What is an Evangelical?

What is an Evangelical? October 24, 2012

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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  • That’s a really good summary – it captures both the breadth and distinctives of evangelicalism. I like how it brings together Bebbington’s four points with the Reformation solas. I’m very comfortable to identify as an evangelical by the description above.

  • Thanks Caleb. Bracing myself for an onslaught of criticism, so happy to see you agree! Someone asked me whether I still felt “Evangelical” was a good term…here is why!

  • EMSoliDeoGloria

    I appreciate the breadth of your definition.

  • John

    Good attempt at a definition. I’ve attended and belonged to churches that would consider themselves ‘evangelical’ since childhood, but I would not use that term to describe myself to others. I am a Christian. Yes, I believe in all the points you list but what value does the label have? If I answer the question ‘what kind of Christian are you, or ‘what sort of church do you attend’ with the answer ‘evangelical’, I doubt the listener would be any the wiser. For some it does carry negative connotations. I do not want to be associated with the Conservatives politically (and I don’t quite get why Gordon Brown is highlighted), or with some extreme groups from the USA that make the papers for their hatred of various groups.

    I think denominations are best understood not so much by what they believe or how they worship, but by what they were reacting or responding to when they began.

    I grew up in a Brethren Church, which was very strict; almost a sect. No music, no trained leaders, plain buildings and as little contact with the non-Christian world as possible. They did call themselves evangelical. They were reacting to both the C of E and Catholic churches of the day, which were included in their definition of the non-Christian world. Over the years these churches have changed as each generation reacted to various practices and those churches that survived changed radically. At every stage of development they were called evangelical.

    My dislike of such labels also comes from scripture (just to prove point one of your blog!). 1 Cor 1 portrays a church divided by members claiming to belong to various factions. Even those who say they follow Christ seem to be doing so in the wrong spirit.

    So I suppose my question is now you have a definition what value is it? Is it to unite those under the umbrella or to define those outside getting wet.

    Great blog by the way.

    • Definitely to invite people to join us under the umbrella!

  • Adrian,
    While this is a big step forward from some of your previous definitions of Evangelical, where for example you have not recognised that it is possible to a spectrum of views on issues such gender and sexuality, it seems you still can’t separate in your own mind Calvinist thinking from wider understandings.
    So for example if you want this to be at all generic as a definition of Evangelicalism then why do you have to lurch to a more extreme US position by including the Chicago Statement on Biblical inerrancy? It is totally irrelevant to huge numbers of evangelicals in the UK.

  • Id really be interested to meet other people who would entirely reject the Chicago statement yet still say they were evangelical. Is it just you David, or can you find me some others?

    • C.J.W.

      I reject the Chicago Statement and still call myself Evangelical. See The Remaking of Evangelical Theology by Gary Dorrien. Also see Peter Enns’ “Incarnation & Inspiration,” as well as Kenton Sparks’ two books “God’s Word in Human Words” and “Sacred Word, Broken Word.” This statement seems to be nothing more than a product of the Enlightenment (I reject Articles XI, X, XII, & XVI, which really means I reject it all). I cannot identify myself as Calvinist and will not and am saddened when I see attempts by Calvinists to kidnap the term “Evangelical” to serve their own purposes. I am an Open Theist and totally support God getting all glory, and if you have actually read open theist books, I will respect you more. If you have simply read critiques, we should stay away from the subject. I will respect your blog posts, but will only engage in dialogue if I sense we do so for the sake of growth and not to prove one right or wrong.


    • Gareth

      Hi Adrian.. I’m not sure why you mentioned the Chicago statement on inerrancy which seems to preclude belief in a non-literal Adam.
      This would automatically preclude many of the bloggers right here in the evangelical channel at Patheos including people like:
      Peter Enns
      Roger Olson
      Frank Viola

      It would preclude scholars such as:
      N. T. Wright
      Dr. Denis Alexander
      Alister McGrath
      Carlos Bovell

      It would preclude many of the numerous evangelical scholars who accept evolution and a non-literal Adam who contribute at biologos.org

      This post just seems to me to be a way to discredit those who are honestly grappling with the real implications of evolution: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/01/evangelicalism-and-evolution-are-in-serious-conflict-and-that%E2%80%99s-not-the-end-of-the-world/

      As it stands, this is a dangerous course for evangelicals to take: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/03/guest-post-we-believe-in-god-the-father-god-the-son-and-god-the-holy-scriptures/

      I wouldn’t be so quick to define an in group and an out group.

    • lha

      The word inerrancy is the problem. It takes over thirty pages to define..I agree with much that is in the statement but feel that there are better words. To insist on it as a boundary of the evangelical stream of faith seems odd to me. The word itself is not in Scripture.

  • Adrian,

    You always jump to the extremes don’t you. I never said “entirely reject”. I do not agree with it in total although obviously within it not everything is a complete problem.

  • As for finding those who would not sign up to the Chicago Statement it is quite hard to find denominations who do. Within the Church of England it appears to only be a couple of the more extreme Evangelical groups (essentially those opposed to the ordination of women) who do so which leaves out large numbers of CoE Evangelicals.
    Can’t find anything about the Methodist Church in GB even referring to it.

  • Interesting, as it is a statement of the Evangelical Theological Society, hence why I linked it. Im sure there are Evangelicals who agree with parts of it but not all of it.

    • the Chicago Statement is very widely subscribed to by Fundamentalists, less widely by non-fundamentalist evangelicals, in the States. The ETS recommends the Chicago Statement as a guide to the meaning of its doctrinal basis, but the doctrinal basis itself is much more cautious.

  • I don’t feel much need to quibble with you, as you’ve done a pretty workmanlike job of assembling one “family resemblances” portrait of evangelicals. I think you could find yourself under pressure from three camps with at least equally compelling claims: an historical camp that would argue that “evangelical” is more tightly bound to magisterial Reformation teaching than yours; an American camp that would argue that you can’t define “evangelical” properly without taking into account “fundamentalists” and “new evangelicals”; and perhaps most compellingly, groups that would emphasize either #1 or #4 and claim that the rest of your points are not definitive of Evangelicalism *as such* (e.g., the Evangelical Theological Society, whose Doctrinal Basis for years was only the first of these two sentences: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory”). I think you’ve steered a commendable course among these, and you’re not American, so I’ll commend you without quibble.

    Then let me take up the quietly offered “Catholic” thread, here. While there are differing views on exactly how Sacred Scripture is to be related to Sacred Tradition in Catholic teaching, the language of the catechism is clear that the words of Scripture itself are to be understood as directly authorized by God: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ […] Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” (see points 80-90, starting at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm#80 )

    I actually have no problem affirming most of the Chicago Statement, even as a Catholic (and I was a fire-breather in defense of such teaching as a Baptist). What has changed, as a Catholic, is not my view of Scripture’s direct-from-God revelatory nature, but my view of *my authority* as *interpreter* of Scripture. I am still obligated to read and understand Scripture, and to draw spiritual nourishment and instruction from it, but I am no longer obligated to do so *on my own*. As a Catholic, I lean on the Holy Spirit’s working through the whole Body of Christ, throughout history, and as expressed with the continuing Apostolic authority of those who have been given authority to define clearly the limits of interpretation. True, to a Protestant that may look like “Oh, man, you have to believe Mary was bodily received into Heaven?”–but to a Catholic, Protestantism looks like “What? you have to do 2000 years of work in one lifetime?”

    So, as a Catholic, and aware that many Catholics do not think it through this way, I can say that “[I] affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God” and that “[I] deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.” However, I must insert the caveat that “I do not receive interpretive authority just by reading the Scriptures; I interpret the Scriptures as one under authority, myself.”

    Oh, I should point out that both Protestants and Catholics receive the *canon* of Scriptures (which books are and aren’t to be treated as Scripture) from their (once joint, and now respective) tradition(s). No other way of treating the formation of the canon will do (even the “technically open but practically closed canon” will leave you open to endless disputations and puts you at odds with the actual history of the actual canon). So there’s that to consider.

    (hence on http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a3.htm see especially 105 and 120)


    • Thanks, a helpful summary of what I think we will both agree is a Christian but not Evangelical approach.

      • Except insofar as I might legitimately make a claim to “evangelical Catholicism” (which is simply not the same thing as Protestant evangelicalism, or American conservative evangelicalism, for that matter) for myself and for Catholics operating in circles such as these: http://www.franciscan.edu/News/2012/Defending-the-Faith-Coming/

        But I would not consider participating a typical evangelical congregation (which I agree you’ve portrayed well) as the same as being in communion with the Church, no. There are real and important differences, for all that we share.

        • OK, good, so my definitions sort of work, especially the bit about some of these values overlapping with other groups within the wider Christian movement!

  • Hi Adrian. Thanks for this.

    1. I think the use of the word literal is misleading. The fact that you have had to add the caveat ‘wherever it is sensible to do so’ whatever that means.

    2. There are many evangelicals who hold a position of tension between salvation through faith in Christ and the possibility that some who have not heard will find God.

    3. I think your comments about Rob Bell are biased by your disagreement with his position. If the judgement as to whether someone is arguing past you, then there are many Arminians who would rule put Calvinist (and vice versa) and many comps who would rule out egals.

    4. I think the problem you have is that you can always find extreme examples who will make you feel justified in ruling out a particular position as being not evangelical. If you were true to this logic you would have to rule out the likes of John Stott and Tony Campolo.

    As for me I am an egalitarian, evolution accepting, moderate evangelical who believes that there will more saved than lost. I try to read the bible without ignoring its context, internal narrative, and authors intent. I believe it is inspired by God. That salvation is through Christ.

    I guess a lot of your readers would want to exclude me but I won’t let them. I am evangelical.

    • 1. I think it is fair to say that Evangelicals treat more of the Bible literally than most other groups. I added my caveat because of things like Poetry, and of course the idea that the OT Law simply doesn’t apply to the Christian.

      2. I also believe that more will be saved than lost and I share a spectrum on that issue in a link from this post. Universalism is not compatible with Evangelical belief in my view, but optimism is.

      3. I found it insanely frustrating to debate Bell because we simply didn’t approach the Bible the same way. I think most people who listen to that debate will either feel that I am a fool for the way I approach the Bible in it, or that Bell is confusing us all with too many questions, and isn’t actually trying to establish a single clear Biblical position at all. It is like two different languages. I have read Stott and listened to Campolo (the later only as a younger man) and they don’t handle the Bible that way.

      4. I can debate with many egalitarians and others, as long as they attempt to handle the Bible in a similar way to other Evangelicals. Some do (e.g. Gordon Fee). Others patently do not (eg those that simply say things like “Paul was just plain wrong!”)

      • Adrian,

        You say
        “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.”

        Yet you do not do this yourself.

        For example Romans 16:7 has a clear message that you have spent many posts trying to work around and ignore. The clear message is that there was a prominent apostle called Junia who was a woman. Yet you go against the clear reading without any evidence:
        – trying to claim Junia was not a woman
        – trying to claim Junia was not prominent among the apostles but known to them
        – trying to claim Junia was not an apostle as the word is understood elsewhere.

        This is not treating Scripture the way you claim an evangelical should, it is not following your own Pastor’s view that “We don’t place ourselves over the Bible, we place ourselves under the Bible.”

        Of course you do this because you come at the Bible from a particular world view (in which men have headship over their wives and only men can be elders in the Church).

        My problem is not so much that you do this interpretation and read the text in a non plain way but that you claim that you don’t do it and those who do are not evangelicals (ie “those that simply say things like ‘Paul was just plain wrong'”).

        • sarah

          I’m with you Dave!

    • Al,

      Guess what! I’m with you 😉


    • sarah

      I’m with you too!

  • Dave – I thought you might be.

    Adrian – I appreciate your points.

    I wasn’t making my points to be argumentative but to say why I think your attempt at describing evangelicalism is always going to be difficult.

    1. You can’t quantify the idea of treating the bible ‘a little more’ literally. It is entirely subjective. It seems to me (and I do respect your attempts here) that you and I as Comps and Egals just choose different places to place our base camp in scripture to come to the same question.

    2. Whilst I am not universalist I think you would be surprised how many evangelicals are a gnats whisker away from this position.

    3. I listened to the Rob Bell interview and didn’t feel frustrated with his questions. I found them refreshing. I do, however find it frustrating that a whole lot of Calvinist commentators refused to answer his questions directly, choosing rather to create a straw man or accuse him of not being evangelical. I would say that Bell’s questions were deeply evangelical. ‘does an eternity of punishment seem just for 15 years of juvenile sinning’. I didn’t hear one decent answer from his critics on this one. (I am happy to call Rob and evangelical)

    4. This is always my sticking point. I am often dismissed as if I am basing my egal argument on ‘saying Paul is wrong’ when j never say it. I know that you are not saying this here but the fact that it needs to be mentioned means is a red herring. Most of us egals have a high view of scripture.

    I hope the above doesn’t come across as aggressive. I enjoy our debates. Al

    • Not aggressive at all….Perhaps you lie somewhere in-between me and Rob Bell so unusually don’t find at least one of us frustrating. Most people I know of who listened to that debate seemed to come down quite strongly one way or the other.

  • Pete Killingley

    Good article, and good exposition of the various marks of an evangelical. And I agree with you re your debate on Rob Bell, which drove me nuts to listen to. It wasn’t just that you disagreed with him, as if it were a Calvinist/Armenian debate, but that he had a fundamentally different approach to Scripture.

    But what I’d be interested to see is another post from you inverting this one. What does it mean to be a Christian but not evangelical? What characterises that group?

    • Pete, I think that there is no one answer to that, because for example some Progressives would definitely meet my definition of Christian (though some wouldn’t), but so would many Mainline denominations. Many Roman Catholics and many Orthodox would as well. So before we go very far at all we can see that there are lots of other positions. Note by the way, that my definition leaves very open the possibility that people from each of these groups (including Evangelical) might attend church, and profess head agreement, but in fact have never truly believed in their heart. I don’t pretend to be able to reliably discern who is in fact a true Believer.

  • Jess

    Hi Adrian,

    1) I think using the word ‘literal’ to describe the Bible is reductionist and confusing, especially when u have to clarify it as you have. A better word would b ‘true’ (although even then that comes problematic as some believe it’s true in all matters and some true in matters of faith and belief.)

    2) I have heard a good reply to Rob Bell’s question “How can God punish eternally finite sins?” in an article in Themelios but it is true that few others people have. Incidentally listening to Rob Bell reminded me of Glenn Beck by making statements under the pretext he was just asking “questions”. (nicely spoofed by Cartman in South Park).

    3) personally I believe Evangelicism has become so broad as to become meaningless as a definition. Time to move on?

  • Glenn

    DW, the text does not say there was a prominent Apostle called Junia. At most the text says that Junia was well known to/amongst the Apostles.
    For instance I am well known amongst the Elders of my Church, but I am not an Elder.
    You see in the text what you want to see.

    • Can’t help but think that you rather overstate your case when you say “At most the text says that Junia was well know to/amongst the Apostles”. That may be the most you can make the ESV say, but there are other translations that use language like “outstanding among the apostles”, which includes the NASB which holds to a truly literal translation philosophy, rather than the “essentially literal” perspective of the ESV.

      Checking out the different translations at http://bible.cc/romans/16-7.htm, I would say the least we can say is that Junia was well known to the apostles but other, reputedly more literal, translations render Romans 16:7 much more strongly in a way that would support the reading DW outlined. I can’t help feeling that the ESV may have been poorly translated due to the translators’ stated aim of avoiding a “gender-neutral” translation.

    • Glenn,

      “Prominent” or “well known amongst” you say potato.

      Pretty much only in the ESV is “well known to” a translation with a very specific gender bias. KJV, NIV (does have a footnote to try to regain ground among the Male Headship crowd), NRSV, NASB, TEV, ASB, Darby etc all go with variations of “among the Apostles”.

      The Male Headship supporters were so sure what they wanted to see in the text that they created a new translation with the text they wanted to see.

  • Glenn. I think DW point is that the idea of a literally view doesn’t fully exist if comps see Junia as not being an apostle.
    It is acceptable to make your argument that it means ‘known to’ but that again proves that exegesis is not literal in the way that most understand it.
    In light of this the main point here is not whether Junia was or was not an apostle but whether it is right to say that evangelicals view the bible in a literal way.

    • Al,

      See how much better you make my points. I should just give up 😉

      • Dave, you will NEVER give up! At least these days we seem to be able to understand what each other are saying a bit better than we did in the past I think. Thats some form of progress I suppose!

    • I think there are so many potential ways of understanding that verse without twisting it. In the context Paul talks about another married couple, which would totally be fine within most complementarian viewpoints. I don’t think anyone I know would have a problem with saying “Terry and Wendy Virgo are well known among the apostles of Newfrontiers.”

  • Dave – You are too kind : )

    Adrian – my concern with the process of describing an evangelical is that we have seen in recent days some parties being all to quick to seemingly silence ( or ignore) voices by claiming that such people are NOT evangelical.

    I think that (although that you mean well) you have skirted on the edge of this with the comments about Rob Bell.

    I wonder whether we need to encourage the most generous description of what it means to be an evangelical in order to include those voices that we would rather reject. Rob Bell, and more recently Rachel Held Evans, have asked some important questions that evangelicalism would be poorer by ignoring.

    • Skirted round the edge? No, I think I said fairly clearly I thought Rob Bell was not approaching the Bible the way an Evangelical typically does. That doesn’t by the way mean the same thing as silencing his voice. I’m personally glad I read his book, glad it drove me back to the Bible to deepen my understanding of my own position, glad we debated, and glad for what I learnt in so doing. Having said that, I definitely couldn’t join a church where he was the Pastor!

  • Jess


    Surely your point is more about the consistent application of a methodology rather than questioning the methodology itself? Or have I not understand you properly? But then this an accusation that could b levelled at Christians of all stripes. Incidentally I don’t think literally is a helpful term nor accurate to describe Evangelical belief (see my post above).

  • It is a good try. Point #1 seems very fuzzy. That is the hard part. What do you have to believe? Can you be a pro-choice evangelical? Evangelicals won’t agree on where the lines should be. They know biblical interpretations can vary but by how much? There is not real principle nor can their be. Sola Scriptura excludes it.

    • Isn’t this “softness” to the definition also in a funny way part of its strength? To me it is definitely evidence that Evangelicalism is no denomination. It’s also why I need further markers to help explain in shorthand what I also believe…in my case “Reformed” and “Charismatic”

  • Steve

    As a Catholic who enjoys reading Evangelical work, I’m very fascinated by what you put forth in point #1. Earlier in the piece you said this:

    “But equally, three people could come from three very different religious backgrounds. 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.”

    If all three of those people whole-heartedly believe they are reading the truth of Scripture… isn’t that a bit of a problem? If a fourth person came to you and asked, “How am I supposed to know which one of those fellas is correct?”, what would you say?

    Each person may believe he is putting himself under the word of God and not investing authority in any tradition, but that is exactly what is going on. What is “Episcopalian”, “Baptist”, and “Pentacostal” except for three traditions of interpretation. What get’s lost in the mix is a very simple question, “How can I know the truth?”

    The second thought : Sure, the Scripture gets their authority from God. But how do you know what books belong in the Bible? How do you know, with infallible certainty, that the book of Hebrews is inspired by God? It is a historical fact that some human agency had to discern what books were in the canon. Every time you read the Bible, you are trusting their discernment – whether you’re willing to admit it or not.

  • Stuart B

    Hi Adrian, really appreciate your post and the great work you are doing.
    When you discuss evangelicals and their attitude to the bible it seems to be in contrast to the progressives and ‘neo-liberals’ as you call them.
    I was wondering how do you feel about those on the other end of the spectrum, in particular those in the word of faith movements, who take every verse in the bible as a promise? The TV evangelists who promise financial blessing for those who faithfully tithe or guarantee healing for everyone with enough faith? (Of course some are more extreme than others).

    For sure the reformed/Calvinist subsection is certainly critical of these movements, but I think in the wider evangelical church (and particularly the charismatics) this is certainly not the case. I would argue that guys like Greg Boyd, or indeed Rob Bell, take the bible a lot more seriously than Joel Osteen does, but may have a more nuanced hermeneutic. Indeed I think the shallow, self-help form of evangelicalism is one of the things the emergent movement is reacting against.

  • Hi Adrian:

    I”m happy to be described as an evangelical, but I do think that some of the old ‘solas’ need some rethinking. For instance, your first point, ‘A literal (where appropriate) approach to the whole Bible as the sole source of authority in the believer’s life’. Surely a Christian would have to say that the sole source of authority in their life is Jesus? He is described in the New Testament as the true and final Word of God, and everything in the Bible needs to be interpreted according to his life and teaching (this is why, as you say, huge parts of the OT law no longer apply to Christians – a strange fact if ‘the Bible’ is our sole source of authority. Martin Luther (surely the first evangelical?) is a big help to us here, when he tells us that ‘Scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child lies’.

    Then again, to say that we are saved by faith alone, and to immediately interpret that as meaning that good works play no part in our salvation, flies right in the face of a literal interpretation of the gospels, in which Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’. In that instance, obedience is obviously a part of faith.

    Then again, we’re all selective literalists. I, for instance, follow the most common interpretation of the early Church Fathers, who almost all understood the teaching of Jesus to mean that Christians are forbidden to participate in war. I take Jesus literally on this subject; other evangelicals feel free to ‘interpret’ the teaching of Jesus on this subject, while insisting that Paul must be taken literally about homosexuality. I’m quite prepared to accept that most of us evangelicals believe we take the Bible literally; I just think that we often don’t notice our own inconsistencies here!

  • Tim C – really well put. Al

  • This post certainly makes it clear to me that I am not an Evangelical, but still a Christian, which was the intention. It is perhaps harder to do some from the more Catholic side of things because however nice we are about it we do see sacraments as necessary for the fullness of salvation.

  • Susan

    In response to my comments on your blog, What is a Christian? you said that you would speak to the omissions I mentioned in this blog…but I don’t think you did. One thing I pointed out was that a true Christian is one in who God’s Spirit dwells. I think it’s important to say this because many profess to be Christians based on orthodox belief alone. You do highlight response to the gospel–being born again, but again, you don’t mention the necessity of repentance so much as just belief. I think there are a lot of false converts who say “Yes I believe.”, but who have never repented out of conviction over sin that is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Absent that work of the Spirit, leading us to repentance, I don’t think that a person can come to a point of saving faith. And, all of this would be part of what it is to be a Christian, foremost…and what it is to be Evangelical secondarily.
    That said, I appreciate your perimeters for what constitutes “Evangelical”. Interesting point about Rob Bell, BTW. I think your definition should include a clear statement about belief in a literal hell where those who are not true converts (Spirit indwelt) will experience the eternal punishment of God. I have seen our former church changes slowly but dramatically under the leadership of a pastor who appears to be a Universalist. If one does not hold to a literal hell they will gut the gospel from the back end. The doctrine of sin and the atonement are no longer of much interest and are rarely mentioned (although they remain in the Statement of Faith). Also, evangelism has become a dinosaur word and concept. The mission of the church is stated as, “A community of the new creation, living out of the gospel for the flourishing of all. It’s all about bringing human flourishing and becoming fully human. So, using your definition I can safely say at this point that it has ceased to be an Evangelical church and would fit better under the term “Progressive”. And this WAS a Brethren Church with a long-standing commitment to conservative theology! It’s sad to see that as the church reaches its 100 anniversary it is no longer Evangelical…but more Rob Bellish.

  • Bel

    hi Adrian
    I’m interested to know, as you probably have more information about it, what is happening to Billy Graham now that, after having preached the real gospel all his life, has started saying weird things such as that God is calling people from all faiths to become God’s people. He basically affirms Christ is the way to the Father, the main way if you like, but not the ONLY way. I was reminded of how affeected I was when I found out about this new side to Billy Graham after reading this post and I’m still wandering what happened to this man in the recent years, who is, or at least has been, an icon of the Christian faith, and yes, of course, of its “evangelical” form .

  • Kenny Johnson

    Hmm.. by this definition, I think I’d be excluded from the Evangelical community.

    I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the wording here — but these stuck out:

    1. I’m not sure what a literal approach to the Bible is, but the term is loaded and its not one I would use for my approach to the Bible.

    2. That belief in open theism is contrary to Evangelicalism. I tend to lean towards open theism, so I guess this also keeps me out of Evangelicalism.

    It’s ok though. Because the media and the general population tends to view Evangelicalism as nothing more than the Religious Right (which I’m not part of) and fundamentalism, I’m not sure I want the label anymore anyway.

    So maybe I should just thank Adrian for kicking me out!

  • John Lambert

    Thanks for this Adrian.

    I’m an Anglican minister who grew up Roman Catholic but have been involved in New Church circles too. I feel very at home with your attempt to define what an Evangelical is. That’s me, more or less.

    On Scripture, I often say “the Bible says” when preaching to my congregation and then go on to say something which is authoritative, not just an opinion.

    However, to say I believe the Bible should be interpreted literally would, in all conscience, leave me with a few issues. God literally created the universe, Jesus literally healed the sick, died and rose again… absolutely.

    But God created the universe in seven earth days, Adam and Eve were literally the first humans made from the ground and fashioned from a rib 6,000 years ago (not for example the first humans to have evolved with a spiritual capacity) and Job actually spoke in poetic verse – I would not be dogmatic. I think it is fine to treat Genesis 1-11 as a theological document that is true (to God, creation was no big deal, just a week’s work), not necesarily a historical/scientific document that explains how things really happened. Job, I see as a dramatic play based on real events (a bit like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Henry V) – inspired by the Holy Spirit and absolutely authoritative but not literally factual in every line of poetry.

    • I do think that all Evangelicals accept that parts of Scripture are poetic. I also believe that some who dont believe in a seven day creation are evangelicals also. Welcome!

  • Clif Loucks

    Addressing 3 Quotes by Adrian Warnock stated above:
    Q1) “nothing the Cross accomplished is possible without the resurrection,”
    Q2) “but for most evangelicals historically the primary message of the gospel has been “Jesus died for our sins.” ”
    Q3) “This has even meant that sometimes people preach the gospel without even mentioning Jesus rose again,”
    Addressing each in turn:
    A1) Hmm: Jesus uttered from the cross: tetelestai: “It is Accomplished!” in the Perfect Tense: ‘action fulfilled with continuing effect.’ Yet you say “nothing the Cross accomplished is possible without the resurrection?” Doesn’t sound like He would agree. Also: That’s NOT what Paul preached: “I determined not to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He spends considerable time preaching the imputation of righteousness for our justification, but of course, also did not neglect the entirety of the Gospel; see point 3…
    A2) You admit that what you’re teaching is NOT historically evangelical: interesting.
    The Atonement IS the primary message of the Gospel, yet the Gospel does NOT
    exclude the Resurrection: again, see point 3…
    A3) Alas, NO ONE preaches the Gospel without mentioning Jesus Christ’s Resurrection, simply due to the definition of the Gospel, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; they may preach a PORTION of the Gospel, or Emphasize what is Accomplished by the Atonement, but if they stop short of the Resurrection, they didn’t actually preach the Gospel. Here is the Scriptural definition of the Gospel: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; And that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures:”
    NOT dismissing your whole article, mind you, but those things define
    what you are talking about… God Bless.

  • Caryn LeMur

    As an American, I enjoyed your article. I was glad you avoided the de facto definition of American Evangelicals as Republican, anti-gay and anti-abortion.

    I think your article should explore ‘apparent’ and ‘real’. In American law, we have the concept of ‘apparent conflict of interest’ and ‘real conflict of interest’.

    In America, we have ‘apparent Evangelicals’ and ‘real Evangelicals’. The Vineyard church I attended was apparently Evangelical, but actually followed their leaders rather than sola scriptura; they also were pro-attendance, and not pro-evangelism. Lastly, though the spoke ‘apparently’ of sola gratia, in reality, their church was conflicted between ‘works shown by external behaviors’ vs ‘listening to someone’s words to know the abundance of their heart’.
    Sincerely; Caryn