What's in a Name?

April 28, 2006

A few days ago I noted a debate going on among some Christians about whether or not to use the word 'evangelical.' Now, John Buckeridge, the editor of Christianity magazine, has come a piece about "The 'E' Word." Here are some of his thoughts:

Half a century ago words like ‘gay’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘wicked’ meant something very different than they do today. In the past ‘evangelical’ stood for four key values:
* a commitment to the authority and centrality of scripture,
* a call to personal faith and repentance,
* the centrality of Christ’s death as our substitute,
* putting faith into action through evangelism and social action. Now to the unchurched and people of other faiths – evangelical is increasingly shorthand for: right-wing US politics, an arrogant loud mouth who refuses to listen to other people’s opinions, men in grey suits who attempt to crowbar authorised version scripture verses into every situation, or ‘happy-clappy’ simpletons who gullibly swallow whatever their tub thumping minister tells them to believe. Large parts of the British media seem happy to paint evangelicals into that stereotype. Today in the UK ‘evangelical’ is often linked with the ultimate 21st century swearword ‘fundamentalist’. The result is the name ‘evangelical’ which years ago, may have smelt of roses – now has the aroma of the manure that fertilises the bush.
Meanwhile, Wade Burleson offers some thoughts about the term 'fundamentalist.' He urges caution in using the term inaccurately. He writes:

Words are meaningless without definitions. Vocabulary is the foundation of all communication, and unless the meaning of words is properly defined, effective communication is impossible. Such is the word "Fundamentalism."

... May God grant the grace and wisdom needed to see that within our Southern Baptist Convention there are thousands of pastors and people who share the same spirit of Machen --- warmly conservative and fervently evangelical --- but not "Fundamentalists" as defined by Machen.
Both of these men offer some important reminders about being careful about the terms we use. While I am not ready to get rid of the term 'evangelical,' Buckeridge offers some important things to remember. If we use the term we need to also communicate a little more detail about what we mean.

Likewise, Burleson is correct in noting that the term 'fundamentalist' is often thrown out inaccurately. We should reserve the term only for those who actually are fundamentalist. Hopefully Burleson can get some people to be more careful with this term and hopefully Burleson will be more careful about throwing out the term 'liberal' against people who are not actually such. With that term he could use a little of his own advice. But both pieces remind us of the importance of being very careful with the labels or terms we use.

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