Evangelicals Ponder Whether the 'Evangelical' Label Is Worth Keeping

Russell Moore
Russell Moore discusses the question "Is the Label 'Evangelical' Worth Keeping?" in a video posted on The Gospel Coalition on August 22, 2017. |

A panel of prominent Christian ethicists and pastors said that it is important to define what an evangelical actually is in discussions with people who may not be familiar with the term, warning that sometimes people may have a very wrong idea about evangelicals and what they stand far.

Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, led the discussion, which was posted Tuesday on The Gospel Coalition website.

He first asked both Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City Fellowship in Michigan, whether or not they identify as an "evangelical."

"It depends on who's asking me the question. What I want to know is what does someone mean when he or she says 'evangelical?' The same way I've had people say 'are you a fundamentalist' before," Moore began.

"It depends on what they think of 'fundamentalist,'" he added, stating that if people are thinking of the fundamentals of the faith, the answer is yes. But most people "have some other association when they say that, and they mean a whole list of potential things."

As for "evangelical," Moore said that in almost every context he would "say yes," but insisted that the term needs to be defined first.

"Sometimes people have a really skewed sort of the idea of what an evangelical is," he pointed out. "You have to identify what a Christian is, define what the Gospel is, define what an evangelical is."

Edmonson said that he is the reverse, and normally he would say no, but occasionally yes.

"Normally I don't refer to myself as an evangelical, I refer to myself as a Presbyterian," the New City Fellowship pastor explained.

"In so far as people are referring to the historic sense of folks that come out of the Protestant Reformation, then I identify as an evangelical in that historic sense. But since then there have been some political identifications with evangelicalism that would not necessarily apply to me, because I come out of the African-American church tradition." 

DeYoung then turned to the question "Is the term 'evangelical' worth using, worth keeping?"

When asked about the African-American tradition, Edmonson suggested that pastors would have thought of themselves as "Bible believers," "Christians," or members of whichever particular denomination they were associated with, rather than as "evangelicals."

Moore noted that that is "true across the board."

"Usually when someone asks me the evangelical question, it's almost always a secular journalist or academic," the ethicist said.

"Most people in real life would typically say 'I'm a Christian, I belong to whatever church,' and talk about their experience and what it is they believe."

He stated that not many people use the term "evangelical" in the beginning of their conversation.

When asked about the main misunderstandings people have about the label that make him feel like he needs to explain it further, Moore said:

"One of them is, I think sometimes, when people on the outside think of 'evangelical,' they think of whatever T.V. evangelist that they happen to be familiar with.

"So sometimes people haven't really thought about evangelicalism since the evangelical scandals of the 1980s I guess, or the aftermath of that. Or they think of some health and wealth prosperity Gospel preacher. And that's even more true overseas, when someone talks about evangelicalism, I really have to" explain what it means.

"But the majority of the time it's a political identity first. And many journalists just assume that what evangelicals do all day is wait for the Iowa caucuses every four years," Moore said to the laughter of the panel, referring to the U.S. presidential election process.

He insisted, however, that political identification is only a small part of the lives of most evangelical Christians.

DeYoung admitted that growing up in a mainline denomination, he often used the term "evangelical."

"It set us apart. 'We're the good guys, we're the people who believe in the Bible, we believe that Jesus is the only way; and so I find my friends [with the question] 'Are you an evangelical?' But yeah, if you're in a different context, it means something different."

As for pastors struggling with the question of whether they should retain the label "evangelical," Edmonton stated:

"We want to use that word and qualify it. I think you can use the term, insofar as you really point out the theological distinctives of what it means to be an evangelical."

"Often times it's often associated with its political identification now, and so that's just the way it is with language, depending on the context you use it, it takes on different shades of meaning. It could be useful and it could do more harm than good," the pastor continued.

"If you come into a situation where people think of evangelicalism primarily in terms of the political identity, then you may not want to use it at all. In some ways it's similar to the term 'Calvinist.' Depending on where you go, there are some folks who say 'I don't want that.' Or even 'Reformed' — for some folks, they say 'It makes me feel uncomfortable.'"

Moore said that in both of those cases, the discussion largely depends on how much the participants know about the terms.

"The more that they do [know], the more likely am I to use shorthand, and say am I an evangelical, or Calvinist, or whatever. But if people don't, they can just be importing all sorts of ideas that you don't [identify with]."

DeYoung positioned that "it's not worth dying on some of those hills with the labels that may have important history, an important identity, but really the question is 'does the term in this context help me to promote and defend the evangel (Gospel)?'"

Moore said that a lot of times, what that requires is laying out what one believes.

"We believe that the Bible is completely true, we believe that people have to be born again; the whole list of what it means to be a Gospel Christian."

DeYoung concluded by stating: "The key is, let's make sure in whatever labels we're using, or using for others, that we are Gospel people, and we're getting the Gospel out, and our labels are serving to that end, and not detracting from it."

Back in February The Christian Post published a two-part series on whether the "evangelical" brand is redeemable following the controversies surrounding President Donald Trump's era.

In Part One, bestselling author and evangelical preacher Tony Campolo told CP that the "the evangelical brand" has been irredeemably damaged in the eyes of the public, and a new identity is needed.

In Part Two, Dr. Vernon Burger, a Southern Baptist Minister and founder of His Voice Global, argued that it is indeed possible to salvage and restore the evangelical identity, despite the perceived support of Trump and right-wing ideas.

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