That pesky word ‘Evangelical’

A road map to what the term “evangelical” means, and why progressive evangelicalism still holds great appeal to this author and many others.  

By David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee

Each week someone in the news uses the words “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” as a description, epithet or lament. Often the most visible uses of the term occur when someone who is “in” wants out, as recently with young evangelical celebrities Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans, or when in an election year some politician is said to be courting “evangelicals.”

As a Baptist with 25 years of experience in the “card-carrying” evangelical world, and as one asked to do a new book (with Isaac Sharp) for Westminster John Knox Press anthologizing the most important “evangelical” ethical voices of the last 70 years, I have both a scholarly and personal interest in clarifying understanding of this term. 

At one level, evangelical is a church history term. It refers to renewal movements within Christianity that have sought greater spiritual passion, evangelistic-missionary fervor, moral seriousness and/or theological orthodoxy along one or another parameter. In one sense the term could be used to describe early Protestantism itself, which began as a renewal movement within Catholicism. It has often been used to describe other Protestant movements as diverse as German Pietism, Wesleyan Methodism, American revivalism or modern Pentecostalism.

Sometimes the term evangelical is defined theologically. British historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral is widely used in this way: evangelicalism is characterized by, he says, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism (biblical authority, Cross-focused atonement theology, evangelism and effortful Christianity). While noting the Bebbington definition, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), America’s largest evangelical umbrella group, also offers a brief statement of faith affirming traditional Protestant beliefs about biblical inspiration/authority, Trinitarian theology and a final divine judgment. While evangelical sub-traditions vary, evangelicals are often able to agree on at least bare-bones statements of faith of this type. 

American evangelicals are sometimes defined by their denominational affiliations or theological streams. The NAE website, for example, says, “Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.” A list of NAE member bodies can be found here. In this sense, evangelicals are Christians from various traditions sharing certain religious goals, beliefs and styles who, over time, have developed a sense of community and some shared enterprises and institutions. Still, the very breadth of the evangelical coalition, including groups with irreconcilable ecclesiologies, often spells trouble for the preservation of evangelical unity.  

These days, there is a strong external perception of evangelicals based on social-ethical issues. Evangelicals are viewed as anti-this and anti-that. You know the list. Casual observers don’t know or care about theological characteristics as much as these perceived social tendencies. 

It didn’t start off that way, either in the deepest historical origins of evangelicalism, as we have seen, or in more recent American evangelicalism.

What came to be known as “American evangelicalism” in the 20th century coalesced during World War II. It was itself a renewal movement, this time within American fundamentalism. Though the evangelicalism of figures like Carl F.H. Henry never did find rapprochement with mainline Protestantism as one found it at the National Council of Churches or its member bodies, American evangelicalism did seek to move beyond the rigidity and separatism of fundamentalism. These Christians wanted to be known for what they were for, not against.

Eventually, American evangelicalism became its own religious-institutional subculture, with colleges, seminaries, magazines, musicians, publishing houses, youth/college ministries, relief and development organizations and thousands of congregations. Some of these long-predated the birth of modern American evangelicalism, others were its products. You know you are an evangelical if your religious subculture includes institutions like Christianity Today, Baker Books, NAE, Young Life, Campus Crusade, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Thomas Nelson, World Vision, Sojourners, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Wheaton College, Calvin College, Fuller Seminary, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), Messiah College, Biola University and so on. (I mention all of these affectionately; my life/work has intersected with each of these institutions.)

It was the rise of the highly politicized Christian Right in the late 1970s that dramatically changed public perception of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Most of the early leaders of the Christian Right, such as Jerry Falwell, were better described as fundamentalists than evangelicals — but unlike older fundamentalists, they decide to engage the public square rather than remain withdrawn. They went culture warring.

The older institutions of American evangelicalism, not to mention global evangelicalism, did not all respond favorably to the activities of the Christian Right, but all were affected. The existence of organizations like Sojourners and ESA was a reminder that contemporary evangelicals’ politics did not all skew right. But by now the term “evangelical” often is popularly used to mean “politically activist conservative white Christians.” This is a sad diminution of a rich legacy, and has helped to damage the evangelical “brand” in many quarters.

Tomorrow I will attend my first board meeting for Sojourners. This new role reflects my own ongoing commitment to evangelical Christianity, 24 years after I joined the staff of Evangelicals for Social Action and first encountered the evangelical world outside of the Baptist South. Both ESA and Sojourners actually predated, and opposed, the Christian Right. Both have always offered a “peace-and-justice” type evangelicalism, and both were among the first evangelical organizations to embrace moral agendas such as peacemaking, urban poverty, gender equality, racial justice and creation care, rooted in a passionate love of Christ and love for those Christ loved. Both embody what I find a compelling Christian vision. 

It is clear that younger Christians as a whole are abandoning culture wars, embracing an inclusive spirit as wide as God's love, and seeking a holistic, nuanced faith. I often urge disillusioned younger evangelicals not to feel like they need to walk away from the evangelical community, even if they do not like what some of its most visible adherents do. Step up to help lead rather than washing your hands of what is still one of the more robust expressions of Christianity in the world. 

The future does not look friendly to those congregations and religious institutions locked into denominational subcultures, labels and brands in a post-denominational age. As Christianity in general fades in the United States, all who care about a vital Christian future need to look broadly across the landscape to see where there are signs of life. I urge those not that familiar with the global and U.S. evangelical world to give it a closer look. Many readers of this column might be surprised to see how “at home” you would feel especially in the progressive wing of evangelical Christianity.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.