June 16, 2005

When You Say Evangelical Do You Really Mean Evangelish?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:05 pm

In an otherwise well-written piece, the WaPo article by Alan Cooperman I reference in my previous post contains a sentence that has me confused. In the context of burgeoning cooperation between conservative Christians and not-so-conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims, the article has this seeming non-sequitir:

Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are moving quickly toward full communion, which would allow them to swap clergy and recognize one another’s sacraments.

First, the statement is a bit misleading. The ELCA has had full communion with the ECUSA and with Reformed churches such as the PCUSA and the UCC for years now. What is news is that the ELCA is rapidly moving towards the same relationship with the UMC.

But what really confuses me is that this statement seems meant to support Alan Cooperman’s thesis that liberal and evangelical Christians are coming together. Could it be that Cooperman is confusing “evangelical” in the name of the ELCA with “evangelical” as in the NAE?

From Wikipedia:

Evangelical has several distinct meanings:

[1] In its original sense, it means belonging or related to the Gospel (Greek: euangelion – good news) of the New Testament.

[2] In the United States, it usually refers to adherents of Evangelicalism.

[3] In Europe, especially in the German speaking and nordic countries, Evangelical (evangelisch) is a general designation for churches adhering to beliefs of the Reformation, e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, or Evangelical Methodist Church, in contrast to Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. In this sense, it comprises everything from a liberal state church to a conservative free church in the Baptist or Pietist tradition.

Given that the “evangelical” in ELCA takes meaning number three, this sentence in Cooperman’s article is just describing the ecumenical rapproachement of three liberal, mainline Protestant denominations. It has nothing to do with “evangelicals” as in meaning number two.

I suppose confusing meanings two and three is an easy mistake, but one that I would hope a writer at a top tier newspaper writing on religion wouldn’t make. Or am I just misinterpreting Cooperman’s meaning?

I’ve emailed him asking whether he goofed, or if it’s just that I’m not getting his point. I will let you know if I hear back. In the meantime, I’m thinking the Germans are on to something. Continuing with the Wikipedia article:

However, in German there are now two words used which are commonly translated “Evangelical”: “evangelisch” meaning Protestant, and more narrowly the Lutheran and Reformed churches, and “evangelikal”, pertaining to Evangelicalism.

So in English, I suppose it would be “evangelish” for the ELCA vs. “evangelical” for the NAE. While it would avoid confusion, I don’t think “evangelish” is going to catch on.


  1. Too bad it won’t, because it is a confusing distinction to those not familiar with the terminology. For a while I even tried to to say I was “evangelical – but only in the German sense!” but it didn’t work. Ah well.

    Comment by gaunilo — June 17, 2005 @ 7:00 am

  2. I often get non-Lutheran researchers who think that St. So-and-so Evangelical Lutheran Church must be one of our congregations, rather than an LCMS one, since we’re the Evangelicals. There are differences but that isn’t one.

    Comment by Joel — June 17, 2005 @ 9:01 am

  3. When the BTK killer was arrested, someone on DU noted that the
    church of which he was council president was a congregation of
    the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and seized upon that
    fact to say, oh, he’s evangelical–how terrible! Well, I
    hope we know better than to think all American-style evangelicals
    are murderous hypocrites, but aside from that, I had to explain
    the differences between the Reformation and American senses of
    the word “evangelical.”

    Comment by mim — July 10, 2005 @ 9:11 am

  4. I grow up in Germany. I went there to our evangelisch church in town. To witch church should I go here in Saint Louis, Missouri?

    Comment by Udo — August 23, 2005 @ 6:29 pm

  5. Udo –

    I’m not sure which denomination would be the closest to the evangelisch church in Germany, but I would try the Lutheran, Presbyterian or United Church of Christ churches.

    What gets confusing is that there are different denominations within the Lutheran churches. The “ELCA”, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I believe would be closer to an evangelisch church.

    The same applies to the Presbyterian churches. A church that is part of the “PCUSA”, or Presbyterian Church USA, would be closest to an evanglisch church.

    UCC (United Church of Christ) churches may be the closest to evangelisch of all. It was formed through a merger of the Evangelical Reformed (i.e. evangelisch) and the Congregational denominations in the US.

    Comment by Bob — August 24, 2005 @ 7:28 pm

  6. […] Pillips’ first error is a misunderstanding of the word “evangelical”. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Lutherans were calling their church “evangelical” long before the word was ever used to connote conservative biblical literalists. Luther didn’t name his new church “Lutheran” 500 years ago, he called it the “Evangelical” church, a term that has only recently been appropriated by conservative American Christians. In German, there are two distinct words, evangelikal and evangelisch, to differentiate between these two usages. Phillips seems to understand the word “evangelical” in the name of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in its recent meaning, not its historical one. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Baylor: Finally Someone Understands Us Lutherans — September 18, 2006 @ 8:58 pm

  7. I grew up in Cameroon, and I used to attend the Evangelical church there.
    I have been at a couple of Presbyterian churches in Washington DC area but none of them was similar to my church in Cameroon. I guesss I should try United Church of Christ as suggested above?

    Comment by Ange — January 24, 2007 @ 1:49 pm

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