Maybe I’m just getting cranky because of an upcoming birthday, but you know, something’s been bugging me for quite some time – and from conversations with others I know it’s bugged them, too. For years, we’ve seen many in the church, and subsequently in media, make a distinction between self-professed “evangelicals” and “mainliners.” This has always rankled me because its a false distinction that also carries a great and harmful lie embedded within it. The term “evangelical” simply means “one who professes the gospel of Christ;” it refers to those who base their faith and life on this gospel – or, in the Greek of the original New Testament writings, the “euangelion,” which is the basis of the Anglicized “evangelical.” When the term was first used, it was simply intended to be a distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant. In fact, that’s still the way the term is used in many parts of the world. In short, if you are a Protestant, you are an evangelical (I’d argue that it’s also true of Roman Catholics and Orthodox and any other Christian, but that’s another day’s rant). Squirming in the discomfort of one particular group of Christians to unilaterally claim the term for itself, I’d offer the foregoing explanation and try to make a distinction between lower-case, short-e “evangelicals” (all Protestants) and upper-case, long-E “Evangelicals” (those who described themselves under that term in a way to make a distinction between their beliefs and those of other Christians).
I was never completely happy with my distinction via capitalization. Now, I’m completely fed up with it. Those in the so-called “Evangelical” camp have no right whatsoever to unilaterally own and redefine the term. They certainly have no right to use it to imply by its use (and often enough, flatly claim) that they are the only true proclaimers of that euangelion of Christ, and that those who understand that euangelion, and therefore, the faith, in any different way are in some way misguided, heretical, and wink wink, nudge nudge, let’s go ahead and say it, not even “true” Christians like they are themselves.
All that those in the currently self-defined “Evangelical” camp mean by the term is “conservative Christian.” And they should simply use that term, instead of appropriating the term and setting themselves up as the arbiter of the true faith. If a person is a conservative Christian, fine. Simply say so, and let’s have a great theological dialogue within our common faith. But stop trying to make “conservative” synonymous with “evangelical,” to the detriment of all involved. If a conservative Christian disagrees with, or is upset about, some turn of events, stop saying that it’s contrary to the faith of evangelicals – or, to be honest, the way it’s almost always stated, that it’s contrary to the Christian faith. That’s the usurpation point I was making earlier. Conservative brothers and sisters, I love you – I used to be one of your number – but you simply do not have the authority to speak definitively or categorically what is, or is not, Christian, and what is or is not “evangelical.”
So from this point forward, I refuse to play the game. I won’t try to make my too-academic-by-half distinction between evangelical and Evangelical, in order to facilitate the continuation of the unacceptable kidnapping of the term. In conversations, I won’t concede the term to simply mean something it doesn’t. My stubbornness on this point may annoy some people. Too bad. From this point on, I’ll use the term “conservative Christian” when that’s what’s actually meant, and I invite others to do the same. I won’t concede via language that so-called “mainliners” are in any way less truly “evangelical,” less guided by the gospel of Christ, than those who aren’t mainliners. In short, I won’t concede any more that my understanding of the faith is in any way less authentic than someone else’s, simply because it isn’t conservative.
I know I’m just me – an army of one. I know that the self-professed “Evangelicals” will continue to try to own the term. I know that the media will continue to inadvertantly assist the conservatives in their attempt to claim moral superiority over other Christians. But as for me, I’m done abetting this historical linguistic anomaly that’s been playing out over the last century. I’m done voluntarily doing a dance designed to demean me, to a tune being played by those who intend to do the demeaning.Starting now, I’m sitting this one out, thanks.