Replacing the “Evangelicals!”
by Ramesh Richard
A devotional this article is not, but it still might warm the heart, stimulate the mind and inspire awareness for action. Thank you, dear friend, in advance for your patient understanding and reading, as I depart from expository and spiritual comment, from theological and sometimes philosophical remarks, to a piece with social, even political impact.
Here’s the question I address in view of distinctly contemporary realities: Is there a better word than evangelical to describe Christians who hold to the epistemological authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and practice?
Historically the noun “Christian” carries emotional baggage outside the North Atlantic arc. Old and wrong arguments still generate convenient antipathy in India, my birth-land, toward “Christians” as Western. That Christianity was non-Western from its inception and now empirically tallies more “non-Western” adherents may help in retrieving a moniker first given to believers and followers of Jesus in the historic New Testament book (Acts 11:26).
Here however I specifically refer to the term “evangelical.” What a lofty term, creatively transliterated and naturally adapted from a compound word in Greek (eu+angelion), with goodness and gladness embedded in its very nature.
Martin Luther’s first use of evangelium in the 16th century yielded evangelical 100 years later during the Great Awakening. It became quite well used in America in the 1800s, climaxing with 1976 declared as “the Year of the Evangelical.” Although content-filled to insiders, the noun was—and is—less offensive than “Christian” to non-Christians across much of the globe. On Villat Street in Aleppo, Syria, evangelical is beautiful to those new to churches and in economic need as the only one that welcomes all whom others reject.
Yet in America, evangelical has been polluted by harsh stereotype—especially during the last election cycle. Our sociological habit of labeling (controlling?) people—as generations (boomers or millennials), persuasions (Calvinist or Arminian), and colors (e.g., “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight”)—fixes unintended meanings of words in minds.
I hate to think about losing this amazing word. Since it essentially refers to those who subscribe to the person, work and mission of Jesus as the gospel, “evangelical” is what I am in theological identity. It is also what I am in personal purpose—sharing God’s good news of eternal salvation secured in the Lord Jesus, who offers it to all humanity. I am an evangelical Christian.
At the same time, I loathe using this word anymore in my adoptive land. A myopic sentiment has been growing in America for at least four decades. Evangelical has come to mean much it is not. This wholesome description of Bible-believing (but not Bible-thumping) Christians is defined politically as anti-people, anti-progress, anti-science and so on. Several sectors of the public have become anti-evangelical even as evangelicals are labeled “anti-much.”
Is it time for a new word to capture the self-understanding of Christians, a new noun which embraces all believers and followers of Jesus, to which all evangelical theologies and denominations would belong comfortably? Can a new word free them from negative typecasting over the next election season?
We could drop “evangelical” as a noun in highly politicized America, where church attendance stagnates. And we could still retain its wonder and truth in the rest of the world where the Church is multiplying—and where believers have few qualms about the term’s biblical content and expectation.
Further, we could find a new noun that would permit self-identification without embarrassment or misunderstanding anywhere. It would generate confidence among followers without fear of a media environment that employs soft-thinking to disparage users with strawman arguments and flawed research (check poll predictions from the 2016 election). It would also last a while, for at least a few decades or so.
May I recommend a word to which evangelicals can’t say “no” if we are serious as Christians and still want to make sense of (and to) the world in which we live—all while reaching people with Jesus’ eternally saving message? A noun against which it is hard to push back while we press on to consistency in belief and authenticity of behavior?
Having celebrated the 500th season of the Reformation in 2017, in the tradition of Luther, a man who did not possess the authority but sensed the responsibility to challenge prevalent theological sensibilities, how about a new noun to replace the evangelicals? Place me among “the biblicals.”
Biblicals does not yet permit the fallacious appeal to the emotion of non-evangelicals. It does not arouse competitive understandings against an apparent, right-leaning vote-bank. It can gather the many consonant and dissonant streams of evangelical Christians, and it applies to all generations, persuasions and ethnicities who believe and follow their Lord Jesus Christ, in both personal conversion and public expression of biblical convictions.
Perhaps evangelicals will survive misuse and misperception to eventually return us to its original range of meaning. For then we could distance ourselves from political evangelicals to the redundant biblical evangelicals. Eventually as necessary, we shall sever that misperceived word from the principal principle and simply be called the biblicals. It will really take some getting used to…like most adjectives turned into nouns. Hopefully not another 500 years.
A postscript to friends (not enemies) of evangelicals: What do you think? Shall we just wait it out? I look forward to your insights and opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ramesh Richard serves as President of RREACH, a global proclamation ministry, and Professor of Global Theological Engagement and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.