What is an Evangelical?

What is an Evangelical? October 24, 2012

Authentic Christianity
In this post,  I offer a meaning of Evangelical, but this must be read in conjunction with my post “What is a Christian?” I do not claim in this post to be outlining the boundary markers of Christianity.  Evangelicalism is a part of the broader Christian movement. I also do not claim any special authority to lay out these principles which are not new to me.  It is true that Evangelicalism can be hard to define.  But this is I believe because it is more about attitudes than doctrinal statements.

Some people argue that Evangelicalism is merely a social movement. This cannot be the case, as all such social movements have roots that go beyond “we like being together.”  Perhaps partly because in recent years we have been a movement that has not been very good at defining ourselves, there are many today who have left behind “traditional” Evangelical views but would still want to socially identify with our “group.”  I will be particularly interested to hear from some of my Patheos Blog neighbors in the “Progressive” stream to know if they resent a narrow view below that could be seen to exclude them.

Others see Evangelicalism as a political movement. Whilst there is a “Religious Right” in America especially, and most of those would also be Evangelicals, it is not a requirement that an Evangelical be a member of the Republican Party. Most Evangelicals will argue that their convictions come first, and they only vote for candidates or parties that most match their positions. So, for example, although it seems clear who the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association would like you to vote for in the USA elections, they have stopped short of actually stating that, instead arguing Christians should vote for the candidates that most matches Christian values in the voters opinion. Certainly in the UK such there is not such a strong connection between Evangelicals and our Conservative Party (despite Gordon Brown’s best efforts), and the Trade Union movement historically had a strong connection with so-called “low churches” many of which would be Evangelical.  So we should not think of Evangelicalism as a predominantly political movement.


Three people might uphold precisely the same denominational statement of faith and be happy to affirm all it’s clauses.  One might freely admit to being an Evangelical, and all kinds of attitudes and behaviours he displayed would confirm it for all to see.  Another might freely admit he was not an Evangelical, and perhaps own the label “Neo-Liberal” or “Progressive.”  A third might want to stay within the social movement that is Evangelicalism, but have attitudes on all kinds of issues that really sets him at variance with most evangelicals.  There is inevitably almost a democratic nature about this, with Evangelicals being people who believe and practice the same way other Evangelicals do.  Since Evangelicalism is not a denomination, but rather a set of ideals, it could almost be said that you will know one when you meet one.

But equally, three people could come from three very different religious backgrounds. One an Episcopalian, one a Baptist, one a Pentecostal.  They might sit down and argue tooth and nail about some of their convictions about baptism, or many other things. But as they do so, you would also quickly realize “they are all Evangelical in the way they are discussing things.” And, if you interupted their debates, they would quickly acknowledge each other as brothers and claim that these “secondary matters” do not truly divide them relationally, though of course they remain committed to their denominations.  Actually the typical Evangelical man or woman has two group loyalties;  one to their denomination, one to broader Evangelicalism.  They will recognize they may have much more in common with a fellow evangelical from a different denomination than with a non-evangelical from their own.

Evangelist Billy Graham preaches one Sunday to more than 40,000 worshipers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (UCLA

Historically Evangelicalism has its roots in the Evangelical revivals. But beyond that, it is always a movement that is very aware of a connection going back as far as the Reformers.  In fact, growing up in the average Evangelical church you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the Church of Jesus began with Luther and Calvin.  The Puritans, Whitfield, Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, J.I.Packer and of course Billy Graham are also heroes of this movement.  Of course these stalwarts would disagree on a number of issues, but they would all be quickly recognized as an evangelical if you spent some time listening to them.  What is it that holds them together and still inspires today? Why would someone want to use the label in the 21st Century while so many mock it or want it to mean something totally different?

To me, the Evangelical movement is simply one attempt at setting out the implications of Jesus resurrection in more detail.  Some of those answers to the question, “how then should we live?” do indeed overlap with other movements within Christianity, but anyone who identifies with all of these would surely find it easier to identify with being an evangelical than any other group.  Note, however, that all of the foundational truths listed  in my previous definition of a Christian are also held by Evangelicals. In other words, every Evangelical is also a Christian, but not every Christian is also an Evangelical.

Evangelicalism then is surely an outgrowth of the work of the Reformation, though note that it is broader than the movement which is often called “Reformed” or “Calvinist” as though those two terms were synonymous. When I thought about how to explain what is an Evangelical, it struck me that the attitudes I am looking for in a fellow evangelical have been highlighted before, but I don’t think I have seen anyone put them all together. My points of definition below then are not  in any way unique to me, but are based on a combination of Bebbingtons famous quadrilateral, and the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation.  In explaining and elaborating on theses I have also gone back and re-read various statements of faith and articles, some of which are quoted below.

What attitudes define the meaning of Evangelical? 

1. A literal (where appropriate) approach to the whole Bible as the sole source of authority in the believer’s life (=  “Biblicism” or “Sola Sciptura,” which means “Only Scripture”)

As the UK’s Evangelical Alliance explains it this constitutes a belief that, “God s objective truth was supremely revealed through his Word in the Old and New Testaments, and that the Bible must always take precedence over reason, tradition, ecclesiastical authority and individual experience.”

The Chicago Statement on Biblical inerrancy is a modern attempt to put into words this attitude to the Bible that definitely seems to have characterized Evangelicals historically.  This statement is well worth a read, and begins,

“We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.

We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.”  READ MORE

I believe, though am willing to be corrected, that it would be hard for a Roman Catholic to uphold this phrase and others in this statement.

As my pastor, Tope Koleoso likes to say “We don’t place ourselves over the Bible, we place ourselves under the Bible.”   To an Evangelical, although the interpretations of others can be helpful, it is the Bible alone that is to be followed.  Popes, church councils, and statements of faith all hold no formal validity except where they are supported by a plain reading of the Scripture.  Critics of the Evangelical movement point to its splintered nature, and argue that instead of one pope we have created thousands.

But, for all our differences, Evangelicals will always say “show me where I am wrong from the Bible, and I will change my mind!”  In practice, and this is very important, Evangelicals tend to approach the Bible in a certain way, and this way is very different from the way some others approach it.  Wherever it is sensible to do so, the Evangelical will tend to interpret the Bible literally. They will believe in the Bible’s infallibility, inerrancy, and also in its clarity. In other words they will claim that God has ensured the Bible has a clear message for us today on every important matter.  Thus they are very unlikely to conclude any discussion about doctrine by saying “well, there are lots of options that are acceptable and the Bible just isn’t clear which we should believe.”

If you get two Evangelicals in the room talking about a doctrinal matter they disagree on, each is likely to point to certain verses they believe support their position, and will try to explain why the other persons verses do not mean quite what they think they do.  So, evangelicals can be complementation or egalitarian, they can have different views on creation and evolution, be charismatic or cessationist, baptise babies or believers only, among many other differences. But they will all speak the same language and understand each other. One of the things that struck me debating the author of the book, Love Wins, was that Rob Bell and I simply did not seem to be approaching the Bible in the same way. As a result we talked past each other a fair bit, and though we managed at one point, getting Bell to state his own views clearly was something of a challenge!

Thus, I would argue that when I speak with anybody about the Bible, and what it says to us today, I can quickly discern whether they have evangelical tendencies or not.  It is true that there is a range of views in Evangelicalism on issues such as gender roleshomosexuality, and evolution, among other things, but it has to be said that in most of these areas Evangelicals tend to trend towards having more conservative views on the spectrum available to them.


 2. A strong focus on personal response of faith to the gospel (= Conversionism and Sola Fide, which means “Faith Alone”)

Another way to put this is to speak about the primacy of the belief that we are saved only through faith in Christ. The reformers argued that good works have no part to play in our salvation, though they will flow from it. To an Evangelical it is not possible to be born as a Christian, and Infant Baptism does not incorporate you into the body of Christ (though some will believe in Infant Baptism as a symbol). The focus instead is on a crisis response to listening to the gospel preached. It is not uncommon to be asked in such circles “when were you born again?” (see John 3) or “when were you converted?” So much so that many use the term “Born Again Christian” as virtually synonymous with Evangelical.  It is not that the concept of conversion is absent from any other traditions, just that to the Evangelical it is literally everything. Many as a result spend time worrying about their conversion experience, asking if it was genuine, and it is not uncommon for young people especially to regularly publicly respond to the gospel “just to be sure” that they are saved.

The ongoing experiential nature of the Christian walk through prayer and Bible study has always been emphasized by Evangelicals, although the precise way our relationship with God is worked out is far from universally agreed.  As a result many Evangelicals come from both charismatic and cessationist camps.

Baptism would be seen as a vital part of that conversion process by most evangelicals, though some would support Infant Baptism.


3. Activity to promote the conversion of others. (=Activism)

Perhaps one of the most crucial descriptions is simply this, Evangelicals evangelize.   In this regard the crusades of Billy Graham are like an archetype. The preacher would come into town, a stadium would be hired, people from many different churches would come, and bring their interested friends. The preacher would speak a simple gospel message that would usually contain the message “Jesus died for you. Jesus rose again for you. Now he is calling you to respond.”  I have written previously more about Billy Graham’s crusades.

Compelled by a force they could not understand thousands would then respond by leaving their seats, coming to the front and being counseled individually through a moment of personal commitment to Christ.  Billy Graham had a remarkable appeal which was broader than a tight view of what is an Evangelical. But one could define someone as not being an Evangelical if they did not like Billy Graham (except for a few whose anxieties about being seen to work with Catholics meant they would not work with him). Many evangelicals will also focus on various forms of social action to simultaneously relieve suffering and demonstrate the love of God to the world.  Historically some Evangelicals are dismissive of the “social gospel,” however many today recognise that it is helpful to first feed a starving man and then tell him about Jesus.


4. A focus on the cross of Jesus as the only means of salvation.  (=Crucicentrism and Sola Christa, which means “Only Christ”)

In practice this has tended to mean a belief that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, turning away God’s wrath.  Some today within the movement have denied this calling it “Cosmic Child Abuse“, but the resulting controversy surely demonstrates that for most Evangelicals this is central to their view of the gospel.  The cross did other things, and nothing the Cross accomplished is possible without the resurrection, but for most evangelicals  historically the primary message of the gospel has been “Jesus died for our sins.”  This has even meant that sometimes people preach the gospel without even mentioning Jesus rose again, a clear deficiency that was one of the main prompts for me to write my book, Raised With Christ – How the Resurrection Changes Everything.

Evangelicals believe that without accepting the work of the cross as personal to them nobody can be saved. They take Jesus exclusive claims very seriously when he says “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6 ESV).  Evangelicals believe that the only way you can be sure that you are going to heaven is by expressing your faith in Jesus, following him, and believing in his physical resurrection.  However, they will also believe that God has promised us all, “seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29 ESV)  They may therefore differ on precisely how people can come to Jesus, and on how many people will be saved, but they will all proclaim Jesus is the only way to God.


5. Grace alone (=Sola Gratia)

The is the notion that it is only by God’s initiative that we can be saved. Humans have nothing to offer him. There is no merit that makes us deserving of his salvation. There is here no notion of proving our worth to God by good works, and this was a prime motivation for the Reformation. Evangelicals believe we were as Ephesians 2:8 puts it “dead in our trespasses and sins. . but God made us alive“.

It is very easy to see how Calvinistic ideas about predestination arise from all this. But there are many Arminians who would still hold to this and all the other points. Historically Evangelicalism has been a movement that included both Calvinists and Arminians.  These two systems can be seen as different ways of holding together the tension that exists between the idea of God is sovereign, and yet man has responsibility.


6. To God alone belongs glory.  (=Soli deo gloria)

Evangelicals have  a dislike for pomp and ceremony. They say that only God should be glorified. In a similar vein, they would not advocate praying to saints. Evangelicals celebrate certain attributes of God that many other Christians also emphasise. The idea of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving inspires worship that is often vibrant and passionate. Evangelical worship has spawned an entire industry. There are some today that openly doubt the idea of God knowing the future, terming this Open Theism.  It is hard to see how such a viewpoint fits within the evangelical view of the glorious God, in charge of the universe, in whom we can place personal trust and have a personal relationship.

So, over to you now.  Do you agree with my broad definitions of what is a Christian and my narrow definition of what is an Evangelical? How would you improve on them? Do you self identify as one or both of these? If so why or why not?


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