Evangelicalism: a word worth keeping

I was recently part of a panel on ABC’s The Moral Compass. It was a full and frank, no-holds-barred discussion of the place of “Special Religious Education” in schools.

One of the panelists used the word “evangelical” as a term which was clearly meant to ring alarm bells with his audience. The delivery of Scripture classes was by “fundamentalist, ee-vangelical” groups. Self-evidently, we were supposed to be frightened that this indicated a fringe sect, only loosely in touch with sanity and certainly not with reality.

For a second, it crossed my mind to pause, and say: “I identify as an evangelical Christian: as one who shares in the great tradition of Wesley, Whitefield, Simeon and Wilberforce. They were nation builders and compassionate individuals and pursued an intellectually robust and spiritually earnest faith wholeheartedly. I have no shame in trailing in their wake, or in the wake of Stott, Packer, Spurgeon and many, many others. I find it offensive that you use that term to belittle and demean others. Imagine using the word ‘Catholic’ or ‘Muslim’ in that way.” And then I didn’t say that, because as a Christian I don’t think I should play the “politics of offence” game.

But it did make me reflect on the word “evangelical” and its usefulness in the contemporary world. Does it communicate anything useful to say you are an evangelical anymore? Does the widespread and woeful ignorance of this terminology mean that there’s no point trying?

A little history is needed to address the question properly. Words have histories, and names that applied to groups especially so. The word “evangelical” was used at two moments in history to describe two movements within the Christian church. It’s a word that is built from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news”, euangelion.

In the 16th century, “evangelical” was the term used to describe the churches that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church over the authority of Scripture and the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. These reformers, known later as “Protestants”, more usually called themselves “the evangelicals”, and described their churches as “evangelical”. Even today, the German Protestant churches are called Evangelische.

But the word was also associated with a descendent group of this first group of evangelicals, the “evangelical movement” of the 18th century. This movement was particularly strong in the English-speaking world, and featured the great preachers John Wesley and George Whitefield. What characterised this movement?

Following the historian David Bebbington’s account of the evangelical movement, we can say that it was (and is) conversionist, biblicist, crucicentric and activist.

It was “conversionist” in that the evangelicals held that in order to be saved, a person needed to be born again – to repent, and believe the gospel. Evangelicals did not assume that a person was saved by outward adherence to religious forms or moral codes. It had to be inwardly authentic. And so they preached “you must be born again.” They held enormous revival meetings, and experienced extraordinary revivals. They preached outside of the church walls, in the meadows and in the streets. And the evangelicals became great missionaries and the supporters of missions, throughout the expanding world.

Evangelism4It was “biblicist”. That is, evangelicals in the 18th century stood for the authority of Scripture over every other in matters of faith. The Bible was the living and active word of God, not human reason or church tradition. Evangelicals thus became interdenominational, because while they were happy to work in different denominations, they did not hold institutional allegiance as being at the heart of Christian faith.

It was “crucicentric” – which means that for evangelicals the cross of Christ has a central place in the gospel. Without the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, there is no evangel. There is no gospel to preach without the death of Jesus for sin. It is fascinating how this comes out in evangelical hymns, such as William Cowper’s somewhat disturbing “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. Lastly, you’d have to agree that evangelicalism was and is an “activist” faith. This is a vague term, perhaps, but evangelicals haven’t seen themselves as removed from the world by their faith but rather plunged into it, often in its most difficult and complicated arenas. Evangelicals have been nation builders, sponsors of education and prison reform, advocates for social and political change, and standing for the rights of others. Evangelicals were prominent in the women’s movement. The evangelical movement spawned many of the social welfare groups that still serve us today. One thinks of World Vision, Tear Fund, the Salvation Army, Barnado’s, and many, many more.

What’s happened since then? Evangelicals were perhaps at their most powerful in Britain in the 19th century, but lost a great deal of their influence by about 1900. They were often ridiculed – and sometimes fairly – as moralistic, which was somewhat of a betrayal of their own message. This happened in Australia where evangelicals campaigned against alcohol and gambling and other vices, and mostly lost.

This is where the social activism of the evangelical movement butted up against its conversionism. It’s a tension that goes a long way to describing where the evangelical movement is today. In the US, the evangelicals decided to become politically active in the 1970s, and to especially throw their lot in with the Republican Party. The election of Ronald Reagan, though not an evangelical himself (or even particularly religious) was seen as a triumph for evangelical political activism. But by aligning with a certain sort of right-wing politics, evangelicals forfeited much of their good name, and their passion for conversion seemed to dissipate. They were active not as servants of their communities, but as lobbyists seeking to control a space – however right they were about the issues.

Three other things have happened within the evangelical movement that have made the word harder to own. The first was the rise of what we know as fundamentalism. It’s a complex story, but the bottom line is that a very strong anti-intellectual stream became dominant in a large segment of evangelicalism. This was very much at odds with the evangelicalism represented by John Stott and others in the UK, where the life of the mind was respected and cultivated.

The second was the rise of Pentecostalism, which has emerged as one of the most numerous and vigorous forms of Christianity globally. Pentecostalism is the child of the evangelical movement, but there is great disagreement as to whether it is truly evangelical or something else again. The emphasis put on personal experience rather than Scripture and the eclipse of the cross in some forms of Pentecostalism has made other evangelicals wary of associating too closely. It has certainly confused the brand, much as Pentecostalism has retained the missionary edge of the evangelicalism that gave it birth.

The third was the infiltration of liberal theology in the evangelical ranks. Liberalism is not and cannot be truly evangelical, since it appeals to human reason and experience over and often against Scripture, and it
denies the centrality of the atonement. But many liberals wanted to call themselves “evangelical”, because they liked the vigorous personal faith that it represented and the missionary spirit. So the word evangelical has become so impossibly broad that it verges on meaningless. It needs careful clarification when it is used in any context. If I say I am an evangelical, I almost immediately have to qualify it by saying “but I read books, and I don’t always vote conservative.”

The growing ignorance of our culture is disturbing to say the least. People are simply ignorant, and often wilfully – especially academics and journalists, who should know more about one of the most influential religious movements of the past 250 years.

But I am not giving up on it just yet. The word “evangelical” is a great word, because it says that you are a gospel Christian first and foremost, and not a church Christian, or a cultural Christian. It is worth telling the story of the evangelical movement because it is one of the great stories of our age, and it has so much that testifies to the power of Jesus Christ in it. It is worth standing in this heritage because it is intellectually rich and yet powerfully convicted of gospel truths. It offers a spirituality that is profound, and it compels people to do extraordinary things to help others.