Evangelical:  What Does it Mean?

Since our entry into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in 2015, our congregation’s middle name has been “Evangelical.” Yet, in recent years, since that time, the name “evangelical” has become a byword in the media. Politicized, maligned, and misunderstood, the meaning of the term changes according to the user. Too often in our society today, the term “evangelical” has been taken as a political designation, rather than a theological one. This is unfortunate. “Evangelical” does not mean “right-wing” or any other political designation. It does not mean that our church is aligned with one political party or another, or even that we agree with every group that has come to use the term. So what does it mean for us at Oak Island EPC?

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek New Testament (the language in which the New Testament was written). The word for “gospel” in Greek is “evangelion,” which means, literally, “good news”, or “gospel.” At the time of the Protestant Reformation, in the 1500s, those who embraced the Reformation call to return to the Scriptures took up the name “evangelical” to describe their churches and to describe themselves. They were simply Christians, committed to the Gospel, as they saw it. In German-speaking lands, the term “Evangelische” became the standard word for “Protestant.” Thus, in Switzerland the historic “state” church there is the “Evangelical Reformed Church.” In Germany, it is the “Evangelical Reformed” or “Evangelical Lutheran” church.

In the English-speaking world, the word “Evangelical” designated those who were proponents of the Reformation as well. As time went on, however, the term took on a more nuanced meaning. As a result of the creeping theological liberalism that entered the churches beginning in the 1700s, the term began to take on the meaning of those who maintained belief in the historic Christian doctrines of the faith—including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus—as essential to Christian belief. The revivals that developed in the English-speaking world (both in Britain and in America) were thus referred to as the “evangelical awakenings” or “evangelical revivals.” “Evangelicals” were those who called for religion to be more than just custom or ritual— but also a living relationship with a living Lord Jesus Christ.

As we entered into twentieth century America, the word again developed a new twist. When Fundamentalism took off in the early twentieth century, the term “Evangelical” began to be used as a way of trying to distinguish hardline Fundamentalists from other conservative Protestants who showed more openness to modern science and higher learning. In recent decades, however, the term has become the media’s replacement term for “Fundamentalists”. Often, to be sure, there have been self-styled “evangelicals” who have been a real embarrassment to many of us.  But the term is often used in the media to describe any group of believers of a more “conservative” ilk, including even Mormons. That is an improper use of the word “Evangelical” by any measure.

For us in the EPC, the term is used to show our continuity with the faith of the Reformation and that we still hold to the essentials of the faith that we confess in the Creeds and in our confessional standards (like the Westminster Confession and Catechisms). It means that at Oak Island Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Gospel (evangelion) is our middle name.

September 2023