A Word We Need To Phase Out: “Evangelical”

Some words have died because, like “hepcat,” they were a passing fad.  Other words, like the “n-word,” were intentionally killed because of widespread conviction that there is no profitable use of the word.  A similar but distinct class of words are those that should be abandoned because they conceal more than they reveal; an example of this is “evangelical.”

The Association of Religious Data Archives includes as “evangelical” denominations as diverse as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, the American Baptist Association, the Assemblies of God, the Mennonites,  the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Hutterian Brethren, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Pentecostal Church of God and The Primitive Baptist Church, among others.  Do you see the common ground? I don’t, or at least I don’t see much.

But let’s play it out:  what do you know when someone tells you he is an evangelical? It’s pretty certain he’s a Protestant.  (But did you know about Evangelical Catholics?) Then everyone in this group is supposed to receive the Bible as authoritative; the problem is that they have different ideas as to what it’s authoritative about.  One is then tempted to add evangelism as a common concern, but you might get different gospels out of Mennonites, Pentecostals and Orthodox Presbyterians so that isn’t much of a core.

So let’s look elsewhere. In his eye-opening Deconstructing Evangelicalism D. G. Hart offers a definition of sorts:

Combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation.

(p. 183).  Now, that’s not going to work at all. Its accuracy is too disturbing and it’s a little too honest to be accepted on any widespread basis.

Here’s another definition for “evangelical:” “in the Unites States,  a group of  religious conservatives concerned with the culture war and political causes; a core constituency of the Republican party.”  This definition may be strong on “is” but it’s a little weak on “ought.” In other words, while there is such a group, there’s a real question as to whether there ought to be an identification of churches with a political party or a partisan political faction of any kind.  That is, unless someone wants to make the argument that the gospel was only intended for Republicans.

“Evangelical” is not only hard to define, but it also does collateral damage in a number of ways.  First, there are some churches who don’t fit the mainstream definition and don’t want to fit.  I certainly don’t want my church to be encompassed in Hart’s definition or to be identified with party politics.  Plus, when I describe my theological commitments to someone, I don’t want to do it in a way that makes them think of the big evangelical church downtown rockin’ the Sabbath away before receiving multi-media sermontainment.

The inclusion of “evangelical” in our vocabulary also does collateral damage to truly useful definitions.  I’m talking about useful definitions like Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  If I’m conversing with or reading a mere “evangelical,” there’s a lot of guess work about their assumptions.  But let me talk to a self-identified LCMS member and we can have constructive, intelligible conversation a lot quicker.

Finally, “evangelical” causes collateral damage to the theology of the layperson.  That’s because some lay people are content to simply be in an evangelical church and have slight regard for the doctrine that separates churches under the evangelical umbrella.  It’s hard to teach a member what your church believes about baptism if all he’s hearing is “this is  just our nit-picky doctrine that’s not held by all evangelical churches blah blah blah blah blah.”

So “evangelical” is too vague, it’s become politically defined and it causes collateral damage to more useful definitions and layperson theology.  But it’s hard to kill a word that’s still being so widely used. I’m not fond of replacing it with “the e-word” because that’s too similar to email, e-cards and the like. Another possible solution is to write about evangelicals to signal the necessity of using the word while signalling the undesirability of doing so.  I’m agnostic on the solution, but I’m convinced of the need for one; let’s bury “evangelical” right next to the hepcat.


Filed under Evangelicalism, Presbyterian Vocabulary

10 responses to “A Word We Need To Phase Out: “Evangelical”

  1. As sympathetic as I am to the modern problems, and as tempted as I might be toward the proposed solution, I can never help asking if the same could have been said in the 16thC about “catholic.” And then we’d’ve lost a useful word (one that also irks evangelicals, which is frosting). So I am inclined to think that, instead of a scorched earth approach, all we have to do is employ lower case letters: catholic and evangelical. Aren’t those biblical and historical terms worth preserving?

    • “all we have to do is employ lower case letters: catholic and evangelical. Aren’t those biblical and historical terms worth preserving?”

      The upside of preserving “catholic” is apparent enough, as is the historical use of “evangelical.” But as a way of describing a contemporary religion/political faction/cultural subset/quarterback it’s incoherent. Do you look in the mirror and see an evangelical?

      • No, but when I listen to Xian radio I hear eeeevangelical. Tonight I saw Joel Osteen’s new book on display and the first word that came to mind was “eeeevangelical.” I know it when I see or hear it, and so I’m not sure it’s all that incoherent. Besides, don’t confessionalists need eeeevangelicals the way Protestants need Catholics?

      • You didn’t say we were talking about eeevangelicals, and your pornography analogy is apt. But put a picture of J. Gresham Machen next to a picture of Joel Osteen and tell me they should be called the same thing. I mean, other than bipeds.
        You do suggest a strategy: splinter and conquer. There are eeevangelicals and politico-evangelicals. Technically that’s a split rather than a splinter but it’s a beginning.

      • Zrim

        JGM is catholic and evangelical, Osteen is an E(eee)vangelical and Benedict is a (Roman) Catholic. Lower case adjectives as opposed to upper case nouns. When I say Reformed & Presbyterian I assume “it’s all in there,” like Ragu.

      • I’m wondering what it is that is so valuable about maintaining the word to describe the contemporary scene. In the States, the word started as a re-branding of fundamentalism. “See? We’re not those guys! We smile more and we’re not so against everything!” And then there was the effort to add intellectual depth, etc. Today its greatest value might be monetary, since the word attracts certain folks to books, speakers, music, bookstores, etc. So please remind me of the theological, ecclesiastical, or cultural upside.

  2. Karl

    I sort of thought evangelical means “Baptistic Christians who don’t call themselves Baptists.

    • I sort of thought evangelical means “Baptistic Christians who don’t call themselves Baptists.”

      In my dreams, Karl, but paedobaptists are also among the evangelicals. Some paedos really want to be, and others not so much. Your definition would be more intelligible than the current one.

  3. jedpaschall

    I’m with you here MM, evangelical as a modern appellation seemed to grow out of a movement that was at best vaguely identified with much of any ecclesiastical import. There was, and continues to be so much of the modern evangelical movement that has nothing to do with describing what happens within the church. It has certain political, para-churchy, marketing components within it’s semantic range that it doesn’t describe much of anything in a definite way.

    Catholic, or catholic, or Protestant, or Orthodox, or even orthodox all describe something definite, and something that holds ecclesiastical water. But the funny thing is, when I describe myself as Presbyterian, or Reformed to my coworkers I might as well call myself a Martian. At least they think they know what an evangelical is. But the problem is when I use the moniker evangelical, how I am describing myself, and how I am understood at the most basic definitional level is totally obscure. So I opt for a more specific label that at least allows me the opportunity to describe what I am. It’s a lot easier to explain what a Presbyterian is than what an evangelical is, without a whole lot of backtracking and clarifying what kind of evangelical I am not.

    • So I opt for a more specific label that at least allows me the opportunity to describe what I am. It’s a lot easier to explain what a Presbyterian is than what an evangelical is

      Jed, be looking for my “Ask Me Why I’m Presbyterian Blue” bumper stickers.

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