Should we cede the term ‘Evangelical’ to those who mangle it?

In the last few days, Thabiti Anyabwile announced the following:

I would encourage you to read the three further tweets in that thread. They provide a little more context. But I think the first one said enough to be clear.

Things splintered into many different threads on twitter. I want to highlight this comment from my friend, Dave Williams, that should stand above everything. I second it.

In one thread, I said the following (Dave’s out-of-context tweet here a tongue-in-cheek reference to a ‘new name’ for Evangelicals who don’t like all the connotations).

I further explained:

But I thought it might be worth digging into this a little more.

As far as I can see, Thabiti would affirm all the same biblical doctrines I would. So, when he says he does not want to be classified an Evangelical anymore – and let’s not pretend there will be a lot of people making hay with that comment – I do not think he means that he is abandoning orthodox Christianity nor the particular emphases of Evangelicalism as they have historically been understood in the UK, for example. I suspect Thabiti is as theologically Evangelical as I am, still of the conservative kind, and would affirm every doctrinal position on the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) statement of faith that is our own church statement. I suspect he remains Evangelical in contrast to being a Fundamentalist or Liberal. The clue was in his comment ‘especially of the socio-political variety’. He is not giving up on any doctrine that he held before, he is giving up on what has become a cultural and political expression.

I think we are helped further by some very similar comments made by Tim Keller (you can skip this and read my TLDR below if you aren’t into extensive quotes, even if they are quite helpful in outlining some of what is going on here). He states:

For centuries, renewal movements have emerged within Christianity and taken on different forms and names. Often, they have invoked the word “evangelical” … In each of these phases, the term has had a somewhat different meaning, and yet it keeps surfacing because it has described a set of basic historic beliefs and impulses.

He goes on:

Today… its meaning has changed drastically. The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc… in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.

Later he states:

Many younger believers and Christians of color, who had previously identified with evangelicalism, have also declared their abandonment of the label. “Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.” When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.

Keller distinguishes between ‘“big-E Evangelicalism,” which gets much media attention, and a much larger, little-e evangelicalism, which does not. The larger, lower-case evangelicalism is defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs.’ He insists that the “big-E Evangelicals” – as defined by pollsters for political purposes – largely do not hold to the theological convictions of “little-e evangelicals”. He states, in the American context:

In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. And, because of the enormous amount of attention the media pays to the Evangelical vote, the term now has a decisively political meaning in popular usage.

Yet there exists a far larger evangelicalism, both here and around the world, which is not politically aligned. In the U.S., there are millions of evangelicals spread throughout mainline Protestant congregations, as well as in more theologically conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. But, most significantly, the vast majority of the fast-growing Protestant churches in Asia, Latin America, and Africa all share these same beliefs. And in the U.S., while white Evangelicalism is aging and declining, evangelicalism over all is not.

In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage. They look, to most eyes, like a strange mixture of liberal and conservative viewpoints, although they themselves see a strong inner consistency between these views. They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules.

Keller concludes, in part, like this:

These new urban churches are certainly not mainline Protestant, yet they don’t look at all like what the average person thinks of by the term “Evangelical.” Will these younger churches abandon the name or try to redefine it? I don’t know, but, as a professional minister, I don’t think it is the most important point to make. What is crucial to know is that, even if the name “evangelical” is replaced with something else, it does not mean that the churches will lose their beliefs. Some time ago, the word “liberal” was largely abandoned by Democrats in favor of the word “progressive.” In some ways, the Democratic Party is more liberal now than when the older label was set aside, evidence that it is quite possible to change the name but keep the substance.

The same thing may be happening to evangelicalism. The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever.

I apologise for the long set of quotes. TLDR: theological evangelicalism – expressed in America and all over the world – owes nothing to a particular socio-political form of American Evangelicalism that is practiced only by a subset of people in the USA, many of whom don’t even affirm the tenets of theological evangelicalism. Evangelicalism – as expressed globally – is not politically bound or a social movement; it is an adherence to some theological beliefs.

This, I suspect, is what lies behind Thabiti Anyabwile’s comments. He is not leaving what Keller would describe as little-e evangelicalism. He is not abandoning the theological tenets of historic evangelicals. He is distancing himself from the socio-political form of “big-E Evangelicalism” that is culturally and politically bound, owing much more to the cultural context of the USA. And it would seem the vast majority of evangelicals from outside of that socio-political context understands that move entirely because, unsurprisingly, we all stand outside of that same context and therefore are not inclined to be associated with a socio-political movement to which we can’t even properly belong, even if we wanted to. And, as Keller neatly points out, many of us don’t want to even if we could.

Which brings me round to my particular comments on the matter. As Pete Killingley replied to my tweet:

What we are seeing is the tension between American Evangelicals wanting to distance themselves from “big-E Evangelicalsim” – which many of us can understand – and the rest of the world who holds to the historic, theological tenets of Evangelicalism ceding the definition of the term entirely to a socio-political contextually bound American form. Those of us outside of the American context – which it cannot be said enough is the overwhelming majority of global evangelicals – may understandably be a bit miffed by that. Why should a term we own – a term with historic moorings that emanated from an entirely different country (my country!) – give up on our term because some people in another country refuse to be bound by the term and it has been bastardised by foreign pollsters?

That is not to say that I think Thabiti wrong to distance himself from the term. I fully understand the impulse and, given his context, I might well have done the same. But that, of course, isn’t my context. Whilst I wouldn’t typically label myself Evangelical to an unbeliever or unchurched person – because I think it means very little to people here – I think it does continue to have real value in describing a set of theological tenets to believers. It does still broadly settle around Bebbington’s quadrilateral; certainly nothing better has come along. It does help to define those who share the label, beyond being ‘orthodox’, which would be a label many Catholics and non-evangelical Anglicans might well own. But I think in the right context it still helpfully distinguishes our approach to the Bible from theological Fundamentalism and theological Liberalism.

And so, what we are seeing is a set of people, who share the same doctrinal beliefs, taking opposing positions on a term because of their particular context. Thabiti sees the socio-political context of America as an unhelpful place to try to use the term Evangelical anymore. I suspect he sees some broader issues in what some have called ‘big-eva’ too – which is another animal to contend with yet again. Those of us this side of the pond, who share Thabiti’s theological convictions, do not have an Evangelical bloc vote in our context. We have Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, A-political and all manner of others present in our congregations – much closer to Keller’s description of non-white Evangelical churches (except still pretty white in many places, though happy multicultural and majority ethnic-minority exceptions exist too). Though a small fringe would beg to differ, most churches do not insist that there is an ‘Evangelical party’ or an ‘Evangelical way to vote’. We are not entirely free of such things, but there is much less party political linkage or political affiliation. And so we have less trouble retaining the theological term without the socio-political overtones. We do not want to cede the term to those who would mangle it that way.