I’m old enough to remember when “evangelical” was a bad word

If there ever was a word in need of a definition, it’s evangelical. While confusion with evangelical didn’t start two years ago, it was exasperated and exaggerated by the election of President Trump. More specifically, by the Pew exit poll declaring that 81% of white evangelicals voted for him. This led to much hand-wringing, soul searching, blame shifting, and guilt-casting about what exactly is wrong with evangelicals, particularly the white ones. (A side note—you might be an evangelical if you are naive enough to believe an exit poll).

Many called “white evangelicals” to repent of their love affair with presidential politics, while others have lamented that so-called evangelical churches are largely white. Meanwhile, some African-Americans are “quietly” leaving their churches over the issue—no word yet on how “quietly” it can be when it is a lead story in the New York Times.

I watch these unfold as a spectator. As I mentioned, I’m old enough to remember when evangelical was a bad word. If I was even older, say 500 years old, perhaps I would embrace the label. William Tyndale declared that evangelical encompassed anyone who is made “good, merry, glad and joyful… who sings and dances and leaps for joy in believing what we call the gospel.” By that definition, count me in. Also, by that definition, count most white evangelicals out.

But as time went on, the word “evangelical” did what words do: it changed. In England and Scotland as pulpits went liberal, evangelical came to describe a church where the gospel was still preached. If a person said they went to an Anglican church, a fair follow-up question might be: “But is it evangelical?” Some were, most were not.

State-side, the term took a different slightly different path. Here, liberalism, evolution, and alcohol consumption started to creep into the church. Some denominations began to question, then later deny, the historicity of Genesis, the virgin birth of Christ, and even the veracity of the bodily resurrection. These denominations were white, and that is more than a side note; it will matter very much in the year 2016.


Inside of those newly liberal denominations, not every church-going lay person was as wowed by the doctrines of Darwin as was the freshly minted Dr. Pastor, straight out of the school of higher criticism.  While the pulpits went liberal, the hearts of many in the pews stayed faithful, and this is where the term evangelical reappears in our Christian lexicon. Evangelicals were those that held to the gospel—the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, and the necessity of personal conversion to Christ—yet stayed in their churches/denominations.

But the term evangelical did not define all those who believed the gospel. In fact, the term excluded at least two key gospel-believing segments of American population. First, it excluded the fundamentalists. They believed the same right doctrine as the evangelicals, but they left their churches and started new ones. The fundamentalists generally held to a practice of secondary separation, where they wouldn’t partner with those that partnered with liberals, and this meant that there was a divide fixed between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The fundamentalists were not the only ones excluded by the term evangelical. Generally speaking, black churches in the United States did not identify as either evangelical or fundamentalist. Between 1920 and 1950, most black churches viewed liberalism and evolution as white church issues, and thus evangelical and fundamentalist were white church labels for white church problems. So yes, historically speaking, the phrase “white evangelical” was redundant.

It also became political. In presidential politics, the party that opposed reversing prohibition also favored criminalizing inter-racial marriages. As evangelicals embraced prohibition, they hitched their wagon to a racial divide. This had consequences a generation later; when black denominations began to turn liberal, those who believed the gospel often left, but the racial wounds of the term “evangelical” meant they generally wouldn’t identify with that camp either. While they may have left for an evangelical church, they might hesitate to use the term.

The result is a lot of confusion on the nature of what it means to be an evangelical. You may recall in the exit poll that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, but there was no category for “black evangelical,” or even “non-white evangelical.” Blacks were allowed to select how often they went to church, but they were not allowed to identify as evangelical. Hispanics were allowed to identify as Catholic, but not evangelical. In the world of exit polls, evangelical is a subset of white, and white only.

This is just trivia for me, who attends a non-denominational church. It is a bigger issue in the Baptist world, particularly the Southern Baptist World. Obviously their denomination started over a debate about slave owners as missionaries, and then more recently the denomination itself almost fell off the liberal cliff in the 1980’s. They have a confluence of events to deal with. What do you call a SBC member who eschewed liberalism while holding onto the gospel and staying in their liberal-leaning church? Evangelical is certainly a good word for him…but then that brings up all the racial and political strife inherent in the word. In that world, it makes sense that The Gospel Coalition (itself an ironically evangelical label) would strive to confront the racial issues in their evangelical past. They are fighting to rescue evangelical from their own history.

But outside of the SBC and TGC, evangelical suffers from an ambiguity largely owning to its diversity. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is different than the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, yet members of both would sign the Manhattan Declaration. If you believe the gospel and the fundamentals (inerrancy, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, personal conversion, etc.), does that make you evangelical? There is no clear answer to that question. The Pew Research team will only call you evangelical if you are white. A church historian might only call you that if you are inside of a church that is broader than that. A fundamentalist might call you that, but he won’t mean it nicely.

Billy Graham understood the complexity of this word, and he used it for his advantage. He preached the gospel, and called for personal conversion. But he had no problem working alongside churches that tolerated evolution and Catholicism. That made him inherently evangelical, as opposed to fundamentalist. Over time, the fundamentalists began to shrink (likely owing to the over-application of secondary separation), and the evangelicals began to leave their churches and denominations anyway, and start new ones.

That church-planting movement leads to a wrinkle in the term evangelical. Now an evangelical is someone who says with their feet that Catholicism and liberalism are wrong, but they just would never say so with their mouths. They leave the Catholic church on Sundays, but turn around and call Catholics our brothers in the Lord on Tuesdays. This is evangelicalism’s squishy middle.

So what now of a person who believes the gospel, wouldn’t partner with Billy Graham, and thinks that the local church should hold to the fundamentals of the faith? If that is you, you can call yourself evangelical, but know that in so doing you are using the word differently than it has often been used the last 100 years of American history. Is there a better word? Some have toyed with the term “new evangelical,” but that has never caught on. RC Sproul wanted “imputationist,” but MacArthur quips that it would make us sound like surgeons instead of Spurgeons.

This is all worth remembering when you encounter calls for “white evangelicals” to repent of corporate sin. The truth is, evangelical is a term loaded with history, and in the United States, much of that history involves dubious political alliances, racial segregation, and a willingness to partner in ministry with Catholics. Frankly, it’s not a term that I defend. If by evangelical you mean someone who holds to the “fundamentals of the faith,” then there should be no racial baggage, no corporate identity beyond baptism, and no problems with the term.

The hitch though is this: that’s simply not how the term has been used in our past. In other words, I want it both ways. If evangelical is stripped of its sociological and historical use, and instead indicates faith in the gospel, then obviously it shouldn’t have descriptors (such as white or Catholic), nor should people ever say “if evangelicals want unity in the church, then they need to do X and Y,” because that implies the gospel itself is insufficient. But that’s only if evangelical is used absent its historical context, and to use evangelical  this way insists on a level of purity for a word that for the last 100 years has been anything but. My advice—don’t believe exit polls, and don’t defend (or use) ambiguous terms. Better to defend the gospel than politics and sociological-mumbo jumbo coated in biblical language and deep-fried in racial categories.

Source: The Cripplegate | Jesse Johnson