What Is An Evangelical? Part 1
First off, thanks to The Evangelical Outpost for providing a summary answer to this question that answers everything I’ve read on the subject–this post is largely based off of that summary.
So now, on to business: What, just what, is an evangelical?
It is a word fraught with many meanings…okay, really there is one central meaning. The word evangelical, at its root, is unavoidably tied to the Gospels. The word evangel, or “good news,” is the word used of the four Gospels in our New Testament. So, at root, an evangelical is one who follows the Gospels. Sounds simple.
The “evangelical church” is a term originating with Martin Luther during the Reformation. Describing his church, he coined the phrase evangelische kirke, which is still used to describe the Lutheran church today. So, given the above definition, an “evangelical church” is one that places primary emphasis on the Gospels. Sounds even simpler.
But here’s where things get a little wonky for us.
As the Great Awakening emerged, the term “evangelical” came to be used of the preachers, churches, movements, and denominations that arose from this period. Some prominent evangelicals of this time (can they be called proto-evangelicals?) include Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles and John Wesley. So now we have “evangelical” referring to preachers, churches, and denominations that not only followed the Gospels as their primary emphasis but also placed a large chunk of real estate on fulfilling the Great Commission, or evangelism (spreading the Good News to those who are lost). Still simple, but a little more complex.
The World Evangelical Alliance puts this definition very practically: “By definition an evangelical is someone concerned for the gospel. This means more than that he preaches the gospel now and then. It means that for him the gospel of Christ is central. It is, of course, his message and he preaches it, constantly. But it is more than a subject of preaching. The gospel is at the centre of his thinking and living.”
But now, the modern use of the term “evangelical” further complicates the matter. It now refers to:
- conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
- the Bible, or the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
- activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifest in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies);
- the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans.
As you can see, we have now gone beyond simple adherence to the Gospel and the spreading of that Gospel to a theological framework. “Evangelical” now refers to preachers, churches, and denominations that not only follow the Gospel and spread it, but believe that the salvation of souls, the primacy of Scripture, Christian service, and the centrality of Christ’s work are the central tenets of faith. This looks good, and is actually a biblical framework.
We also call churches that follow this framework “evangelical.” This encompasses Southern Baptists, most Pentecostals and Charismatics, some Reformed churches, conservative wings of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, among others.
Modern evangelicals, it would seem, are not fundamentalists. None of the “evangelicals” I know or have talked to around campus and elsewhere would like having that term ascribed to them. I’ve always said a fundamentalist is much more accurately found in Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Independent churches and denominations. A fundamentalist, to us, is seen as an “anti-intellectual separatist” who is very hostile to the secular world. You know who these people are–they’re the ones screaming about the evils of Halloween, the Catholic church, the evils of Eastern meditation in the martial arts, the evils of dancing, and the need for women to wear ankle-length dresses and long sleeve shirts, among other things. While a lot of evangelicals do make a point of these things, the last two (dancing and ankle-length dresses) underscores what a fundamentalist really is: a Christian Pharisee. Evangelicals are not, or at least we strive not to be, Pharisees.
So, in conclusion, an “evangelical” is a person (preacher), church, or denomination that has the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially the primacy of Christ’s work, as the central article of faith; that believes the spreading of the Gospel and the salvation of souls is the number one duty of the Christian; that believes all moral/spiritual truth is found in the Bible; and that Christians are called to live lives of service before God and fellow man.
So far, so good. I like this definition of “evangelical.” You could sign me up in a heartbeat…oh wait, I’m already there. I think that a good next step would be to examine each of these points in a little more detail. Again, thanks to The Evangelical Outpost for providing an excellent summary of everything I’ve read on the above information!