traditionalist” or “orthodox” or “conservative” be adequate substitutes for the word evangelical? Maybe, but different words will not change the essence of who we are. Following Wesley’s admonition we believe it is still important to save souls. To that end we lift up the Christ who “breaks the power of cancelled sin, who sets the prisoner free, (whose) blood can make the foulest clean, (whose) blood availed for me.”