Nearly Half of Biblical Christians Are Uncomfortable with the Term 'Evangelical'

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Nearly half of biblical Christians are uncomfortable using the term “evangelical,” and it has only gotten worse after the election, according to a survey taken by Christianity Today. Many pastors and other leaders say the word does not mean what it once did, and that its political connotations are negative.

While 70 percent of church leaders were comfortable or strongly comfortable describing themselves as “evangelical” to other Christians, only about half (52 percent) said they were comfortable using the term with non-Christians.

The numbers suggest politics is a key reason why many church leaders have distanced themselves from the term. Most said the election did not change their comfort level with the label, but nearly a quarter (23 percent) described themselves as less comfortable using the term with other Christians, while a third (33 percent) said they felt less comfortable using it with non-Christians. Only 8 percent reported feeling more comfortable with “evangelical” after the election.

Importantly, the survey did not include just any Christians. Christianity Today surveyed readers (55 percent pastors, 25 percent lay leaders, and 20 percent administration staff), limiting the sample to those who agreed or strongly agreed with the statements identified by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals as the definition of “evangelical.”

All participants agreed with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

In other words, a full 48 percent of those who hold evangelical beliefs are uncomfortable describing themselves as “evangelical” to non-Christians. A full third of those who hold evangelical beliefs felt less comfortable using the term with non-Christians after the election.

“It reminds me of the conversation around the term feminist,” Mandy Smith, lead pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, told Christianity Today. “Many who stand for the value of women and support their human rights don’t call themselves ‘feminist’ because of how it’s become politicized.” Many Christians are similarly uncomfortable with the term “evangelical,” Smith argued. “What we’ve been talking about this election has little to do with the gospel.”

“While our theological and philosophical roots are in the evangelical movement, we have not used the term with those outside the church since 2004,” John Sommerville, senior pastor of City Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, told Christianity Today. “A word that once stood for faithfulness to historic orthodox Christian faith and a commitment to personal holiness, to the proclamation of the good news, and to ministries of compassion and justice has been hijacked by those on the right and the left who have narrowed the meaning to ‘white Republican.'”

Jeanne Porter King, head of women’s ministry at Christ Community Church in South Holland, Illinois, explicitly rejected the label because of President-elect Donald Trump. “I and others have become so disillusioned by what appears to be the flexing of biblical standards by prominent evangelical leaders in their support of Donald Trump,” King told the outlet.

Indeed, women were slightly less comfortable using the term after the election. More women (25 percent) than men (15 percent) reported feeling much less comfortable with “evangelical” after the election, but more of them also reported feeling much more comfortable with the term as well.

Interestingly, the biggest difference wasn’t based on gender. Leaders from small churches (100 or fewer) tended to be more comfortable with the term than those from large churches (1,000 or more). While 9 percent of small-church leaders reported feeling strongly uncomfortable using the term outside their Christian communities, 22 percent of those from large churches did. On the flip-side, 28 percent of small-church leaders reported feeling strongly comfortable using the term with non-Christians, while only 13 percent of large-church leaders agreed.

A higher percentage of large-church leaders (26 percent) than their small-church compatriots (19 percent) also reported feeling less comfortable using the term after the election.

This suggests pastors just starting out are more likely to be comfortable calling themselves “evangelical” than those who are more established. Those with smaller congregations have less to lose and are focused on growing their churches, so they might be more willing to embrace a politically charged label.

When The Atlantic‘s Jonathan Merritt addressed the growing number of evangelical authors and leaders publicly distancing themselves from the label, he suggested that their leaving the movement could be a tactical mistake. If a leader disgusted with evangelical support for Donald Trump publicly abandons the movement, he or she will not be able to influence evangelicals against Trump’s ideas.

While many leaders on the religious right publicly praised Trump as a good leader, even more voted for him as the lesser of two evils. Hillary Clinton represented a very real threat to traditional Christianity, and while many Christians had grave concerns about Trump, they considered him the only viable option against her.

Many liberals say Trump is racist, sexist, hateful, et cetera. These claims are highly debatable (although he has arguably abused women and helped the alt-right). But while Trump is and always has been a divisive figure, Clinton became even more disliked in the week before the election. Americans had excellent reason to be terrified of Clinton, even if Trump wasn’t their first choice.

Christianity is not about politics — it’s about the gospel. But Christians live in a fallen world, and that often means they must adapt to political realities. The fact that biblical Christians favored Trump by large margins does not mean evangelicals are all Trump supporters or that all Trump supporters are evangelicals. It may convince some to abandon the “evangelical” label for now, but the church will go on.

Going forward, biblical Christians inside and outside the religious right should focus on the gospel more than politics. Even in worldly terms, Christians are more likely to make a positive difference if the salt retains its saltiness (Matthew 5:13). Christians should hold to biblical teaching, whether they describe themselves as “evangelical” or not. Ultimately, that matters much more than any political affiliation.