What Is an “Evangelical” and Does It Matter?

What Is an “Evangelical” and Does It Matter?


One of the best articles I have read about these questions appears in the current issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (XLVI:4 Summer 2017). The author is the late Stephen V. Monsma, a well-known and very influential evangelical scholar. The title of the article is “What Is an Evangelical? And Does It Matter?” (pp. 323-340) In the article the author addresses the current confusion about the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” and offers his own approach to defining them. He also explains why it matters.

You can obtain a copy of the article by ordering a single copy of the issue from CSR’s web site (www.csreview.org) or by ordering a copy of the article from your local library. If you teach at or know someone who teaches at one of the fifty Christian liberal arts colleges and universities that support CSR you should have no trouble obtaining a copy. Each issue of CSR is sent free of charge to all faculty members at those institutions. I was editor of CSR from 1994 to 1999.

Let me jump to the end of the article where Monsma explains why this matters. The final section of the article is entitled “Does Any of this Matter?” (Of course, I have been asked that numerous times as I have insisted here and elsewhere that it does matter.) According to Monsma, and I agree, “Evangelicalism, properly understood and defined, is a deeper, broader, richer Christian tradition within Protestantism than many are led to believe by the way it is often conceptualized and analyzed by today’s researchers.” (339)

Monsma lived through the 2016 U.S. presidential election and was clearly dismayed, as I was (and am) by the politicizing of the concept “evangelical” by the media and by many researchers. Much of Monsma’s ire, though, was stirred up by the so-called RELTRAD (religious tradition) approach that he says “has been widely accepted and used by many research organizations and scholars.” The RELTRAD measure identifies individuals as evangelical (or not) by their membership (or not) in specific Christian denominations and churches. According to Monsma, this approach excludes African-American denominations and churches, thus excluding African-American individuals from being evangelical, and it misses the many evangelical individuals who are members of denominations and churches not considered evangelical by the RELTRAD measure. Monsma states that “surveys have found that 15 to 20 percent of the members of mainline denominations are evangelical in terms of beliefs or by self-identification.” These are missed entirely by researchers using the RELTRAD measure.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Monsma describes three ways in which evangelicalism has been conceptualized. The first is as a social movement within Protestant Christianity focused on doctrinal and spiritual renewal. This concept tends to trace evangelicalism to pietism and revivalism. The second is as a distinct emphasis on orthodox Protestant doctrine in contrast to the doctrinal drift and decline in Protestantism as a result of modernity. The third is as “a tradition within Protestant Christianity.” This third approach focuses on evangelicalism as “a social group manifesting an organic character bound together by social ties and organizational alliances.” Monsma admits this is a “murky” category but regards it as a very common approach to defining “evangelical” by tying it to denominations and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

A problem with all three approaches is neglect if not total exclusion of African-Americans.

So, Monsma offers “a better way” by conceptualizing evangelicalism as a religious grouping or category emerging from three historical movements “each of which contribute to or reinforce what today is evangelicalism.” (335) The three streams are 1) the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, 2) the renewal and revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, and 3) efforts that reemphasized and defended traditional, orthodox Protestant Christian teachings. (335)

I would like to offer a “better better way” than Monsma’s. As I have said here and elsewhere (as often and emphatically as possible) evangelicalism is not a movement or group but a spiritual-theological ethos marked by David Bebbington’s four hallmarks (viz., biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, activism) plus deep respect for orthodox Christianity as expressed by the earliest Christian creeds and councils and by the Protestant reformers.

I do not see how Monsma’s “better way” succeeds in including African-American evangelicals (and in my opinion and seemingly his as well many African-Americans are evangelicals even if they do not use that terminology). To me, “evangelical” refers to a distinct but also broad and variegated theological-spiritual ethos that has given rise to movements and social groups but is not identical with any of them.

I would also like to add to Monsma’s reasons why it matters. As I have said here before, many American institutions, churches, organizations, publishers, etc., call themselves evangelical and will not consider hiring anyone who is not evangelical. Being evangelical is a litmus test for getting hired and sometimes for getting published. Whether people like it or not, there is a very large, sometimes rich, variegated but also relatively united evangelical affinity group in America. They engage in family quarrels, but they care about their identity. People who say “Nope; I’m not an evangelical” are unlikely to be allowed to participate in the family. They may be viewed as black sheep of the family, and thus still in some sense part of the family, but they will not get hired or be given significant roles in the operations of the “family.”

So how is this “family” identified? That is what Monsma wrote about. It is what I write about. For me, the litmus test is leaning into and living out of the evangelical theological-spiritual ethos. It has nothing whatever to do with politics. That is an invention of the media (with the help of some Republican evangelicals who care as much about being Republican as being evangelical).

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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