In the past, I cherished the term “evangelical” because of its literal meaning. It comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means “good news.” An evangelical, etymologically speaking, is a bearer of the good news. I love that.
Christians have debated the usefulness of this label for years, and the critiques and concerns have only become more prevalent since the presidential election. In a recent post calling for an end to the term “evangelical,” theologian and writer Scot McKnight details the ways evangelicalism has become identified with Republican politics. Indeed, 80 percent of self-described white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election supported President Trump, and that group’s support for him remains strong.
In addition to becoming a politicized term, evangelical also describes a predominantly white population. Hip-hop artist Lecrae has spoken recently about his decision to assert himself as a black Christian and how that decision has resulted in rejection from white evangelicals. “Evangelical,” to many people, primarily conjures white Republican, not first a bearer of good news.
While plenty of individuals and groups that have called themselves evangelical in the past continue to do so, even if they don’t want to align with any one race or political party, others have decided it is time to shed the label. Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, for instance, an 80-year old organization on the campus of Princeton University, recently announced its decision to become Princeton Christian Fellowship. As Bill Boyce, PCF’s president told Princeton’s campus newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, “There might be certain assumptions that all evangelicals are Republicans. . . . We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith and by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda.”
For people like me who have identified our version of Christianity as evangelical but who don’t want our religious identity to signify political or racial identity: What should we do now?
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professing evangelical, defended the term for two reasons. One, the term carries the historical affirmation of belief in “Jesus as a personal Savior, and a commitment to the Bible’s supreme authority.”
And two, evangelicals in America are connected to a “global movement and many leaders in the southern hemisphere who have come to faith through the efforts of evangelical missionaries. . . . They haven’t stopped [using the label ‘evangelical’], and I want to identify with them.” Mouw critiques the politicization of the word, but his desire to retain its historical, global and theological significance drives his decision to resist that politicization from within.
Other Christians have chosen to leave the evangelical label behind and define themselves in different terms. The labels red-letter Christians, orthodox Christians, creedal Christians, progressive Christians — all overlap in some way with the theological commitments of historic evangelicalism but also seek to distinguish themselves from it.
McKnight concludes his recent post with a denunciation of any politicization of the faith, declaring at the end, “Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.”
The people following Jesus first called themselves Christians years after Jesus had been crucified and rose from the dead. And although the term “Christian” has stood for many things over the years, it literally means, “belonging to Christ.” Christians are the ones who are willing to identify ourselves with Jesus in all that he did and taught. Christians are the ones who are willing to identify with one another as those who follow Jesus.
The term “evangelical” has become politicized. It also retains a rich history, one where evangelicals wanted to distance themselves from fundamentalists in the early 20th century while also expressing their commitment to a traditional understanding of the authority of the Bible and the saving work of Jesus in contrast with some of the more theologically liberal mainline churches.
But the recent debates about this term have done more than just convince me to stop using this label. They have convinced me to walk away from trying to dissociate myself from other Christians with any label at all.
Whether it is the term “evangelical” or “mainline,” “liberal” or “conservative,” the adjectives we use to describe our faith have served to divide us more than they have defined us. Christians in America have become sparring factions rather than a diverse and multifaceted movement of people who all seek to know and follow Jesus, to bring the Good News in different ways to a hurting world. Our labels break us into little huddles that insulate us from the fullness of the whole church.
Yes, some Christians work out their faith through social justice activism, some through contemplative prayer, some through talking a lot about Jesus, some through acts of kindness, some by reading the Bible a lot and some by attempts at purity.
Yes, the social justice people have sometimes neglected to pray; those who pray have sometimes neglected to feed the hungry. And sometimes the people who talk about a personal faith in Jesus have failed to see the need for a collective call to justice, and sometimes the people doing acts of kindness have never opened a Bible on their own.
But instead of seeing these differences as ways to criticize each other, as invitations to define ourselves against one another, what if they are opportunities to learn, to rejoice in our differences, to recognize what we have to give, and what we have to receive from one another?
I am still tempted to categorize my Christian friends with words like “liberal” or “progressive” or “orthodox” or “conservative” or “evangelical.” I am still tempted to judge the faith of other people according to my standards of who and what constitutes Christianity. But when I stop and ask how I see God’s work in their expressions of faith — when I stop and consider the expansive love of God at work in and through countless people, people like me, people who have our theology wrong plenty of the time, people who have our theology right and still behave badly, people who are bumbling around in a world of sin and are still at our core beloved by God and invited to participate in God’s work in the world — when I do that, I start to believe that we are Christians.
Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative — Christians. Plain and simple. No label necessary.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of “Small Talk” (Zondervan, 2014) and “A Good and Perfect Gift” (Bethany, 2011). Learn more at amyjuliabecker.com.