Are We Saying Goodbye to “Evangelical?”
David W. Hegg
We saw the warning signs years ago, and some even began dropping the word from their church names and personal labels. Sadly, what we’ve learned in the most recent political season is “evangelical” no longer defines an historical, theological movement in the minds of most Americans. Regrettably, we have been reduced to a political action group that apparently is willing to forego its convictions to gain a measure of political clout. Maybe the time has come to say goodbye to “evangelical” and find a new label.
But let’s not do so before attempting, one last time, to clarify the true meaning of the term. It stems from the 16th century when leaders of the Protestant Reformation became known for teaching that God deals with the individual directly, through the Gospel – the “evangel” - and not only or even primarily, through the sacraments of the church. They became known as “gospel men” or “evangelicals.”
History shows that, over time, all labels become diluted, and unfortunately, it usually starts with compromise by those wearing them. Over the years “evangelical” has been worn by those who have shaved the gospel edges off the true gospel and replaced it with a man-centered sales pitch for Team Jesus. And now, it appears many wearing the label are willing to endorse a candidate whose life shows no imprint of Christ, and whose alignment with the gospel seems totally lacking.
Here’s the deal: Can you be an “evangelical” if the “evangel” seemingly plays no part in the way you heartily endorse political candidates? Apparently, but only if you so redefine the term that it no longer defines a life fueled by, and focused on, the work of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps its time to find a new label, even if we understand it will suffer the same fate decades or even years from now. I’ve given this some thought, and offer the following as my “go to” personal label. I am a Christ-follower. And here’s what that means.
Jesus said “If any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up the cross, and follow me.” Following Christ means first, honoring the Bible as my highest, and only infallible authority. It also means understanding the Bible in context, the way the original writers intended the original readers to understand it from the words they used. Lastly, it means obeying God’s Word so consistently and following Jesus so closely that the watching world will associate me with him, and not primarily with a man-made political movement.
What this really means is the time has come to claim our heavenly citizenship as vastly more important, and theologically more identifying, than our earthly or national citizenship. This world is not our home, and its demise will not be our downfall, unless we chain ourselves to its warped ways and decadent desires.
Whether or not this will mean distancing ourselves from “evangelical” is not for me to say. What is important is our intentional struggle to make sure our gospel witness is never consigned to the political realm. We are not a political action group. We are a people, called out of darkness, and outfitted with Word and Spirit in order to re-enter the darkness as agents of God’s transforming light in the gospel. We are gospel people. We are truly evangelicals … even if the term itself has suffered death by a thousand small compromises and may need to be consigned to the history books. We may say “goodbye” to the term, but never to the gospel of Jesus.