Understanding the Meaning of the Word "Evangelical"

The word evangelical has had a long, storied, and sometimes turbulent history. Generally speaking, "evangelicalism" is a wide-reaching definitional "canopy" that covers a diverse number of Protestant traditions, denominations, organizations and churches. It's derived from the Greek word evangelium, which means "Good News" or "Gospel."

During the Reformation, Martin Luther used the term evangelische kirche ("evangelical church") to express the idea that his breakaway movement was an attempt to recapture the authentic Christianity of Jesus and the apostles, as represented in the Gospels and the other New Testament texts. Later on, the word was associated with the 18th-century revivals that broke out in England and America under the preaching of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. In early 19th-century England, Anglican "evangelicals," under the leadership of such eminent figures as John Newton, William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, Hannah More, and other members of the so-called "Clapham Sect," emphasized Gospel outreach, personal piety, Bible study, and social and political activism (they were instrumental in passing the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833). Toward the end of the same century, the word was associated with the ministry of such evangelists as Charles G. Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Sunday.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the name "evangelical" was adopted and used widely by educated conservative Christians who affirmed the so-called "fundamentals of the faith" – for example, the deity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the importance of personal conversion – but who wished to be distinguished from the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, and belligerent tendencies of the Fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 30s. Individuals such as Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, and Harold John Ockenga, and various institutions including Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Fuller Theological Seminary, played key roles in this development.

As you've correctly observed, today's news media have given the terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" special meanings and definitions of their own. In some circles, a "fundamentalist" is anyone who is perceived to hold "extreme" or "radical" religious views of any description. "Evangelical," on the other hand, seems to have taken on a primarily political significance: most media outlets use it to refer to "right-wing conservative Christians," particularly those who are thought to have a carefully defined social and political "agenda."

When those of us here at Focus on the Family label ourselves "evangelicals," or when we make statements referring to our "evangelical" constituency, it would be fair to say that we are thinking primarily in terms of the classic definition of the word-the definition that stretches back though Billy Graham to Dwight L. Moody, Charles Finney, William Wilberforce, and ultimately to Martin Luther. In other words, we are identifying ourselves with Christians down through the ages who have affirmed the inspiration and authority of God's Word and who have sought to conduct themselves in society according to its principles and values.

It would also be accurate to say that we hold another important value in common with the broader "evangelical" movement: interdenominationalism. In this respect, it's worth pointing out that some religious sociologists have included groups as distinct and different as Afro-American Baptists, Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and Catholic charismatics under the umbrella of "evangelicalism." This in itself is an indication of just how diverse and inclusive the movement really is.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our team, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Where They Are, and Their Politics

The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement

The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters

Copyright © 2011, Focus on the Family.