“Evangelical Christian” is a loaded term these days. Common associations with these words conjure up descriptions like judgmental, homophobic, intolerant, conformist, anti-intellectual, and hypocritical.
Some students wary of these associations have become reluctant to associate with the term. Blogs, articles, and stories on major news outlets use the term “evangelical” in ways consistent with the description above.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2008, “Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.”
As a result, some Christians are reluctant to be identified as evangelical. Author Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post recently in which she suggested she could no longer associate herself with the movement.
This is sad. It’s particularly sad when we consider that most uses of the term evangelical are incorrect. Christian historian David Bebbington defined the evangelical movement as comprised of four characteristics:
These four defining characteristics of evangelicalism have nothing whatsoever to do with conformism, intolerance, or homophobia. They are a simple, well-researched description of a theological movement emphasizing personal and social transformation.
Biblicism simply means that evangelicals hold a high view of Scripture. This does not mean wooden literalism, or a denial of other ways of knowing truth. To be evangelical means that we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures because they tell us the truth about God. Our commitment to Scripture drives us to observe the text, interpret it carefully, and apply it to everyday life. In an age where the ability to read and interpret texts is declining, evangelical Christians can (and perhaps should) lead the way in critical engagement with the written Word.
Crucicentrism simply means a focus on Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. Despite popular misunderstandings of evangelical Christianity as judgmental, our emphasis on the cross strictly prohibits judgment. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As a result, no woman or man is in a position to cast judgment on another. Instead, evangelical Christians call others to behold the reconciling, restoring, and atoning work of Jesus.
Conversionism is the belief that women and men need to be converted in their mind, heart, and life. Evangelicals deny the claim that someone is born a Christian because of religious upbringing or cultural heritage. Instead, we must be converted. We must come to know the truth about Jesus, believe in him, and trust ourselves to his leadership. Evangelicals reject manipulative tactics or power plays that attempt to force or coerce others to convert because we recognize that, ultimately, conversion is a gift of grace empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Activism does not imply that evangelical Christians are attempting to earn favor with God or work their way into heaven. On the contrary, activism describes the moral effort and active engagement that flows out of receiving the gospel as a pure gift. Evangelical Christianity has a long history of social engagement in abolition, education, healthcare, and anti-poverty. These movements are sustained in the evangelical tradition by the words of Jesus, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
“Evangelical Christian” is a loaded term these days. But this can be an opportunity, not a liability. If communities of higher learning, media outlets, and those who seek to influence public life through their writing are to use the term “evangelical,” we have an opportunity to help them use it correctly. Perhaps we might lovingly correct those who say “evangelical” when they mean “religious blowhard.” Perhaps we might invite a more disciplined use of the term. Perhaps we might correct some misperceptions of what it means to be evangelical.
What might happen if, on campus and online, our engagement was not marked by debating politics but by clarifying what it means to be evangelical -- and why?