What Is the Difference Between a Christian and an Evangelical Christian?

What Is the Difference Between a Christian and an Evangelical Christian? July 8, 2022

The cross, a symbol of Christianity, Author: “Geralt,” 2014; Creative Commons.

This post seeks to differentiate an Evangelical Christian or Evangelical Christianity from Christianity in general. The majority of the post will present distinguishing traits of Evangelicalism. But first, let’s set forth a rather straightforward definition of what a Christian is.

At its most basic level, a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus as the Christ or God’s anointed one, adheres to his teaching, and follows him. This definition serves as a unifying statement between various Christian groups on the one hand and a point of tension between them on the other hand. What different Christian traditions from liberal to conservative and within ecclesial families mean by Jesus as the Christ, what constitutes his teaching, and what is entailed by following him gives rise to many theological debates. It’s not just the Devil who’s in the details. Theologians are, too!

Now let’s turn our attention to focus on Evangelical Christianity. Some Evangelicals might mistakenly present Evangelicalism as the only legitimate form of Christianity. An Evangelical Christian is a type or kind of Christian. So, what is an Evangelical Christian or Evangelical Christianity? In this article, I will focus primarily on the American context, even though Evangelical Christianity is a global movement.

Contrary to many casual observers, Evangelical Christianity is not made of one piece of cloth. So, just as it is difficult to define “Christian” in a manner that would resonate with all who profess to be one, it is quite difficult to provide a nuanced definition of Evangelical Christianity that accounts for the terminology’s characteristic elasticity and that fits all adherents. Some claim it is possible to define Evangelicalism, albeit with great care and precision. Others argue that it may be impossible or not worthy trying to come up with a definitive definition of “Evangelicalism.” This post seeks to account for the various complexities and challenges in defining Evangelical Christianity in order to articulate differences between Evangelicals and other Christians.

Evangelicals generally situate themselves in the Protestant branch of Christianity. While there are Evangelical Protestant denominations, like the Evangelical Covenant and Evangelical Free Church, Evangelical Christianity is largely a movement rather than an ecclesial tradition. This is a unique feature.

Individual Christians with evangelical instincts appear in mainline Protestantism and, depending on their particular emphases, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles. I have come across evangelically minded or evangelically-hearted believers from across the Christian continuum who emphasize the importance of personal conversion for saving faith that does not depend on ecclesial structures such as the sacraments. This emphasis on personal relationship with Jesus Christ independent of church structures is a distinctive quality of Evangelical Christianity.

Those Evangelicals who are theologically well-versed affirm the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus’ divine and human identity. Theologically inclined Evangelical Protestants adhere to the Reformation emphases on sola scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). There is a wide spectrum of Protestant Evangelicals, including those from Reformed, Arminian, and Holiness traditions, and Covenantal and Dispensationalist perspectives. So, what unites them?

Many have seen David Bebbington’s “Evangelical Quadrilateral” as definitive or characteristic of Evangelical Christians. That said, one recent scholarly article contends that “Evangelical” sometimes means more or less than Bebbington’s emphases of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Certainly, many Evangelicals see the Bible as authoritative, the cross as central, personal conversion as essential to salvation, and activism as the proper response of saving faith. But again, for many others, there is more (or less) to it than these four traits.

Just as it is difficult to define Evangelical Christianity, it is also incredibly difficult to organize Evangelicals. The fact that there is no ruling ecclesial authority that governs all Evangelical adherents makes it especially challenging. Voluntary identification with “associations” like the National Association of Evangelicals, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Luis Palau Association, help to coordinate shared ventures among Evangelicals, since no denomination unifies all Evangelical endeavors.

As stated near the outset of this article, Evangelical Christianity is not made of one cloth. To build on the fabric metaphor, Randall Balmer’s depiction of Evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America as a patchwork quilt is very fitting. As Balmer writes, a patchwork quilt is the “work of many hands,” which reflects the “rather unwieldy evangelical subculture.” Contrary to many depictions in popular media, the unwieldy nature of Evangelicalism suggests that we are all over the map at times when it comes to social and cultural issues. The best journalists are alert to such complexities. The same goes for sociologists.

Speaking of sociology, the Fundamentalist backdrop to Evangelicalism continues to play a role psychologically and sociologically, not just theologically in framing the movement. We will address this matter shortly. Of course, Evangelicals often define themselves according to beliefs, which goes back to the “fundamentals” of the faith that served to contrast the movement from Mainline Protestant Liberalism or Modernism. However, the rise of Ne0-Evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century sought to contrast itself with Fundamentalism. The contrast was not a difference of core beliefs, but the articulation and defense of those beliefs and faith in an intellectually and socially credible manner.  In short, the Neo-Evangelicals sought to reform Fundamentalism, enter the public square, and present Evangelical Christianity as a viable alternative to Protestant Liberalism.

Religion is a multi-dimensional reality that binds people together in various ways. Sometimes the binding that occurs results from a reaction to perceived or real threats. For example, the historic debate over Darwinism that came to a head after the theologically-framed fundamentals were developed was often more psychological and sociological in orientation. In seeking to understand Evangelicals, including psychological and sociological dynamics, it is important to understand the history of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the U.S.

Here I call to mind the Scopes Trial with its ensuing trauma. We must also account for the mid to late twentieth century war with Communism and the call to cultivate a virgin nation, the post-9/11 reaction to Islam, and the enduring concerns over secularism and atheism. Such historical dynamics lead many in the Fundamentalist-Evangelical movement to position themselves in reactionary, defensive, cohesive, and hallowed terms.  These factors call to mind Jonathan Haidt’s social psychological categories. Perhaps the traumatic past leads many Evangelicals to frame the movement in terms of Haidt’s moral intuitions of purity, loyalty, and authority. In contrast, Protestant Liberalism emphasizes fairness and care. The “Fighting Fundamentalist” spirit is still readily apparent in Evangelical circles, which can also impact negatively other groups’ views of Evangelicals. It is nearly impossible for those who are not Evangelicals to understand them without grasping the weighty psychological and sociological impact of the religious culture wars through the early twentieth century to the present time in the U.S.

Furthermore, there are dominant problematic emphases that rise to the surface at various times, including a nostalgic adherence to white Christian nationalism and long-standing divisions between white and black Evangelicals. Once again, the history of the movement helps us to understand what’s going on presently. Wounded people wound others. That said, there is no one Evangelical form of political expression or singular stance on various social issues. There is no uniform response on such topics as abortion, immigration reform, race, climate change, homosexuality and gay marriage, gender, other religions like Islam, and evolution, to the chagrin of some.

Like Christianity as a whole, Evangelicalism is a global movement and needs to account for the global church to safeguard against monolithic patterns of thought and life. American Evangelicals in the United States would do well to look abroad to guard against allowing American cultural patterns and concerns to dominate our understanding of what gospel witness looks like today. The First Lausanne Congress of 1974, which brought together over 2,000 evangelical leaders from across the world, signed a covenant statement that read: “The church is the community of God’s people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology.”

In addition to looking across the globe, Evangelicals must also cross barriers and engage the ecumenical landscape here close to home. We who are Evangelicals need to connect not simply with adherents of our own movement but also with the rest who confess Christ. Evangelicals have much to teach and offer and a great deal to learn and gain. According to In One Body through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal of Christian Unity, Evangelical Christians’ “vitality, … zeal for evangelism, and … commitment to Scripture,” are invaluable. Evangelicals “demonstrate a spirit of cooperation with each other and sometimes with others that breaks down old barriers, creates fellowship among formally estranged Christians, and anticipates further unity. The free-church ecclesiologies of some Evangelicals bring a distinct vision of unity to the ecumenical task.” Evangelicals should “accept invitations to participate” in ecumenical discussions, “discern and celebrate living faith beyond their boundaries,” “practice hospitality and pursue catholicity” (unity of the whole church), and use “their resources” to “work for the health of all Christian communities.”

In light of the preceding discussion on building bridges, we now draw near to a close. As important as it is to define and differentiate “Christian” and “Evangelical Christian,” it is also essential that we unite Christian and Evangelical Christian. After all, as the old song goes, “They will know we are Christians”— not ultimately by our precise definitions and theological distinctives but—”by our love.” As the Lord himself prayed the night of his passion, may “all of them … be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:21-23; NIV) Jesus longs for us to pursue sanctity in the word of truth and love (John 17:17, 21-23).

Rigorous religious conviction is critical, but so, too, is charity and intellectual humility. While challenging, the two can go together and must if the Christian movement is to follow Jesus, who is the embodiment of grace and truth (John 1:14). The Devil and theologians may be in the details, but all Christians need to immerse themselves in what is entailed by sacrificial love for one another and for the world at large.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Eerdmans, 2007) and Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (co-authored with Brad Harper; Brazos, 2009). You can read more about the author here.

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