The Birth and the Name
The so-called free evangelical churches started arriving in Palestine in the last quarter of the 19th century, and missions work increased especially during the British Mandate. Different denominations, namely Baptist, Assemblies of God, the Church of the Brethren, Church of the Nazarene and Christian and Missionary Alliance, started to minister among different ethnic and language groups, such as Arabs (Christians and Muslims), Jews and Armenians (1). A few churches where established, some were mixed and included people from the different backgrounds, including British members who worked in the country, and a few other churches with only Arab members (mainly converts from the traditional churches, i.e. Catholic and Orthodox). However, later on most of these churches ceased to exist due to the Arab Israeli war (1948) that resulted in the migration of most of the people of Palestine.
Missionaries, started to arrive in the newly established state, Israel, and tried to collect the left-over pieces and continue the work, or perhaps we should say, to start the work almost from scratch. During the following 50 years, all the denominations mentioned above succeeded in establishing churches among the Palestinians in Israel, mainly in the northern part of the country, a few in the center and in Jerusalem. Leaders and members (who were Palestinian Arabs) of the newly formed churches did not call themselves Christians; this was probably to distinguish themselves from the members of the traditional churches who had always used this name. Instead, they insisted on calling themselves “believers” or “born again”, to indicate that their relationship with Christ and Christianity was a matter of a personal decision, and sometimes they used the name of the church they belonged to, i.e. Brethren, Assemblies of God, Baptist, etc... However, today, most of the leaders of these Arabic-speaking churches in Israel would call themselves “evangelicals.” In this short article I will try to discover the reason
for this change, when and why it happened, and the challenges entailed in “owning” this name. My arguments will be based on my involvement and experience with the circles of these churches for the last 35 years, as well as being part of the Palestinian society in Israel, especially the Christian one.
The Development of the Name
Although it is probably more accurate to use the name “free evangelicals” (2) to describe those churches, the name which is used by the church members/church leaders themselves is evangelicals. In the minds of believers, this name highlights the common and core beliefs they have, namely:
personal faith in the redemption wrought by the cross resulting in new birth, coupled with the desire to share this faith with others (i.e., to “evangelize”)… the centrality of Scripture and a free style of worship (i.e., non-liturgical). (3)
This name began to emerge on the local scene in the mid-1990s. However the name evangelicals only became officially accepted and used with the establishment of the Convention of Evangelical Churches in Israel (CECI) in 2005 (4). We can mention several reasons for its use:
One early influence that contributed to the use of the name evangelicals was the Fellowship of Christian Students in Israel (FCSI), a member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. FCSI started in the late 1970s and by the early 1990s several people who had been involved in the student ministry during their studies, became pastors or leaders in different churches and Christian organizations. Their experience of ministering, worshiping and studying the Bible with brothers and sisters from other churches, encouraged them to value these relationships. Not that only, but they started to use the name evangelicals as a name that represented all these churches. So the influence comes from cross-pollinate experiences with other local believers only, and not an international one.
Second, towards the end of the 20th century some mission agencies (such as the Southern Baptists) ceased their support of local churches, and other missions cut their support or did not increase it. As a result churches sought to find a wider common ground with like-faith churches rather than limiting their relations to churches from their own denominations. The name evangelicals formed a good basis for connecting with a wider range of churches. At times this helped churches to raise support and funds for their ongoing ministries or/and projects.
Third, the openness to the West and the need to feel part of the wider ecclesial family was another factor, especially given the fact that evangelical (Arab) churches in Israel are relatively small. (Most have memberships between 40-60 members; perhaps three local congregations enjoy membership in excess of 100 persons). Being “evangelical” involves the local churches with a larger family, whether through organizations such as the World Evangelical Alliance or through other bonds with churches around the world holding to similar beliefs.
Fourth, some of the western non-denominational churches showed interest in what is happening with some of the Arab churches in Israel. Therefore, the Arab churches in Israel assumed that it would be easier to build relations with churches in the West if they regarded themselves as evangelicals. They no longer wished to be labeled with name of the mission to which they owed their origins (directly or indirectly). It was felt that such associations with whatever (American) mission, even if in name only, might narrow the option of developing wider relations.
Fifth, the wider Christian community started to use the name “born again” as a kind of mockery, and the name became bare a meaning of heretic, fanatic and fundamentalist. Therefore, as a reaction the name “evangelicals” was considered to be a good alternative and less problematic.
Finally, there is also a political reason for using this name. As mentioned earlier, it is true that with the establishment of the CECI, many churches felt that this title, i.e. evangelicals, represented them well as a diversity of churches with like faith, and that it united them as a group and projected a better image to the wider Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities.
In addition to that, one of the main reasons of establishing the CECI was to get an official recognition as a denomination in the country. To achieve that, they would have more chances if they apply for the recognition as one denomination. Therefore, they somehow were obliged to choose a name that would represent all of them.
Challenges of the Name
Recently this name has begun to cause some challenges, especially with increasing involvement of groups calling themselves evangelicals in the political scene in the United States. Prominent issues in this arena include American “evangelical” support for President Trump, “evangelical” backing for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and so on. World media in general, and Israeli media in particular, have spoken a lot about the involvement of American evangelicals in American politics, especially related to Israel, and their influence in favor of Israel as over against the Palestinians. This has put Arab evangelicals in Israel in a difficult position, for the following reasons (5)
First, Arab evangelicals have found themselves accused of belonging to Zionist churches which have a political agenda. Just the other day I got a message on the college FB page (the name of our college is: Nazareth Evangelical College), asking if we “belong to those Zionist Evangelicals, who ignore the Palestinian’s suffering and teach Zionism not the Gospel”. This characterization is largely inaccurate, but I do understand that it is difficult for people to distinguish between different evangelical groups, and it is easier to view us as one group, particularly since we use the same name. At least on some major issues, we and they are one group… but within the group there are huge and important disagreements.
Second, Arab evangelicals are Christo centric: the main message one would hear at these churches is the salvation message; how to live as a Christian; prayer life; importance of evangelism, and so on, all centered on Jesus Christ. Although the original missions that started these churches (or churches birthed from them) may have had very clear and particular eschatological teaching (with implications relevant to modern Israel), nonetheless, this theology has enjoyed very little focus within the churches. Therefore, eschatology is not the main generator behind the actions and practice of the Arab Evangelical Churches in Israel. Nevertheless, eschatology is playing a major role in the actions and investment of many evangelicals in the US; this has caused us, the Arab evangelicals, to rethink or reevaluate our theology, and its relevance for the people to whom we minister. Should we continue to see Christ as our main and only message, or shall we replace it or at least mix it with a political one?
Third, as Palestinian citizens of Israel, we were taught and encouraged by the American missionaries to see our citizenship in heaven; therefore (allegedly) we should not get involved in any political activities (some church leaders and members even today do not vote). Although some evangelicals today argue against this position, it is still the prominent position held by most evangelicals. Ironically those who hold this position identify themselves more with the right wing evangelicals in the US; therefore the involvement of the latest group in politics puts them in odd position.
So, with the tensions and ambiguities caused by the resonances of the word “evangelical” on the world scene, and the pressures this represents for the Palestinian Christian community in Israel, what is to be done? Of course, changing the name is a possible solution, and in fact this has been proposed by several leaders. But it would not be easy to do so since most of the church leaders in the country feel the name “evangelicals”, in the way they understand it, is the best definition for who they are, because of the doctrinal commitment and fellowship dimension. Yes there are several challenges with Zionist evangelicals and other radical evangelical groups, yet there are many evangelicals in the world who would disagree with the mentioned groups, with whom we can associate and have fellowship. Meanwhile we will continue to defend ourselves every time the name “American evangelicals” is mentioned in the country and say: “We are not like them”. Indeed it is challenging to be a Palestinian Evangelical in Israel these days.
1 I am using these categories just to give an idea for the readers. Some of these labels might interrelate.
2 This is to be distinguished from the Episcopalian church, and the Lutheran Church which may contain evangelicals evangelical in their names but does not define itself as a church as evangelical.
3 Azar Ajaj and Philip Sumpter, ‘An Introduction to the Convention of Evangelical Churches in Israel’, in Arab Evangelicals in Israel (Oregon, 2016), pp. 40–41.
4 See the article in: Ajaj and Sumpter.
5 I am bringing here what I believe to be true about the Arab Evangelical position I am not necessarily in agreement with them.