What’s in a Name?

The term ‘evangelical’ has traditionally been applied to Christians and Christian teaching which espouses a high view of Scripture, a belief in the necessity for personal encounter with God through Christ (the need to be born again), of the necessity for true repentance based on faith in the substitutionary atoning work of Christ, and so on.

I wonder though, whether you, like me, have noticed a definite shift in the perceived meaning of the word ‘evangelical’ lately. For example, ‘evangelical’ is now often used in a non-religious context.  You know the kind of thing; ‘He’s quite evangelical in his right wing views’, or ‘She’s a real evangelical as far as vegetarianism goes.’

For a time, I thought that this kind of comment simply meant to infer that the person in question was an enthusiast. But the word ‘evangelical is being used more and more in contexts which suggest that a fanatic is being spoken of.  This really worries me.

Several times in recent years, the media have reported stories where politicians, keen no doubt to play down the dangers of Islamic terrorism, have likened such extremism to ‘evangelical Christianity’.  This insidious kind of comment has taken root and added weight to the perception that a Christian who claims to be evangelical is some kind of ‘weirdo’. 

A few weeks ago, I was doing the crossword, idly listening to a chat show on TV.  Al Murray was interviewing Aled Jones.  At one point, Murray asked Jones whether he was a Christian.  Aled Jones, seemingly flustered and embarrassed, immediately blurted out ‘I am, yes, but I’m not evangelical.’  I was shocked that anyone who claimed to follow Christ should be so keen to distance themselves from being evangelical in their views.

I’ve had several personal experiences which add weight to my point. Here’s just one of them. One day on holiday last year in Devon, I was talking after breakfast with the proprietor of the hotel we were staying in; a really nice, intelligent chap. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that his father had been a Christian missionary and went on to say (quite proudly) that his father had very liberal views and had little time for ‘evangelicals’ (he kind of spit the word out with a rather contemptuous tone).  I immediately informed him that I was an evanglical and his response was interesting.  He suddenly looked at me as if I were someone to beware of; someone who might be dangerous. He promptly told me that all religions taught the same thing and were all ‘different ways up the mountain’. I responded by pointing out that Jesus claimed to be the only way. He was rather annoyed at this and replied; ‘Well, if you’re going to believe everything it says in the Bible…’

All of the above is leading up to a question for you intrepid blog readers out there. If we continue to call ourselves ‘evangelical’, are we at risk of alienating our neighbours who are ‘outside’ our Christian world and language? Are we making it more difficult for ourselves to witness to them and be taken seriously?  In an academic sense, are we in danger of being seen as obscurantist, old fashioned, or just religious, on-the-fringe nutcases? In short, is it time to abandon the word ‘evangelical’ and come up with another word as shorthand for ‘sincere, Bible believing Christian?’

  1. I find rather the opposite within my church circles – that “evangelical” actually is quite a low standard. People who call themselves evangelical often don’t seem to really believe in things like hell or the bodily ascension of Christ or the phyisical resurrection of the dead.

  2. Hi Liz
    In my own church circles, ‘evangelical’ is simlilarly misused and often applied to people who (in my opinion) are quite liberal in their views. The point I was trying to make (and perhaps didn’t clarify) was the way in which ‘outsiders’ understand the word. In fact, I think your comment reinforces and adds something to my argument about our having problems with this word. Not only is it misunderstood and its meaning misrepresented from outside church circles, but it has lost currency and meaning within the church too; an angle I should have thought to have included in my piece!

  3. Now this is something I have been cogitating over for a year or two; no clear conclusion reached as to what to do about it, but it does seem that we have two options:

    a) ditch the title and opt for another term; or
    b) explain clearly what we believe, and what we don’t believe.

    Neither option is terribly easy to implement, if we opt for a) then there has to be a consensus on the name, and then we have to explain to the world what it means. However b) is interesting from the point of deciding what evangelicals actually do believe, and what we don’t believe; do we accept woman in leadership, is the practice of homosexuality OK by God etc. etc..

    But then, of course, there is the obvious point: both a) and b) require a consensus, and a platform on which to advise the world at large on who we are and what we believe and why we believe it, and so in the end both are rather difficult for us to achieve.

    The question was … “is it time to abandon the word ‘evangelical’ and come up with another word as shorthand for ‘sincere, Bible believing Christian?” A good academic question, but one I fear that could have us naval gazing rather than getting out there with that stunning gospel message.

    Yes this is a difficulty at the level of the media and national organisations, and we must attempt to deal with it, but at a personal level I tend to take the approach of describing what I believe if I am asked for a label, rather than giving the label up front, and anyhow it is a good discussion starter!!

    I guess another point is that from the worlds point of view we are extremely odd (I am odd from anyone’s point of view!), and our message demands a response, but this has been the case from the 1st century, so we shouldn’t be so surprised…..should we?

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