“Are you ready to abandon the term evangelical?” has become the most frequent question I’m asked as president of the National Association of Evangelicals. And, almost always, the question comes from fellow evangelicals and not from the mainstream press or non-evangelicals.
When I ask why “evangelical” should be abandoned, the answer is almost always about politics. They tell me that our name has been co-opted by politicians and policies that are polarizing and painful. They say they are being identified with policies contrary to the Bible and blamed for practices they don’t approve. They contend that self-described evangelicals claim to speak for them but don’t speak for them. Most of all, they lament that every news story with politics and “evangelical” in the same sentence is a barrier to evangelism and ministry.
Names and labels aren’t easily changed. Many of us refer to Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes even when the sticky items on our desks are not the actual 3-M products. “Evangelical” comes from the New Testament euangelion (“good news”). Evangelicalism is a worldwide movement including as many as 30 percent of the people in the United States and hundreds of millions more around the world. Most international evangelicals today and throughout history have little or no knowledge of the details of American politics, Republicans, Democrats, Congress, courts or the White House. Most simply, they and we are people of faith who take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
This is not to say that evangelicals should avoid the public square. Because we take the Bible seriously, we must seek social justice, advance religious freedom, advocate for the poor and protect the persecuted. Just let’s not conflate evangelical identity with political identity.
So, what are we supposed to do? Take a page from the early church when Nero disparaged, persecuted and martyred “Christians.” In the turmoil of first century Roman politics, Christians were called traitors. They were blamed for burning Rome by the emperor who probably set the fires himself. Did they abandon the name Christian? Some probably did. Labels aren’t always helpful and change with circumstances. St. Peter gave the best advice in the worst of times: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.