Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

by Lerond Curry

Dr. Curry is associate professor of religion in Averett College, Danville, Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 26, 1976, pp. 512-516. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A segment of the religious population has claimed the term ‘evangelical’ for itself and has read the rest of us out of its circle of definition. However, the author is both a liberal and an evangelist.

Two years or so ago I picked up an issue of a widely circulated religious publication and found a statement titled "A Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern." The document put into words many of the convictions which I had been moving toward since the days when I first began to grasp the social dimensions of the gospel. I subsequently became a co-signer of the Declaration, and I am glad to have my name associated with it.

However, as I read through that magazine, many of its pages devoted to events surrounding the issuance of the Declaration, I became increasingly puzzled. For the reports of the Chicago meetings that gave birth to the document indicated that some of the original signers had in their deliberations contrasted themselves, the "evangelicals," with other church people whom they called "liberals."

Their language perplexed me. For years I had used both terms to describe myself. I grew up in a tradition which was "evangelistic," and though I now recognize the folly of reducing evangelism to acts of "personal witnessing" or of preaching to the masses, I have never lost the conviction that there is a gospel, an euangelion, and that it should be shared. Because of my commitment to this euangelion I have always thought myself to be evangelical.

A People-Oriented Gospel

I never heard the terms "liberal" and "conservative" until I was about 2 or 3 years old, but from that time I heard them used in ways which made the term "liberal" more descriptive of the convictions I was forming. As I matured, I kept hearing the term "liberal" used to describe thinking like my own -- thinking which seemed to grow out of a basic concern for the gospel itself. Those whose political priorities were people-oriented rather than money-oriented or corporation-oriented were called liberal; and though I did not see politics as the salvation of the world, I felt that the gospel should have root influence in all my thinking. The Christ of the gospel was people-oriented; therefore, if to be people-oriented in politics was to be liberal, then I was happy to be called liberal. Those who supported civil rights goals were called liberal, and I felt that supporting these goals gave expression to my biblically oriented belief in the dignity and worth of all people. Those who in religious faith believed in intellectual honesty -- indeed, in intellectual openness -- as an expression of one’s trust in God as the source of all truth were called liberal. Those who in church life believed in ecumenical Christianity because they took seriously the prayer of Jesus that his followers may be one (see John 17:11) were called liberal. If all these things meant being "liberal," then I was more than ready to embrace the term.

It continues to baffle me that "evangelical" is frequently used to suggest a spiritual virtue in contrast to "liberal" or to some other perfectly honorable word. I am not satisfied when I am told that the word liberal describes a 19th century view of humankind based on a view of Absolute Idealism. I know enough philosophy and historical theology to know when these disciplines are not the topic of discussion -- and they are not in most of the places where I hear the term "evangelical" contrasted to "liberal." "Evangelical" is being used not in the sense that European Christians use it but to describe what Robert Ellwood calls a "mood or style" (One Way: The Jesus Movement and Its Meaning [Prentice-Hall, 1973], p. 25).

Defining the Terms

I am distressed too by the sloppy way in which so many who call themselves evangelicals throw other terms around. In otherwise sound and provocative essays and volumes the word is used in contrast to other words without any clear definitions of what the writer means. Donald Bloesch’s book The Evangelical Renaissance is basically a courageous call for openness of attitude and spirit. Yet Bloesch tosses terms about as if his very use of them established some ecclesiastical or theological fact. For example, on page 7 he speaks of "both ecumenists and evangelicals." Are the two mutually exclusive? But on the next page he declares: "I try to speak as one who is both evangelical and ecumenical." I do too, and so I might conclude that Bloesch and I are of one mind. But in speaking of "evangelicals and liberals" he declares that "an evangelical church, unlike a liberal church, will have a passion to convert the world" (p.17). And then, as if the statement were axiomatic, he equates the terms "evangelical" and "conservative" and gives the term "liberal" another bad mark by saying, in reference to Dean Kelley’s book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, that "conservative churches seek to meet those deep spiritual needs while liberal churches seem to be more interested in working for social change" (p. 18). In his scheme of things it seems that one who claims to be liberal necessarily lacks a strong desire to take the gospel to the world and to meet people’s "deep spiritual needs." What he has done is to set forth his own definitions and to structure his own view of the Christian world around them. But the definitions and contrasts are tenuous.

This tactic is little different from the error I once committed in a political bull session in graduate school when I said, "Conservatives do not believe in progress" -- to which a friend replied, "Since you have set up your own definitions, no one can argue with you." Of course he was right. I had structured the world to suit myself, around my own emotional responses to certain terms, but this did not make what I described the real world. Similarly, the characterizations of those who claim the word "liberal" made by many who call themselves "evangelicals" are not necessarily accurate.

The Cross and the Flag (edited by Robert Clouse, Robert Linder and Richard Pierard [Creation House, 1972] is a commendable - book in its social concern and its attempt to end the marriage between some brands of popular religious thinking and right-wing ideas. Yet in discussing liberal politics one contributor asserts that "Christians must reject the liberal concept of freedom as nothing more than the absence of restraint." (Apply that view of freedom to corporations, and the concept suddenly becomes conservative!) And: "The Christian rejects the liberal concept that the human condition is fundamentally a product of the environment" (p. 87). As a political liberal I do not believe either of those "liberal concepts. I support liberal causes and candidates because they are more often people-oriented, and to be people-oriented is to be consistent with the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth.

Evangelical One-Upmanship

But what bothers me even more than the imprecise use of other terms is the evidence of one-upmanship in the use of the term "evangelical" itself. A noticeable segment of the religious population takes this term, defines it by imposing doctrinal conclusions on what is basically an English derivative of the Greek word for "good news," and reads the rest of the religious population out of its circle of definition. In doing so the definers are really saying that "evangelical" means what they have said it means. Instead of "good theology" this is actually the fallacy of petitio principii, known commonly as begging the question or circular reasoning.

Just recently, in thumbing through one of America’s better-known "evangelical" publications, I found a list of the nation’s four-year "evangelical" colleges. What struck me was that all the schools listed seemed similarly "conservative" in the extreme. The editors admitted leaving out schools "associated with Seventh-day Adventists, non-instrumental Churches of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Lutherans, and Southern Baptists" because so many of them were so denominationally oriented (Christianity Today, November 7, 1975, pp. 39-41). But the list included only one United Presbyterian school, though there are probably over 20; only one Presbyterian U.S. school, when there are 17; only two American Baptist schools, though there are 22; no Disciples of Christ schools; no schools affiliated with the United Church of Christ, despite a heritage which includes the Evangelical and Reformed denomination; and no United Methodist schools, though that denomination has the rich tradition of the Evangelical United Brethren. The list is preceded by a statement that some of the colleges in omitted groups are "no longer sectarian but have become too pervaded, in our judgment, by nonevangelical views of the Bible, theology, and ethics."

In other words, the editors imply, to be "evangelical" means to agree with them. And because the word "evangelical" calls to mind the word euangelion, if one does not agree with them one is by implication not soundly committed to the gospel.

I so much as heard Harold Ockenga (now president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) say this once in a freshman assembly at a state university where I was teaching. He spoke on modern theological movements; before several hundred 18-year-olds -- many of them less than six months out of small towns and rural churches, many others from no substantial religious backgrounds at all -- he talked about the "liberal" and "modernistic" trends that had resulted in something that wasn’t Christianity at all. He then told them, almost in passing, about "neo-orthodoxy": though it had some truth to it, it wasn’t the real thing. Finally, he told them about "orthodoxy" -- wherein lay the truth. Of course I had to explain his remarks to my freshman honors students later, for none of them -- much less the other freshmen -- had even understood what he was talking about. But though I did tell them what I thought to be the essence of Ockenga’s address -- that there were many theological positions but that his was the "right" one -- I did not tell them that he was also a champion of political conservatism.

A Matter of Temperament

And that point leads me to suggest that one ingredient of this one-upmanship in the use of the term "evangelical" is to imply that only those of a certain temperament are loyal to the gospel. Many of the self-styled evangelicals I have known have been "conservative" across the board. Not all are, of course -- Mark Hatfield and Harold Hughes are two who are not. But there are notable people who do fit this mold -- Billy Graham is among the most prominent in his support of conservative political figures. And the editors of The Cross and the Flag admit that there has been "a persistent, uncritical alliance between conservative Protestantism and conservative political, economic and social interests" (p. 14). Temperament, or conditioned response, has more to do with religious thinking than some want to admit. But temperament is not the gospel, and conditioned response is not the gospel, nor is religious style the gospel; if we, however unwittingly, equate any of these with the gospel, we are in danger of idolatry. To use a derivative of the New Testament word for gospel (euangelion) to encompass temperament, conditioned response, or style is to come perilously close to making such an equation.

So pervasive is this one-upmanship game of religious style that faithful Christians without the style have often capitulated in the use of the term "evangelical." Not long ago The Christian Century published an article by a Christian leader of no less stature than Lloyd Averill called "Can Evangelicalism Survive in the Context of Free Inquiry?" (October 22, 1975, pp. 924-928). I was attracted by the title, for I felt that at long last the Century was declaring itself to be evangelical -- something which by virtue of its historic concern with the total implications of the euangelion I felt it was entitled to do all along. But alas, though the article offered a stimulating analysis and challenging conclusions, the author allowed the perfectly good word to be usurped by those with a more severe kind of spirit.

Said Averill at one point: "Because evangelicals have traditionally placed doctrinal, if not dogmatic, tests on scholarly membership in their communities of inquiry, and because of their consequent reluctance to hear the truth whenever and by whomever it is spoken . . ." This is a fine analysis of a certain kind of spirit, which, as Thomas O’Dea once said at an AAR meeting, "like the poor is always with us -- but why call these people the evangelicals? Is Averill’s concern for the gospel any less than theirs? I don’t think so. In some ways he may be even more concerned because he, unlike those whom he describes, is willing to keep his hands off the gospel, recognizing that because it is "of the spirit," it will like the wind blow where it wills -- regardless of propositional form.

Linking Terms to Theology

I say "regardless of propositional form" because there is a strong urge on the part of many self-styled evangelicals to link the term "evangelical" to propositional theology -- statements in effect become the containers of divine revelation. Despite some external differences, the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ -- the two groups which Robert Ellwood discusses in his book One Way as the principal "evangelical" influences on the modern campus -- have this common undercurrent. Their theology is propositional, and there is a tendency for large numbers in each group to think of themselves as more loyal to the gospel than those who do not have their particular mental organizations of revelation. I sense this among many who relate the term "evangelical" to propositional theology. I have known some to suggest that if I do not believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and that the prophet Isaiah wrote chapters 40-66 of the book bearing his name, I have somehow rejected a basic proposition of the Christian faith and am therefore not loyal to the gospel. How often we swallow camels!

This theological one-upmanship is carried further by use of other companion terms to "evangelical." Clouse, Linder and Pierard in The Cross and the Flag assert that the words "orthodox," "biblical" and "conservative" can all be used interchangeably with "evangelical," "without distorting the meaning in any way" (p. 18). Evangelical principles are, they say, essentially the principles of historic Christianity. It seems to me presumptuous to suggest that those located at a certain point on the contemporary theological spectrum are entitled to exclusive use of terms which connote faithfulness to historic Christianity.

But is this not what the equation of terms does? What are the implications? If I can’t adhere to certain tenets as organized and set down by those who have taken it on themselves to define "evangelical," then I am not "orthodox." If I don’t adhere to those tenets, then I am not "biblical," even if it is my study of the Bible that has kept me from adhering to some of them. If I am not "conservative," then I must be something other than faithful to the Bible and to historic Christianity, even if in my Bible Jesus and Paul often seem "nonconservative" in relation to the society of their day, and even if in my study of Christian history Martin Luther doesn’t seem to have been "conservative" in the context of his day either. Some will tell me that if I don’t see biblical passages their way, I have a "low" view of inspiration, whereas they have a "high" view -- another example of one-upmanship.

‘Fundamentalism Gone Respectable’

I am coming more and more to think that all this pre-empting of terms to describe what are essentially matters of religious style and theology not rooted in biblical studies is really the modern equivalent of the older fundamentalist style. It is unfair to call all modern self-styled "evangelicals" only fundamentalists, and "evangelical" writers like Bloesch and the late E. J. Carnell hasten to make distinctions. But in use of terminology to confer status on themselves the two movements are quite similar. When Amzi Dixon and Reuben Torrey published their ten small volumes called The Fundamentals in the early 1900s, and when Curtis Laws of the Watchman Examiner in 1920 coined the term "fundamentalist" to designate those who are ready to fight for the "fundamentals" of the faith, they were claiming that in their position on the theological spectrum were to be found the essentials, the basics, of Christianity. Implicit in their use of the word fundamentalist was the suggestion that they had a corner on the gospel and biblical truth and Christianity in general.

E.J. Carnell once described fundamentalism as "orthodoxy gone cultic" (The Case for Orthodox Theology [Westminster, 1959], p. 113). 1 would suggest that the "evangelicalism" or "orthodoxy" which we see pre-empting these terms is "fundamentalism gone respectable." The combative and pugilistic attitudes I have encountered among self-styled "orthodox evangelicals" make some of these brothers and sisters appear as kindred spirits to some of the old belligerent fundamentalist types such as J. G. Machen.

The corrective is not for others to become as pugilistic as those who would defend the gospel by trying to malign their opponents -- a procedure attempted by departmental and seminary "purges." Sour attitudes are after all not the sole possession of "ultraconservatives," and some of the pat characterizations of them by less conservative Christians are just as inaccurate as theirs of others. Not all self-styled "conservative evangelicals" are obscurantist, not all are anti-intellectual, and not all are ignorant. And even some of the more combative of them seem to be making attempts to be more irenic in attitude and ethical in dialogue than in the past.

For some this must be an emotional hurdle similar to those encountered by many Protestants and many Roman Catholics as they began confessing the spiritual limitations of their own brands of exclusiveness, seeing the gross inaccuracies of their cherished views of one another, and walking cautiously but bravely into the presence of one another -- to find out that God is bigger than either had given God credit for being.

Putting Aside the Labels

Those of us who have been excluded from the boundaries of the term "evangelical" by persons who have drawn the boundaries too narrowly must avoid reading these people out of the Kingdom. The teaching of Jesus to "love your enemies" applies to us as well. Frankly I find much to feed my spirit in writings of both the self-styled evangelicals and their critics, and for years I have remained puzzled over what many of the squabbles are really about. Both sides have resorted to knocking over straw men.

I propose that the church begin by putting aside the rampant use of labels. Whatever the shorthand labels, they quickly become flags around which people rally or barriers that divide. One "evangelical" journal to which I submitted an article pleading for attention to people instead of labels sent it back to me with the explanation that my characterization of myself as a liberal would "not be effective with our readership." This of course demonstrated the very point of my article -- that all labels are ultimately artificial and capable of creating artificial barriers.

The church, if it must use labels, should use them as invitations to dialogue. I suggest the following "propositions" as a beginning: (1) The term "evangelical" refers at root to one’s primary commitment. (2) If one’s primary commitment is to the gospel -- the euangelion -- that is what is basic. (3) The gospel is the Christ Event. (4) Theological conclusions, because they vary and change in each of us, are not necessarily identical with our basic commitments. Indeed, our commitments may be ,the causes of some of the changes which take place. (5) We should talk to one another at the level of commitment and "judge not."

If these "propositions" are taken seriously, then the next step is to get those who think they are the evangelicals together with those whom they think are not -- to talk and pray. For those of us interested in ecumenism as a theological verity, it would certainly be a necessary step. (What greater ecumenical breakthrough than an exchange of lecturers between Moody Bible Institute and the divinity school of the University of Chicago?) But more broadly it can be a revealing step. All of us might discover the following:

1. That Jesus’ call is to discipleship and not to labels. That he did not say "Follow me and I will make you a conservative," or "Follow me and I will make you a liberal," or even "Follow me and I will make you an evangelical." To fishermen he said "fishers of men" and to his followers generally he simply said "followers" -- disciples.

2. That Jesus had among his first disciples both Matthew the publican and Simon the zealot -- an establishment conservative and a radical revolutionary -- and that therefore temperament is not the mark of discipleship.

3. That the Spirit, like the wind -- in both cases the pneuma -- "blows where it wills" -- a hint that God is not captive of theological systems nor the prior possession of certain ones.

4. That Jesus once admonished his disciples for forbidding those with another identity from casting out demons in his name and told them that "no one who does a mighty work in my name will soon after be able to speak ill of me," and that "he that is not against us is for us."

5. That, as a speaker at one ecumenical conference remarked, "brothers don’t have to be twins" -- but brothers should be brothers.