Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical”

Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical” May 23, 2011

Friends and acquaintances on both the right and the left and nowhere on the theological spectrum (I don’t insist that everyone be somewhere on that spectrum) have asked me why I continue to call myself “evangelical”–given all the problems with that term today.

Well, I respond, what else would I call myself?  Just Christian?  That label has just as many problems and always gets the response “What kind of Christian?”  Protestant?  Again, too vague and inclusive.  I am both of those, but if I use them alone or in tandem to identify my theological orientation people rightly ask “What kind of Christian and what kind of Protestant?’

All my life I’ve called myself an “evangelical Christian” or, when I was very young but old enough to be aware of these things, knew I was part of a wider Christian community called “evangelical.”  To us, evangelical was synonymous with “authentically Christian” as opposed to “nominally Christian.”  When I was a teenager deeply involved in Youth for Christ, for example, I knew which churches in our midwest city of about 100,000 people were evangelical in that sense and which were just (in our eyes, anyway) religious clubs.  And we knew that some good Christians stayed in their nominally Christian churches which did not make their churches evangelical or them less than fully and authentically Christian.  So, it was complicated, but not too complicated.

When did “evangelical” become a problem for me and many others who proudly wore that label for decades?  First, when Jerry Falwell began calling himself an evangelical and, second, when the mass media began depicting Falwell and Pat Robertson and people associated with the Religious Right as “the” evangelical–i.e., as the leading spokesmen for the movement.

Again, as with the scandal about the “end of the world,” I blame the media for the good label “evangelical” becoming problematic.  I talk to media people fairly often.  Just last week, in the run up to the “end of the world” day (May 21) I was interviewed by a local reporter.  I mentioned to her the Luther quote about planting a tree today (if he knew the world would end or Christ would return tomorrow).  She thought Luther was sometime in the 1800s!

Most stories I see and hear in the media about “evangelicals” are so distorted and uninformed that I can hardly stand to watch them or read them.  Most journalists (with a few notable exceptions) have come to use the term for anyone or group they consider religiously fanatical or theocratic.

So, I understand why some of my friends and acquaintances want me to give up the label.

However, I’m stubborn and don’t want to give the media (and fundamentalists) the privilege and power to define good religious labels wrongly.  I also don’t know what label I would turn to to begin to define my particular kind of Christianity.  Whatever label I use will need some explaining.  And it’s just naive to think we can get away from all labeling.

Call me Don Quixote, but I think rescuing “evangelical” from the media and the fundamentalists is worth the attempt.

In the meantime, however, I do have to qualify my particular brand of evangelicalism.  So I have used the qualifier “postconservative.”  Occasionally, if I know I don’t have time to explain that (!), I’ll just use “progressive.”

All labels have their problems and, to be sure “evangelical” is fraught with them.  But I am not giving it up.  Instead, I will fight for it.  To me, it is virtually synonymous with “God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving” Christianity.  Of course, that needs unpacking also.

One thing I find helpful when talking to someone or a group with time to listen is to distinguish between the evangelical ethos and the evangelical movement.  I see myself as participating in both, but I am more comfortable claiming the evangelical ethos than I am identifying with the evangelical movement– at least as it is viewed by most people.

So, most of the time, when I say I am evangelical I mean I am a Protestant Christian who believes authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of regeneration and that faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and repentance for sin are necessarily included in that.  It cannot be merely an “enlightenment,” so to speak–a new way of thinking.

Of course, much more could be said about the true meaning of evangelical, but my point here is simply that, for me, it is still a good and useful label, but it needs qualifying–just like all one word labels do.

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  • Rick

    How do you pronounce it? When the media picked it and started using it as a synonym for “religious right wing nut job” about 35 years ago, they pronouned it EE-VAN-gelical. I made a point of saying EH-VUN- gelical ever since.

    • rogereolson

      I usually pronounce it EE-vangelical, but I’ve heard it pronounced both ways. I’ll pay attention to how the media folks tend to pronounce it. But I doubt pronunciation is the key to overcoming the media-created image of evangelicals as nut-jobs. Only education can do it.

    • Daniel

      Can we make any determinations about people based on how they (we) say “evangelical? Like we do with those who say “nuclear” or “foliage” the “wrong” way?

      Just kidding.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Roger,
    I tried to give up the term Evangelical one time but find myself more drawn to it than ever before. There are many strands of Evangelicalism which shows that much of the problem lies within itself. Evangelicals wanted to be ‘big tent” group who focus has been “bigger is better” and lets try not to exclude anyone (key word, inclusivity). It’s no wonder that the boundaries keep shifting and the definitions keep getting looser.

    I started off as a Baptist fundamentalist, went to being a postliberal Evangelical (remember the conversations between Evangelicals and postliberals?) and now I find myself going back to the great tradition and the early church fathers. So whether I am what Tom Oden calls “paleo-orthodxy” or D. H. Williams “a Suspicious Protestant” or what others call a “Catholic-Evangelical,” I am not even sure anymore?

    While Evangelicalism keeps going to the left, I find myself going the other direction. Maybe somehow both sides can hold hands but I wonder if the strand will break some day as things get stretched even further and tighter as time goes by?

    As a fellow Arminian, I have alwsy appreciated your thoughtful words and even the way you have tried to defend the open view from its worst critics.


    • rogereolson

      I find it interesting that you say evangelicalism has been moving to the “left.” I guess I move in circles where it is moving to the “right”–or at least has been for a couple decades. The Evangelical Theological Society, for example, in my opinion, has moved far to the right. So have some of the major evangelical publications and organizations. However, I recognize that some who still call themselves evangelicals seem to have moved leftward–mainly those in the “seeker sensitive” and mega-church movements. But I tend to think that’s only in appearance. Behind the scenes, the leaders still seem to be very conservative. I appreciate what Oden and Williams are trying to do and I agree with them that evangelicals need to rediscover and learn to appreciate the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine. However, I think they go too far–as I have explained in Reformed and Always Reforming. I can’t agree when they say that we MUST read and interpret the Bible through the lens of the early church fathers and the early Christian consensus. I worry a lot about Constantinianism.

      • Chris Criminger

        I am a part of a theological tradition that claims more mega churches then any other ecclesial group in America. It’s in my face all the time so I quess I can’t escape that.

        I also remember the Evangelical Affirmations Conference in 1992 (?) where Evangelicals were trying to carve out their identity and squarely chose to go the big tent route. At that time, for example, Evangelicalism let in the door conditionalism and annihilationism (again, they did not want to exclude anyone, especially people like Wenham and John Stott) and now issues like universalism is cropping up more and more among Evangelicals.

        Maybe a fascinating discussion would be what really is the center of Evangelicalism today? Is there a difference between Evangelical churches and what the center is to the Evangelical center within the academy?

  • Eeekk, I hate your labels. I can completely agree that an evangelical is “Protestant Christian who believes authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of regeneration and that faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and repentance for sin are necessarily included in that.” But, by using labels such as “postconservative” and “progressive”, you drive me away.

    Why are political ideologies necessary for theological identities?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t use them as political ideology labels. In fact, they have nothing to do with politics (in the way I mean them).

      • Those two words have such strong ties to politics. If you aren’t using them as as political ideologies, then I think it would be more effective to use other labels.

        • rogereolson

          What would you suggest?

  • I like your thoughts, Roger. In fact, I just posted something quite similar only a few days ago on this very topic! To me, “evangelical” comes down to the good news. The thought of that becoming a dirty word is pretty depressing to me.

  • I greatly appreciate the Don Quixote reference. I am with you. I don’t want to give up “evangelical” either. I sure hope we don’t have to.

  • Clay Knick

    I agree Roger.

    BTW, there is a Liberty University ad on the right of this page. (Sigh).

    • rogereolson

      Isn’t that ironic? Liberty University helping pay for Roger Olson’s postconservative evangelical musings! I love it!

  • Jon T

    I agree. Reformed and Always Reforming was helpful to me in processing the issue of whether the label was even desirable anymore. I now self identify as a post-con but around my right-of-center church community I just use the evangelical label.

  • Dr. Olson, I’m thinking this is a problem mainly for people who are well known, and you certainly fit that description. Many of us can probably avoid labels altogether except for a few rare occasions. No matter what label you pick, it will be spoiled over time.

    Just look what has happened to perfectly good words like “love” and “truth.” Sometimes I think Satan must work really hard trying to produce confusion about key terms. So, I wonder if it’s better to be a post-label Christian and try to use a descriptive clause of some sort. I might say, “I’m a Christian and believe the Bible.” That all needs clarification, but it might be easier to respond to questions than to try to capture everything with a magical label.

    One question to think about: to what extent does the Bible use labels?


    • rogereolson

      I suspect your’re right that context matters. Some of us cannot avoid using labels. You’d be very surprised how much administrators of evangelically-oriented schools go by them.

    • Chris Criminger

      A post-label Christian? Wow, what a great thought . . . Even the label ‘Christian’ or ‘born-again Christian’ has become so watered down and spoiled. We probably can never truly get away from labels but here are two descriptive phrases I like to use:

      1. ‘I am a follower of Jesus’ . . . People can say that needs a whole lot more unpacking but the terms Christian and christianity come now with so much baggage, maybe it’s time to unpack our bags?

      2. Question – “What church do you go to?” My answer, “I go to the church that loves one another.”
      But, but what denominational or non-denominational label are you a part of? Why does it matter so much?

    • Timothy

      There at least two examples of labels as applied to ‘Christians’ in Acts 9 and 11. In the first, there were some referred to following ‘the Way’ and in the other chapter it is clear that ‘Christian’ is a label placed upon the believers by those outside. We have largely dropped the first label but of course the second has become the most universal label of all. In 1 Cor 1 there is of course another cluster of labels, ‘I am of Paul’ etc. And these labels Paul utterly rejects.
      In history we have alway used labels. The early anabaptists used the label, ‘known men’ indicating that God ‘knew’ them (I think based upon Gal 4:9). ‘Methodist’ was a label before it became a denomination. More recently people have used the label ‘born again’. I would put in a plea for the recovery of ‘catholic’ as a label. We use it in our creeds and so ought to be universally acceptable. But what it implies is that all labels are misleading as they imply division within the body.

      • rogereolson

        And “catholic” is, of course, usually (mis)understood by especially free church Protestants as referring to Roman Catholic.

  • Roger, you might find the GetReligion blog (http://www.getreligion.org) helpful for dealing with religious media cynicism. I know it’s helped me.

  • Lyn

    I come to a similar conclusion. My definition is that I’m committed to the evangel and simply explain what that means when people ask.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    I find your argument very weak. To testify to this at the very end of the essay you say that “authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience”??!! Is not this your definition of being a Christian not specifically an Evangelical?

    The idea that it takes just as long to explain what a Christian means is sad indeed! I love the oppurtunity to explain what that means for me! By saying I am simply a Christian it get people to focus on the center of Christianity instead of the fringes

    • rogereolson

      Well, if that works for you, fine. I haven’t found it works for me or many others I know. Not all Christians believe authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of some kind. Many believe in “sacramental spirituality” and/or “Christian nurture” (a la Horace Bushnell). I’m not going to say they’re not Christians, but I will say that evangelical is a renewal ethos to promote conversion and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

  • Joel

    My problem is that evangelical means so many things. It can be so broad as to include Joel Osteen, or so narrow as to exclude everyone who isn’t capital-R reformed and doesn’t believe in young-earth creationism. To many outsiders, it’s primarily a political label.

    I would like to call myself just an “orthodox” Christian, but that gets easily confused with big-O Eastern Orthodoxy, so I can’t (not that I’m saying the Orthodox necessarily aren’t orthodox).

  • Part of the problem is that many “religious right nut jobs” do claim the term evangelical. I used to make a distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it seems that nobody seems to want to be labelled a fundamentalist anymore. 🙂

    I would claim to be evangelical only in the sense that I am comfortable and willing to talk openly about my faith with others.

  • Jason Lee

    In regards to Fred Leo’s and Roger’s comments:

    What about “moderate Protestant.” Or “moderate Christian.”

  • I’m curious that, 28 responses down, no-one has mentioned 1 Corinthians – especially, of course, chapters 1 and 3, but really the whole letter is so strongly against this sort of partisan division of the Body.

    Evangelicalism as a party identity may work differently in the US from here in the UK, but here the term ‘Evangelical’ is generally used to distinguish ‘us’ fom ‘them’. Often, as your post mentions, ‘us proper Christians’ from ‘them nominal Christians’; to the extent that statistics about Christianity in other countries tend to be labelled ‘x% are Christian’, where x is really the percentage of evangelical Christians.

    So, why the obsession with labels? Either you follow Jesus or you don’t. Either you want to share His joyful news or you don’t. Either you’ve turned to God, through Jesus, and accepted His gift of His Spirit, or you haven’t. If people really want a label for you, what’s wrong with ‘Roger E. Olsen’. That is who you are, a unique creation, so let your words and actions speak for themselves.

    • rogereolson

      Maybe because that’s not who I am? (My name is Roger E. Olson–with two o’s in the last name. I’ve never been able to figure out why almost everyone guessing at it spells it “Olsen” as that is far less common than “Olson.”) Seriously, though, to me, “evangelical” is just a one word label for everything you said about “either….” It’s not a party; it’s an ethos of being seriously committed to the evangel–the gospel.

  • I love this post. For the past five years I went through the love/hate relationship that I have with the term evangelical. There is so much tied to that caricature that I do not want to be a part of (Falwell, Robertson, Westboro Baptist Church, and on and on and on). However, I agree with you – I just can’t get rid of the term. Thanks for working out some of your musings on this in the public arena – it was wonderful to read.