What Is an “Evangelical?”

What Is an “Evangelical?” June 21, 2016

What Is an “Evangelical?”

To learn quickly and simply what an “evangelical Christian” is you can do no better than peruse the web site of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) at www.nae.net. There, on the web site’s “front page” you will find links to such defining tools as the NAE Statement of Faith and answer to “What Is an Evangelical?”

The NAE does not claim to speak for all evangelical Christians, but it is far and away the most important and historically influential organization for uniting evangelical Christians in the U.S.A. for purposes of cooperation.

The reason I am posting this essay here is that my blog contains the word “evangelical” as part of my own self-definition. Due to the secular media’s ongoing misguided and misleading effort to define “evangelical” as a political posture people are naturally confused when they discover that I am a lifelong, “card carrying” evangelical and politically progressive—especially with regard to economic issues. I strongly believe in government redistribution of wealth such that many people would regard my political-economic posture as “socialism”—in the Northern European sense of the term. (My Scandinavian genes perhaps incline me that way, but I believe faith in Jesus Christ is the real reason for my belief in redistribution of wealth.)

The NAE adamantly rejects any identification of “evangelical” with a particular political ideology or even posture. Historically and theologically that is correct—even if most people in the United States who identify themselves to pollsters as “evangelical” also identify as conservative Republicans. Here is an analogy. Probably most people in the United States who identify themselves as “Unitarian” also would identify themselves to pollsters, if asked, as liberal Democrats. Historically-theologically, however, there is no necessary link between the two (viz., being Unitarian and being politically liberal).

My point is that if you consider the NAE as the major “voice” of evangelicals in the United States, as it was throughout the 1950s and beyond and still probably is (except for the secular media which has no “credentials” for defining “evangelical” historically-theologically), then there is no necessary connection between being evangelical and being conservative in the sense of supporting the goals and aims of the current Republican Party.

Again, the NAE does not pretend to speak for all evangelicals in the United States or elsewhere, but since its founding in 1942 it has served as the single most important “voice” for evangelicalism in the United States. Nobody in the NAE leadership would claim that a person or organization must belong to it or even agree with every single word or sentence in its Statement of Faith to be authentically evangelical. However, its Statement of Faith was carefully and cautiously crafted by the founders to be as inclusive as possible without being compatible with anything and everything. Denominations as diverse as the Christian Reformed Church and the Church of the Nazarene have been members. (Some evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention have never officially joined the NAE but have participated in its programs at a non-member level and sent non-voting “observers” to its board meetings.)

One of the NAE’s most important programs is its World Relief Commission that raises funds for suffering people around the world.

The NAE has had its “ups and downs” in recent years. Some of what has happened in it has saddened and even upset me. One president was ousted due to his strong suggestion that the NAE drop its policy that member denominations cannot also belong to the National Council of Churches. Another president was discovered to be secretly living a lifestyle incompatible with evangelical Christian morality (viz., paying a prostitute for sex). Every organization has problems from time to time, but I think the main reason for what many of us perceive as a decline in the influence of the NAE is the media’s constant identification of the concept “evangelical” with relatively extreme political, social and economic conservatism. This has caused many evangelicals in the U.S. to shy away from the very word “evangelical.”

I consider myself “evangelical” in the general sense of the word as defined by the NAE which shaped my early spiritual and theological formation. My uncle, with whom I was very close (and still am), was a member of the national board of the NAE for many years. When I was struggling to settle on a religious self-definition in my late teens and early twenties he and I had numerous conversations. I came to agree and identify with the broad evangelicalism of the NAE. Eventually I studied the history of the NAE. It was founded in 1942* to provide a cooperative “umbrella” for non-fundamentalist, non-liberal, gospel-centered Protestants in the United States. At its founding it included a diverse group of relatively conservative Protestants in the U.S.—ranging from the Presbyterians to Pentecostals. (*I have chosen 1942 for the NAE’s founding because that year falls between its initial exploratory meeting in 1941 and its first official convention in 1943. I believe the actual “birth” of the NAE can best be pegged to 1942.)

Over the years at least 50 distinct denominations have joined the NAE which also includes numerous individual churches and trans-denominational organizations. The current president is highly respected evangelical pastor Leith Anderson, by all descriptions a moderate theologically. (I have met him and heard him speak and we belonged to the same Baptist denomination for some years. He also served on the governing board of the college and seminary where I taught from 1984 to 1999. While I do not agree with everything he has done or said I consider him a good representative spokesperson for contemporary American evangelical Christianity. I wish more media people would turn to him instead of to certain neo-fundamentalists when they seek a resource to explain American evangelicalism.)

There is no single person or organization that speaks for all American evangelicals. In some sense evangelist Billy Graham was viewed by most American evangelicals as the main spokesman for them, even though he was never an “evangelical pope.” With Graham’s retirement many individuals calling themselves “evangelical” have attempted to replace him as the recognized spokesperson for American evangelicalism, but to date no one has achieved that recognition. Most of those wishing to be recognized as the spokesperson for American evangelicalism work out of theological orientations that would have been considered “fundamentalist” by the NAE’s founders.

I will end this blog post by coming around to where it began and its main purpose. If you want to know what “evangelical” means you can do no better than look at and examine the web site of the National Association of Evangelicals at www.nae.net. While I do not commit myself to agreeing to everything you find there, I still consider myself “evangelical” in that broad sense and I do not allow the popular media to define “evangelical” for me.

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