Over the last few years, the terms “evangelical” and “evangelist” have attracted much negative attention, thanks to misuse and various political agendas; but the original meanings of these terms are actually associated with the good news of God’s love for us and Jesus Christ’s triumph over death.
Unfortunately, the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary includes the synonyms propagandist, campaigner, and televangelist for “evangelist”; and for “evangelical,” an informal connotation relating to “Bible-bashing” is mentioned.
But this dictionary also lists two positive Christian definitions of “evangelist,” namely:
“A person who seeks to convert others to the Christian faith, especially by public preaching;”
“The writer of one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).”
It is this second (but first – continue reading and you’ll see what I mean) definition and the associated etymology that I found the most interesting and helpful in bringing this issue back to the heart of the matter: Jesus Christ.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary and other sources, using “evangelist” to refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John was the first use of any form of this word, and – with its origins in Greek and Latin, where “eu-” means good and “angel” means messenger – it literally meant “bringer of good news.” And the good news they spoke of was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his triumph over death.
What encouraging news to share! What a beautiful origin of “evangelist!”
Why, then, has there been this misuse of the term? I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to that question, but perhaps poor understanding, poor communication, and sinful human motives have all contributed, along with our enemy attempting to warp truth.
When we communicate with others, we seek not only to understand, but also to be understood – that, effectively, is why we communicate in the first place. I’ll never forget the words of my high school English teacher: She said her job was to help us to say what we mean, and to mean what we say. As a language practitioner, words are, of course, very dear to me; but it’s important to remember that communication and understanding go beyond spoken or written words.
Meaning matters, but intended meaning matters too, and we often need to listen to not only the words, but the heart behind the words. Improving our understanding of both enhances our ability to engage with each other and demonstrate Christ’s love in our interactions.
Apart from the fact that fallible humans often communicate, well, fallibly, our enemy grabs any opportunity to twist something beautiful into something negative. Ephesians 6:11–12 (NIV) says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood …”
Let’s not forget that Jesus, himself, said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV) Jesus, in contrast to our enemy, is in the habit of taking things that are broken and making them beautiful.
And this brings me to my next point: How do we deal with this negative connotation that is attached to terms which describe something we hold so dear?
May I be so bold as to suggest we reclaim the terms “evangelical” and “evangelist,” since Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the original evangelists? Dr Batanayi Manyika put it very well in his academic dean’s address earlier this year when he said that to be evangelical is to be a “signpost … signaling that Christ is victorious, and Jesus is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is both the heart of the matter and way bigger than any attempt to warp the spreading of the good news. Are we prepared to fight for him? Not through forceful action or physical battle, as 2 Cor 10:3–5 (NIV) reminds us:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (emphasis added)
Let us reclaim “evangelical” and “evangelist” in ways that mirror and point towards Christ’s humility and grace, as captured in the Prayer of Saint Francis:
“Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.”
(Anonymous, 1912, emphases added)
Matthew, one of the original evangelists, reports Jesus’s words:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14–16 NIV, emphasis added)
As we do our best to be faithful signposts to Christ and reclaim these terms, let’s remember that there’s no contest: Jesus has already won.
- If you are interested in learning more about the term “evangelical” and how it applies to SATS, watch the academic dean’s address (found here), or contact SATS for more information.
- Learning to appreciate both text and context is always helpful in reading the Bible responsibly. Find out more by reading this blog article.
- You may find consulting an easily accessible online source like the Online Etymology Dictionary a good starting point when investigating the origins of words, but contact SATS for more information on studying the text of the Bible.
Short Bio: Carrie Milton is a veterinarian and language practitioner. After completing her Bachelor of Veterinary Science and working with a variety of animals for a number of years, she reawakened her love for the written word. Accredited by the Professional Editors’ Guild, she has tried her hand at everything from theses to fiction