In 1988 when a new Lutheran body was formed from the merger of the Lutheran Church in American and the American Lutheran Church (with a little help from the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches), there was much to do about the name of the new church. Some thought the word Lutheran might be the irrelevant term and just maybe this was the chance for Lutherans to ditch the term that Luther himself did not like. Others thought it was time to reclaim the word too often gladly discarded to the Romans, Catholic. Others thought this was a moment to reclaim another old word, evangelical, even though that word had already come to be synonymous with people who were definitely not like the ELCA was or would turn out to be.
In the end, Herbert Chilstrom was one voice insisting that evangelical needed to be in that name and reflected upon the search for a name for a new Lutheran body on its 25th anniversary (now 30 years old):
If ever a word has been hijacked and politicized and changed from its original meaning it is the term “evangelical.” Ask most anyone on the street to define “evangelical” and they will tell you that it represents someone who is opposed to gun control, abortion and birth control; someone who favors tight immigration restrictions and prayer in the public schools. You get the picture. The press relentlessly speaks of the “Evangelical Bloc” when it writes and broadcasts items about some members of the Republican Party and other conservative movements.Though Chilstrom wrote passionately of the word evangelical, it is hard to imagine a church body which has strayed more from that word in public witness and practice. Far from being identified as a people who focus upon Jesus Christ, the ELCA has become captive to every social cause to hit the news. They are climate change people who advocate for the smaller carbon imprint of mankind in the name of faithfulness. They are social justice people who advocate for government programs for the poor, for laws to enforce racial neutrality, and for immigrants who are not yet citizens and may be illegal. They are into every sexual liberation known from the traditional gay and lesbian causes to the transgendered and everything else that has a name and a voice to make itself known. They tend to be a predictable voice for liberal causes when bishops or their presiding bishop writes a letter or when individual synods take stands. Indeed, if the ELCA is evangelical it is because they have hijacked the Gospel part of that word and redefined it away from Jesus crucified and risen, for the forgiveness of our sins, for reconciliation with the Father, and for the gift of everlasting life.
This is sad for us in the Christian church who have a totally different understanding of what it means to be “evangelical.” We remember that the root meaning of the word goes back to the New Testament and the Greek language in which it was written. Its meaning is almost disarming in its simplicity. It describes one who believes the Good News about Jesus Christ. It centers in his death and resurrection that we will soon observe as the high points of our Christian year. We believe that at its heart the Bible is primarily about this unbelievable, incredible message of hope.
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was formed nearly 25 years ago, we deliberately included the word “Evangelical” in our name. We did so to make it known that anyone who embraces that fundamental focus on Jesus Christ is welcome to be a member of one of our congregations: old, young, Democrat, Republican, Independent, African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, straight, gay, single, married — yes, anyone. We are different; yet held together in Jesus Christ. What identifies us is not our position on a political issue or our stance on a complex moral question where we have inevitable differences of opinion. No, being “evangelica” is simply to trust completely in Jesus Christ.
Lutherans, including my own LCMS, have been wary of the ELCA and its aggressive social stance and witness for some time and it has become fashionable for us to claim that the ELCA is no longer really Lutheran. Perhaps it is time for us to go one step further and suggest that the Evangelical part of their name has also been sacrificed to the cause of political correctness, social justice, and sexual and gender liberation causes. At a time in which real evangelicals are finding it hard to remain faithful to that Gospel in a world so profound in its distaste for the real Jesus of Nazareth, that word is more than a moniker. It is shorthand for the one and everlasting Gospel which is about sin and forgiveness, loss and redemption, estrangement from the Father and reconciliation, faith that trusts against reason, life that triumphs over death, and the real best life now with God forevermore.
Others have suggested that the ones most folks call evangelical are ready to ditch the name for various reasons. It is hard to see how old style evangelicals and the likes of Joel Osteen can live under the same umbrella term. Perhaps they are right. Others, however, seem intent upon redefining evangelical away from the theology of Christ and Him crucified and onto other things. In any case, those who made such a big deal about claiming the term in their quest for a name for the church body that became the ELCA are hardly the most faithful voices to claim its heritage. Maybe Lutherans should ask for the name back, but not the ELCA, the real Lutherans for whom the term evangelical is a real fit!