The term "evangelical" is likely the most abused term in the entire religious lexicon, says one Christian leader.
Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, which is led by Pastor John MacArthur, believes "evangelical" has been so abused that he wonders whether its original meaning can ever be recovered.
"These days it's been redefined in sociological terms, political terms; everybody seems to have their own concept of what it means," he said on the "Janet Mefferd Show" this week.
A few years ago, best-selling author Rob Bell defined (to The Boston Globe) "evangelical" as a belief in working together for change in the world, caring for the environment, and extending generosity and kindness to the poor. Some have distanced themselves from their more politically conservative counterparts and called themselves the "new evangelicals" who focus on economic justice, the environment and immigration.
And most recently, Rachel Held Evans, who has gained media attention for her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, defined the term as a follower of Jesus who is committed to proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. She also argued that "evangelical" doesn't mean allegiance to a single political party, Southern Baptist, opposing gay rights, nor exclusivism.
Johnson of Grace to You observed, "Everybody wants to use the word and claim it but they all want to define it ... 'here's what it means to me.'"
That is a typical postmodern approach to definitions, he said, noting that Evans is a "classic neo-liberal" who holds the term "evangelical" in "high contempt."
Based on research, Johnson said the earliest use of the word "evangelical" was by 16th century priest and scholar William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into "modern" English.
Tyndale "used the expression 'evangelical truth' as a synonym for the Gospel," said Johnson. "Evangelical is whatever has to do with the Gospel."
More specifically speaking, it's someone who believes the Gospel is centered on the doctrine of justification by faith and the principles of sola fide (by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), he added. "The Gospel is a message about redemption, it's a call to repentance from sin ... and a summons to yield to the Lordship of Christ."
Abuse of the term "evangelical" is not new. Nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon had decried the fact that the modernists of his day wanted to be called evangelicals even though they abandoned all the evangelical principles, according to Johnson. Such a label would give them "instant credibility" and easy access to people who believed the Bible, he said.
Johnson, who serves as an elder at Grace Community Church, also believes the magazine Christianity Today has had a negative impact on how "evangelical" is defined today.
"The abuse of the term evangelicalism and the corruption of the evangelical movement really started, I think, with a core of people who included the founder of Christianity Today who wanted a new kind of evangelicalism and that was their term – new evangelicalism," Johnson said on the radio show.
"They wanted to do away with certain evangelical distinctives and embrace a kind of ecumenical diversity instead. And slowly and gradually that's what they did. My argument would be today, these days, you could read Christianity Today, you barely will find any actual theological evangelicalism in the magazine at all," he added.
Johnson also listed the emerging church and the seeker sensitive movements as contributing to the murkiness of evangelicalism.
But what he has found more disturbing is how politicized the term has become over the last few decades.
"I think probably the greatest corruption of the term 'evangelical' has come in the past 20 years or so because as that term has been more and more used in the secular media, it's become more and more associated with a political perspective and it never was intended to be a political point of view," said Johnson.
"Too many evangelicals have become too focused on political issues and because we don't teach doctrine anymore, we don't proclaim the Gospel the way we should, the message the world hears from us is a political message."
The Moody Bible Institute graduate went as far as to say that the contemporary evangelical movement is "in a worse state of backsliding and apostasy than the Catholic Church was just before the Protestant Reformation."
Why? "Because the Gospel has sort of fallen into eclipse. People don't even know what the Gospel is," he lamented.
"The distinctive of evangelicalism is we as evangelicals believe the Gospel, which means that spiritual redemption is the only true remedy for what ails fallen humanity," he maintained.
"The Gospel is about sin, righteousness and judgment, but it's not politically correct these days to preach about those things and it's amazing and appalling how few pastors are willing to break those political conventions and go against the spirit of our age. It's just not fashionable to do that and truly proclaim the Gospel."
Fed up with churches trying to be "relevant," Johnson said nowadays it's hard to find churches that aren't talking about sex, music, or any other "relevant" topics.
"We've given the idea that the Word of God is not necessarily a serious thing," he said, lamenting the casualness and comedy in the pulpit.
With Christians hard pressed to find the Gospel preached in churches today, Johnson and Mefferd agreed that this has resulted in a younger generation that is without any understanding or knowledge of the Gospel.
And that makes them susceptible "when someone comes along with what seems like a nicer, kinder, gentler theology," he said.
Despite the negative trends he finds in many churches, Johnson said he is not a pessimist.
"The Lord will revive his church," he said.