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Should We Stop Using the 'E' Word

In previous posts I have dealt with discussions about whether or not we should keep using the word "evangelical" to describe ourselves (see posts here, here, here, and here). Often in these discussions the term is called "the 'e' word." Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, has a good column in the current issue of Prism that deals with this issue. It is entitled "Should We Stop Using the 'E' Word?" He offers reaons why he still uses the term despite scandals and politics. Here are a few highlights:
First, "evangelical" is a good biblical word, from the Greek word for "gospel." Evangelicals are people committed to Jesus' gospel and passionately eager to share it with all who have never heard. ... Using the word "evangelical" emphasizes this commitment to evangelism.

Second, ESA has always sought to ground all it does in historic Christian orthodoxy. There are people around who call themselves Christians who do not believe in the deity of Christ, his atoning death, and his bodily resurrection. ... We need some label to distinguish theologically orthodox Christians from theologically liberal Christians.

Third, ESA has always sought to ground all our work in the Bible. We seek a biblical balance of evangelism and social action and a biblically balanced political agenda. ... Biblical revelation has been the final authority for what ESA--and all evangelicals--think and do.

Fourth, historically, it has been the evangelical world that has offered some of the best holistic models that ESA has tried to follow. John Wesley, the great evangelist and leader of the evangelical revival in the 18th century, condemned social evils, including slavery, and called for social holiness. ... In the United States, Charles Finney, the Billy Graham of the middle of the 19th century, was one of the leading crusaders against slavery. Oberlin College--where Finney taught--was a leader in combating slavery and promoting evangelical feminism.

Using the word "evangelical" identifies us with and anchors us in this long heritage of faithful engagement in both evangelism and social transformation.

Fifth, I refuse to give up a very good word to people like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.

Finally, now is no time to abandon the label, because we are actually winning the debate! Virtually all evangelical leaders today agree with what ESA has championed for decades--namely, that a biblical understanding of mission must include both evangelism and social action.

... People with an ESA vision should use it gladly, even as we insist it does not mean the narrow, nasty, unfaithful things that some people think it means. By even more vigorously promoting a biblically grounded, holistic vision, we will help both Christians and secular people understand that "evangelical" is a very good word with which to identify.
He makes a lot of excellent points! It would be great if the word "evangelical" could be saved from the stain it has received in recent years from scandals and politics.


  1. sOne of the problems with the word "Evangelical" is that people use it without understanding its history. The word was use do describe the movement begun in the mid-20th century by men like Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, and Carl F.H. Henry (who may very well have been the key to the movement). Henry's book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was what set off "Evangelicalism" from "Fundamentalism" (and actually first set forth this view that Sider has adopted with the concern for both a Biblical theology and a Biblical social concern). And thus, truly to call oneself an Evangelical is to trace his or her roots to the spirit of that movement.

    What the media has done, and to some extent Christians across all sorts of perspectives who either knowingly or unknowingly have placed this word on those like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other Fundamentalists, is skew this term to apply it to far too broad of a group.

    In fact, I would say that "Evangelical" refers to a group that is in line with the intellectual theology of Carl F.H. Henry rather than the hardshell fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell or the loosely liberal theology of Brian McLaren. And when Sider asks this question, he should understand that many people should quit using the term "Evangelical", especially if they are not true to the movement that seeked to set itself apart from the Fundamentalism that has dominated places like Liberty University from its inception.

    Now, that's not to say that the word applies only to intellectual Calvinists like Henry, but that it is much more narrow than how it is applied in the media.

  2. d.r.: Thanks for the comment; you make an excellent point! As you note, much of the problem with the term "evangelical" is that the media often uses the term for those who are really fundamentalists (like Falwell and Robertson). The Barna Group has a very narrow definition of "evangelical" and thus their research has that group as much smaller in number than other reports.

  3. Brian and D.R.,

    What a rare opportunity to say to both of you--as different from each other as you are--"For God's sake, shut up!"

    Perhaps you're just trivializing with semantics. But if you're editorializing seriously about value in God's kingdom work, your subjective prejudices are showing, gentlemen, as you seek to exclude Falwell, Thomas Road B.C., Liberty U. and anyone else who doesn't fit your own brand of evangelism.

    You both should visit Lynchburg and attend Liberty's convocation and Thomas Road's services, then report back intelligently.

  4. Brian,

    I am somewhat familiar with Barna's definition, but I wonder (and you probably know), does it differentiate between fundamentalists and evangelicals in any way? From what I understood, it only narrowed the term Evangelical to those who basically defined themselves beyond a social Christianity.

  5. Chuck,

    As much as I appreciate your willingness to engage moderates and liberals with a view toward conservative, Biblical Christianity, I think you have missed the point here.

    I don't doubt that Falwell and Robertson have been used by God. Flawed as we all are, God uses all Christians. But that doesn't make all Christians equally right in how they live their lives or in their message and technique.

    You should read C.F.H. Henry's book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry tries to show that while Fundamentalism is correct in many ways, it errors in distinct ways that need to be corrected. The movement known as Evangelicalism came about because of that need to correct fundamentalism, not to deny the work of God in it.

    In this same way, I think the term has been incorrectly used to define those who still hold to Fundamentalism in distinct ways apart from what the movement of Evangelicalism called for. And there are implications for such a misunderstanding.

    As for going to Liberty, I am very familiar with the school. I have had several friends attend there, including a former pastor. I have watched them on television, heard several of their profs speak and preach, and debated Calvinism with Ergun Caner. I even spent a term at MidAmerica Seminary in Memphis before fleeing to NOBTS. I am very familiar with the differences between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists because I have existed in the worlds of both.

  6. D. R.,

    I take back the ending comment about talking intelligently. Please forgive me.

    I don't pretend to be well-read on the history and the semantics of "evangelical," as you are. In fact, I'm beginning to think that it might actually be a negative term which I mistook to be positive.

    My first question to you is: While not denying God being at work in them, what do you feel needs to be corrected at Liberty U. or Thomas Road B.C., besides their not espousing 5- or 7-point Calvinism?

    And, since in this discussion, you say it involves too broad a use of terms, would you not distinguish between Bob Jones University's fundamentalism and Liberty, which I consider to be the best of evangelical? Or is Bob Jones the evangelical institution?

    Also, in my opinion, you use too broad a stroke in lumping Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson together. Their theology and evangelistic methods were/are miles apart. I'm probably not as sure as you are that God has used Robertson to build the church.

    I'm concerned about your words that give the sense you feel spiritually superior to other conservatives when you say in (implied) reference to Falwell, ". . . God uses all Christians. But that doesn't make all Christians equally right in how they live their lives or in their message and technique."

    I respect you, and like having you with me on some of these blogs, but I'm troubled on this one.

  7. Chuck,

    First, let me say that I think you are making a whole lot of assumptions based on very little information. I think you need to take my words at face value and not read into them more than what is there. I have a hard enough time defending what I have said - I don't think I could handle defending what I'm not saying.

    Second, the term "Evangelical" has a history of use. And that is the point I was making. It refers to those who trace their theology and cultural engagement back to Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga. Falwell was around then and actually opposed this movement. He considered himself a Fundamentalist. Later he moved toward the SBC, but always stayed on the fringe, representing the Fundamentalism of J. Frank Norris, not the Evangelicalism of W.A. Criswell. So the term isn't negative, but it is distinct from fundamentalism, as well as from liberalism.

    Liberty University was actually engaged in the reaction to the growing liberalism in some Christian universities and seminaries. Other schools like Wheaton College (where Ockenga and Graham came from) reacted differently, thus skewing Christianity into two distinct camps, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. So my problem with Liberty is that it continues to be mired in the old school Fundamentalism, which rears its head in antiquated dress codes and sometimes a supression of valid, but differing views (like the exclusion of Calvinism from legitimate engagement by means of stereotyping).

    And speaking of Calvinism, I did sense that maybe you have a negative opinion on it. I don't want to make an assumption, but I do want to clarify in case that is true. I don't think Liberty (or any other institution) should necessarily "espousing 5- or 7-point Calvinism", but rather I expect all Christian organizations to interact with it fairly. Ergun Caner has not done so and I think that is to the detriment of Liberty (which has been suggested by current students as well).

    On Bob Jones I would say that there is a distinction between the two, but they were built out of the same mold. Falwell moved towards the SBC, but Jones Sr. did not. They, however, remained good friends and agree with one another theologically and culturally in many ways. There is not nearly as big a gap between Bob Jones U and Liberty U as there is between Liberty U and Union U (where I attended) or Wheaton College (both self-identified as "Evangelical").

    My use of Falwell and Robertson are in reference to two separate groups within the broader umbrella of Christianity that do not represent Evangelicalism. Both are Fundamentalists, but clearly each is of a different stripe. I don't pretend to believe that both are equal in any regard, but they have both been punching bags of the media, which have falsely called them "Evangelicals".

    Now, as to my supposed "spiritually superior[ity]", I think you missed the first part of that sentence, "Flawed as we all are..." Even the biggest fans of Falwell have to recognize that he has made some very public mistakes and hasn't always put forth the best side of Christianity. Of course, none of us has. But that is not the question here. And that is why I said what I did regarding God using all Christians. You equated being used by God with a label and I do not. I look at people's actions and at times Falwell and other fundamentalists have acted improperly. But, as I clearly noted, we all have. I think you are reading way too much into that statement.

  8. Chuck4:20 PM

    D. R.

    I'll quit equating "evangelical" with "evangelistic." There must be "evangelistic evangelicals" as there are "evangelistic fundamentalists."

    I know Ergun Caner was slated to debate James White last year, but it didn't come about at the last minute. Did you debate Caner formally?

    Having a son and now son-in-law at Liberty, I have not found any antiquated dress codes. There is appropriate modesty called for, but not antiquated. The law school and , I'm pretty sure, the seminary are accredited, so at least that standard of academic diversity is met.

    The church and school are booming with ministries and outreach that engage the culture and shares Christ. I'm grateful my kids are there, so I guess I must be a fundamentalist and just didn't know it.

    Thanks for the lesson.

  9. I can see much clearer now the confusion. Yes, Evangelical and evangelistic are not synonomous.

    And maybe Liberty has changed in the last few years, but I know that previously no one, male or female could wear shorts when on campus when not in the gym, including athletes. Friends told me they had to put pants on just to walk across campus to practice basketball. Of course at Bob Jones U, a female could not touch a male and a male couldn't touch a female in any way (hold hands, hug, or even give a high-five). And couples needed a chapperone to go on dates. So LU is not nearly where BJU is in those regards (at least I don't think so).

    As for whether you are a fundamentalist or an Evangelical, I have no idea, but both coexist in the SBC, though there certainly have been disagreements over the past few years between the two loosely associated groups.


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