Louis Weeks: Saying the “e” word in the mainline

We seem to have gotten beyond the religious right and the lazy left. So how come I can’t use our word yet?

I had just concluded a workshop on the new edition of my book, To Be a Presbyterian, when an irate participant accosted me. “That word won’t work for me!” she said. “Stop calling me an ‘Evangelical.’ That is what I am not! I am a Christian, pure and simple!” The red-faced white woman chuffed away. I was chastened yet again by a well-meaning mainline Protestant leader.

This was not a new experience. Readers criticized the book’s first edition in the early 1980s for labeling Presbyterians “Evangelicals” as well as “Western, Catholic Christians,” “Protestant, Reformed Christians,” “Christian Transformers of Culture,” and other apt names. Apparently I was allowed to call us anything but “Evangelicals.”

I thought those days were gone.

Today, I sense the lines are blurring between the so-called “mainline” and some forms of conservative Protestantism. “Righteous right” leaders, those feisty men who spoke for God so quickly but showed so little grace, seem to have given way to more self-critical, modest evangelicals. These are concerned for God’s creation, God’s people wherever they worship and live, and God’s will that encompasses more than a rapture-ready few. And the leaders of the “Liberal Left,” lazy mainline establishment folks who assumed cultural dominance as they made papal-like pronouncements on everything and seldom mentioned Jesus, have been replaced by Bible-quoting, inclusive irenic people.

When I originally wrote “To Be a Presbyterian” in 1982, I offered a section which said that all of us are “Evangelicals.” That use of the e-word produced by far the most flack. “I see Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts on the T.V. I’m not like that. My church is not like that!” More than one irate reader inveighed this way (see how long ago that was!?)

Many readers were more tempered in their negative responses. They read further in my explanation of the term, where I apply it to all Protestants in the Reformation and to the Mainline Establishment in nineteenth century America. A certain part of the church recently tried to steal the term and even labeled Protestant moderates “non-evangelical” or “non-Christian.” But some people still objected to be called “Evangelicals.”

When I revised the book for a new edition, I wondered if I should clarify the monikers. I wrote for Presbyterians, but I certainly include all us mainline folks in the descriptor. The churches I know all center on the Gospel. We give praise for God’s providential work, testify to the evidence of life in Christ, and give thanks for the quickening work of the Holy Spirit in helping us grow in discipleship. These are all classic marks of Christian evangelicalism.

I really care less about being criticized than I do about Presbyterians and others of the mainline neglecting proclamation, being ashamed of the Gospel, or being tongue-tied when they try to speak hospitably about their life in church.

“Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism” by Martha Grace Reese has opened conversations about prayer and the imperative to tell of one’s faith to everyone. Moderate and liberal Christians are again seeing themselves as evangelists. Reese tells me she is finding this situation pervasively among thousands of mainliners as they study her books and converse with her about them.

So why in the world do some mainline Christians still find “Evangelical” a word of opprobrium? I’m curious, and not a little disturbed. Help me out. Is it the label they dislike? Are they feeling guilty about the faith?

Or is this just a few of us? Only those of us stuck in a time warp?

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "To Be a Presbyterian" (Geneva).