The Slippery Label of “Evangelicalism”

Where We Stand

5 April 2015

In our attempt to trace how CCC in Luxembourg fits into today’s theological currents, we come to the rather elusive label “evangelical”. What does that mean? Who can legitimately call himself an evangelical? To get our arms around that question we’ll have to turn the clock back a generation or two. And we’ll have to look at the very different ways this word has been used in Europe and the United States.

Evangelicalism in America

I wrote last time about the emergence of American fundamentalism during the 1920s and 30s -- a movement that wanted to reassert the actual truth of Christian orthodox doctrine, which had been eroded by the influences of theological liberalism (sometimes called “modernism”) in the West. By the end of WW II fundamentalism and liberalism were fairly well defined and entrenched camps of thought in the United States.

But nothing stays the same for long. Controversy is part of ministry in a fallen world. Truth comes under attack in new ways. By the 1940s, some fundamentalists protested what they considered a militancy and divisiveness in their movement. Yes, liberalism had gone too far in its denials. But why cut off all ties with the big denominations? These protesters preferred to maintain fellowship with Protestants who seemed to have orthodox beliefs but had chosen to remain in the large confessional churches. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, had pulled out, believing that the Bible commanded that deviation from truth required separation in order to preserve purity in doctrine and practice. But who knew, the others argued -- maybe liberals, impressed by sophisticated new evangelical scholarship, could be won over through dialogue.

Convinced that fundamentalism had become too suspicious, too separatist, and too disconnected from the problems of the day, these newer voices called not only for dialogue with modernist denominations but also for more social action to bring a Christian influence to bear upon culture. They named themselves "evangelicals" or "neo-evangelicals." Outstanding names would include Harold J. Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry and Edward J. Carnell. Neo-evangelicalism developed a voice in the USA through Billy Graham’s evangelistic efforts, seminaries like Fuller Theological Seminary, magazines like Christianity Today and inter-denominational associations like the World Evangelical Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals. The new evangelicals were also critical of what they perceived as a legalistic and moralistic tone in fundamentalism.

Now that evangelicalism has had time to mature, its strategy of dialogue and intellectual sophistication has clearly not succeeded in restoring modernist denominations to a more biblical stance. Many diverse denominations consider themselves evangelical today, even those that deny the inerrancy of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel. The label today in America is less precise than ever, embracing Mennonites, Holiness churches, Charismatics, Brethren churches, Southern Baptists, non-denominational groups and black churches. Many people I speak to in Luxembourg assume the “evangelical” means “not Roman Catholic” or “eyes-closed-hands-in-the-air” Protestant mysticism of the TV evangelist variety.

European use of the term “Evangelical”

So much for the fuzzy situation in the United States. What about the other side of the Atlantic? As every German-speaker knows, "evangelical" translates Evangeliche, which refers to the Lutheran state church -- its theology is liberal and ecumenical.

In France and Belgium, "évangélique" labels Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, charismatics, certain Anglicans and a variety of free churches.  In the United Kingdom the situation is similar; one may be Anglican yet missionary-minded, so “evangelical” is the label of preference (e.g. John Stott).  As used by media, "evangelical" encompasses all conservative groups that use the Bible to preach a gospel of personal renewal and conversion, no matter what the underpinning doctrinal points might be.

So is CCC an evangelical church?

We believe in the New Testament imperative of evangelism and the uniqueness of the gospel; in that sense we are evangelical. But whereas many in the Luxembourg community would call CCC “evangelical” (and we ourselves even use the term "Communauté évangélique biblique internationale" on the window sign), this term is not precise enough to define our doctrinal stance and polity.

We do not subscribe to the notion that those churches that have abandoned the authority of Scripture can be won over by ecumenical dialogue. Faithfulness to Christ will require confrontation in love, not avoiding controversy by setting aside issues that professing Christians cannot agree on. More about that next time when we think about the ecumenical movement...

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