What Do We Mean By “Evangelical”?

In recent news, the term “Evangelical” has been used a lot. It was used during last year’s American elections due to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and recently, the term has come up in response to scandals involving politician Ray Moore.

Whenever I see the term “Evangelical” used today, it always refers to a very specific group of people. It is always used in the context of politically/socially conservative American Protestants, especially from the southern United States. However, this use of the term is both historically and theologically inaccurate, and I believe that this needs to be addressed. This is especially true because of this organization — Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice. The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is in fact a part of the wider Evangelical tradition, so I think that we need to discuss what that term means in its wider context. 

Not only am I personally an Evangelical since I come from a Charismatic perspective, but I am also one in my pastoral life. One of the organizations that my ministry (Unfailing Love) is associated with is the Anthem Network. This network is part of the Convergence Movement, which merges Charismatic, Evangelical, and Sacramental streams of Christianity. On an individual level, I just recently joined The Evangelical Network as an affiliate Christian worker.

For me, this is a bit personal. The term “Evangelical” is one that I closely identify with, and to see it used in a misguided and politically motivated way is deeply frustrating to me. As a result, I would like to clear up some of the confusion around the term, and I believe that the PCPJ website is a perfect venue to do so.

When we look at the historical use of the term “Evangelical” in the church, we generally have the following:

  1. In the early church, the term “evangelical” was used to simply refer to the gospel. It is the saving good news of Jesus Christ. To be an “evangelical” person is to be a Christian.
  2. In the Middle Ages, the term “evangelical” tended to refer to someone who wanted to strictly live as Jesus lived. They set the gospels up as the standard by which we should live as Christians. People such as Francis of Assisi were called “evangelicals” for this reason, and they lived by the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The first major change that we see in the term “evangelical” is in the Protestant Reformation. Here, the term became “Evangelical” (with a capital letter) as it came to refer to a formal movement within the church rather than simply someone who loved the gospel. During the Protestant Reformation, the reformers saw themselves as returning the Catholic Church to the gospels, and as a result, called their movement “Evangelical”. The term became the preferred term for Protestantism, since the reformers were not trying to leave or protest against the Catholic Church, but were hoping to reform it according to Evangelical principles. In many contexts, the term “Evangelical” is directly associated with the Lutheran Reformation specifically, while “Reformed” refers to the Calvinist wing. In the US, there used to be a denomination known as the “Evangelical and Reformed Church”. That church represented a merger of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations. We still have churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church today. Anabaptist minister Menno Simons also called himself an “Evangelical”, so it was also common in the Radical Reformation.

The other major change in the term “Evangelical” comes from a Lutheran revival movement known as Pietism. That movement emphasized personal spirituality and piety among Christians, especially the laity. This movement challenged the Lutheran orthodoxy of the day, and some members of it became known as “Radical Pietists” and became closely connected to the Anabaptist churches. The important part of Pietism here is its emphasis upon missions, especially from the Moravian Church under Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran layman and Moravian bishop.

The Moravian Church spread Pietistic ideals across Europe and European colonies. English Protestants such as John Wesley encountered Moravian missionaries and adopted and later modified the same Pietistic ideals. These ideas spread among most major English-speaking Protestant denominations, and were especially common in the future United States.

It is at this point that we get to the most commonly used version of the term “Evangelical” today — Evangelicalism. This movement was heavily revivalistic. It heavily emphasized the Bible, personal piety, conversion, and holy living. Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement come from Evangelicalism through the Wesleyan-Holiness wing of the movement, but the movement affected every major Protestant denomination in Britain and the United States. Everyone from your local liberal Episcopal priest to the fundamental Baptist church down the road has been influenced by Evangelicalism in some way (which is why I personally dislike the “Mainline” vs. “Evangelical” dichotomy). Even the Unitarian Universalist Association has Evangelical roots through Rev. John Murray.

In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a series of controversies involving fundamentalist and modernist theologies. During this time period we saw some Evangelicals attempt to give Evangelicalism a more specified identity, and groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals emerged. Pentecostalism developed during this time period as well.

Regarding politics, Evangelicalism was always socially engaged, but it was also diverse in that engagement. Some Evangelicals (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) were slave owners, while others (e.g. John Wesley) preached against slavery, for example. However, the emphasis upon peace and justice that was found in early Pentecostalism really has its roots in the wider Evangelical movement (e.g. Wesley, the Salvation Army, Evangelicals for Social Action).

At this point, I hope the readers of this article are wondering: What happened? How in the world did we go from that ecumenical and diverse revival movement to the current association of the term “Evangelical” with ultra-conservative American politics?

It really begins in the late 1970s, with the Moral Majority movement under the leadership of Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell. This movement closely linked conservative Evangelicals to the Republican Party, especially the policies of the Reagan administration. We still see the effects of this today, where people often assume that “Evangelical” equals “Republican” which equals “Reagan”.

In addition to this, the Moral Majority emphasized two points more than anything else: homosexuality and abortion were both sinful. Even today, these two issues seem to be the only two that today’s “Evangelicals” care about. We can treat the poor like dirt, hate foreigners, do violence towards others, and completely ignore the Bible, but as long as we dislike homosexuals and abortion doctors, then we are fine. Even last year, many conservative Evangelicals compromised on everything that they held dear so that they could endorse Donald Trump on his values rather than his personal character, and the only values that they seemed to care about were hostility towards homosexuality and abortion.

This is where we are now. The term “Evangelical” is now being used to refer to the specific brand of Christianity that emerged from the Moral Majority, but Evangelicalism is over two hundred years older — and far more diverse and wonderful. In addition to that, the term “evangelical” itself as a wonderful history going back all the way to the New Testament.

As Pentecostals and Charismatics, we are Evangelicals, so we cannot shy away from the term. In addition, I refuse to let a term that refers to the good news of Jesus Christ be used in a manipulative and politicizing way, as both the political right and left seem to be doing. The term has far too much history, and far too much value, to be simply surrendered to those who wish to use it inappropriately.

ska%cc%88rmavbild-2017-01-06-kl-21-17-02Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please join our Facebook forum, and sign up for our newsletter!

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