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Evangelicals and Evangelicalophobia

4 February 2016

This is an election year in the USA and the media have been speculating on how “Evangelicals” will vote.

To judge from media reports the Evangelicals will vote either for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. There have been some protests about this stereotyping of American Evangelicals, and I have written about the media stereotyping here. In some cases this has led to the phenomenon of Evangelicalophobia — fear and loathing of Evangelicals.

The phenomenon of Evangelicalophobia is not new, however. I became sharply aware of it in 1999 when the so-called Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance began promoting fear and loathing of Evangelicals. It turned out that their notion of “religious tolerance” did not extend to Evangelicals when in 1999 they began propagating rumours to the effect that Evangelicals, disappointed that the world had not ended in the year 2000, would stage terrorist attacks in the USA. These repeated warnings were clearly calculated to promote fear and loathing of Evangelicals, and seemed a pretty swivel-eyed notion of religious tolerance to me, and, in my view at least, completely undermined the credibility of the Centre.

So Evangelicalophobia had been around for some time, it didn’t just start with the current US election. But what is an Evangelical? This article So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?” can help, and a British blogging friend, who lives in Cyprus and has experienced both British and American Evangelicalism, comments on some of the differences here: God-Word-Think: Evangelicals?

Perhaps people who want to know what evangelicalism is will find those helpful.

Part of the difficulty is that “evangelical” has a fairly wide range of meanings in Christian theology and history. It was originally an adjective, and its use as a noun is more recent. Here are some of the meanings.

  1. Relating to the four written gospels of the New Testament. People sometimes speak of the “evangelical sacraments”, meaning baptism and the Eucharist, which are the only ones mentioned and also commanded in the Gospels. Others, like anointing of the sick (unction) are mentioned in the New Testament epistles, but not in the Gospels, so they are not “evangelical”.
  2. The Evangelismos in an Orthodox Church, showing the Annunciation and the four Evangelists.

    The Evangelismos in an Orthodox Church, showing the Annunciation and the four Evangelists.

    Pertaining to the Gospel or Good News of the Kingdom of God. Mark 1:1  The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The gospel (evangelion) is both the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the good news of his coming, which, according to St Luke, actually goes back a bit further, to the Annunciation (Evanglismos), the announcement of the angel to the virgin Mary of the coming of Jesus Christ. These events marking the coming of Jesus Christ have traditionally been celebrated by Christians annually on 25 March, 25 December and 6 January. One who proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ in speech or in writing is called an Evangelist. So the writers of the four written gospels are called Evangelists, and those who follow them in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ are called evangelists. Note that there is a difference between an evangelist and an evangelical, which at least some journalists are not aware of.

  3. Protestant, and especially Lutheran Churches in Germany. Martin Luther disliked the term “Lutheran” and preferred “Evangelical”, indicating that he thought the Lutheran Church was truer to the gospel than the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore “Evangelical” can refer to Lutherans, as opposed to Roman Catholics or Calvinists (Reformed).
  4. Among Anglicans, “Evangelical” meant “Low Church” rather than “High Church”. High Church Anglicans believed that the church was important, and that (in England) it was more than simply an arm of the State, but important in its own right. The Evangelical Revivals of the 18th century produced evangelistic preaching aimed at conversion or “awakening” of dormant nominal Christians, and this led to the interpretation of the term “born again” as meaning making a conscious decision to follow Jesus. This has sometimes been called “decisional regeneration”, to distinguish it from the traditional teaching of “baptismal regeneration”.  With their emphasis on the importance of individual conversion rather than membership of the church, Anglican Evangelicals tended to be “Low Church”.
  5. Evangelicals versus Ecumenicals. In the 19th century Protestant churches had become mission conscious, and sent missionaries all over the world to preach the gospel. In 1910 an International Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh to discuss matters of common concern, one of which was that competition between the numerous different Protestant denominations from various countries was hindering mission. This gave rise to the Ecumenical Movement, which culminated in the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948. At a meeting of the International Missionary Council (IMC), which had been formed as a result of the Edinburgh conference in 1910, it was proposed that the IMC join the WCC, which happened in 1961, and the IMC became the WCC’s Commission for World Mission and Evangelism (see here for more details). Some Evangelicals objected, saying that this was making mission subordinate to the unity of the church. Thus there was a split between Ecumenicals, who saw unity as taking priority over evangelism, and Evangelicals, who saw evangelism as taking precedence over unity. The evangelicals arranged a series of mission conferences, now loosely referred to as the Lausanne Movement (from the venue where one of the conferences was held).

This is a very sketchy summary of some of the different meanings of “Evangelical”. Follow the links for more information.

Note that in the first two the word “evangelical” is an adjective, and these meanings are common to all Christians. In the last two “Evangelical” with a capital E is also used as a noun, and it refers to a subset of Western Protestants.

In this article I have made no reference to the rise of the “religious right”, which is a movement of right-wing political activism, which started among Fundamentalists rather than Evangelicals, but has extended its appeal to some groups of Evangelicals, especially in America. For more details see The Founding Father of the Religious Right. Before then, Evangelicals tended to be a-political. They were more interested in saving souls than in playing politics, and indeed one of their criticisms of Ecumenicals was that the latter were too concerned about politics. At Lausanne conferences there have been some differences of opinion between people with right-wing tendencies and the rest, but the right-wingers have generally been in the minority, and their views have not found much of a hearing. For more information see Documents of the Lausanne Movement.

For this reason I think the media stereotype of Evangelicals as right-wing in politics is inaccurate and unfair. Perhaps the word “Evangelical” has been skunked, and now means so many different things to different people that one needs to qualify it before using it. But I hope this article may bring a little clarity to those who have asked about it. And Evangelicalophobia, like Islamophobia, is an attempt to stir up religious hatred, and no good will come of it.


Point of view of the author

Since I have said that “Evangelical” can mean so many things to different people, it may help anyone reading this to know where I am coming from.

I am not an Evangelical, but an Orthodox Christian, and so in a sense I don’t have a dog in this fight, and that gives me a measure of neutrality.

Having said that, I should also acknowledge that I might not have been Orthodox, or any kind of Christian at all had it not been for an evangelical teacher who evangelised me and rattled the cage of my atheist/agnostic upbringing to present to me the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was Steyn Krige, a conservative Evangelical and progressive educationist, a radical leftist of the religious right.

But I am not writing this to give an “Orthodox” view of Evangelicals and Evangelicalism. I’m writing it as a church historian and missiologist. I haven’t tried very much to “bracket out” my Orthodox views, since for the most part there has been little need — there has been little contact, and for the most part Orthodox and Protestant Evangelicals inhabit different worlds. But as a missiologist I do see at least one overlap: In the 18th century John Wesley and St Cosmas the Aetolian, quite independently, one in Britain and the other in the Balkans, went around preaching revival in the open air. John Wesley was one of the founding fathers of the Evangelical Movement.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    5 February 2016 9:24 am

    some time ago I learned about the Bebbington Quadrilateral, a fair attempt at articulating four distinctives: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Despite some criticism (e.g., it remains an adequate yardstick.

    • 5 February 2016 11:07 am

      Thanks for that. I had not heard of the Bebbington Quadrilateral before, but I think the criticism seems valid, and I agree that “revivalism” would need to be added. I suppose the “activism” distinguishes evangelicalism from pietism, which was probably one of its predecessors.

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