I have been increasingly concerned about the misuse of a very important word in the Bible. The word is “evangelical,” which comes from the Greek word “evangelion," often translated as “good news.” To be “evangelical” means to be “centered on the Gospel.” Unfortunately, that word has become so politically charged in our current usage that it has lost much of its biblical and theological content.
This word was originally part of the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves to be saviors and redeemers of the world. In Latin, the messages issued by the emperor were called “evangelium.” So, whether the content was cheerful, pleasant, good or beneficial, the idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message. It was not just a piece of news. The “evangelium” was intended to be a significant change for the whole world for the better.
When the evangelists adopted the word “gospel” and it became the generic name for their writings, what they meant to say is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim does not happen with them. It only happens with Jesus!
The Gospel has authority ... not just talk, but reality. The Gospel is not just information with a positive slant. It is performative speech and involves action. The Gospel is about a power that enters into the world in order to save and transform! It is not the emperors who can save the world, but God alone.
The misuse of the word “evangelical” today is so infused with a specific political agenda that it now refers to a voting block representing a very conservative agenda and narrow interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. Today, to be evangelical, means to be against sex education in the public schools, against teaching evolution, against abortion and contraception, against gay rights and more inclusive definitions of marriage in the name of religious freedom, to name just a few.
What is ironic is that using “evangelical” as a political term becomes a toxic combination of political illusion and idolatry. To be evangelical has increasingly less to do with the actual Gospel and more to do with those who are lined up against a liberal political agenda.
This misuse of the term is precisely how political agendas continue to tempt us into putting our faith in them, rather than the living God who has come into our midst.
The early Christian confession that "Jesus is Lord" meant that Caesar was not Lord! To be “evangelical” has nothing to do with a conservative political agenda. It has to do with a fundamental belief in the transforming power of God to work within the hearts and minds of believers to change us all!