Church: What Is an Evangelical?

What is an “evangelical” Christian? We are members of the National Association of Evangelicals, and we have called ourselves an evangelical denomination. When we use this word to describe ourselves, what are we saying?

“Evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “gospel,” so we might expect that an evangelical Christian puts a high priority on the gospel — but this is not always the way the word is used. In some places, evangelical simply means Protestant; in others places it practically means Pentecostal. Some people want to define the term narrowly and others more broadly. Some people desire this label; others despise it.

Sociologists use the term evangelical for believers and churches that are more conservative than average. This segment of Christianity is growing (though that says nothing about its theological accuracy), and its members report more commitment to their faith and more involvement in their churches. This category includes churches that belong to the NAE as well as congregations and individuals that are in mainline Protestant denominations or in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Evangelical is often distinguished from “fundamentalist” — a term that originally meant Christians who believed in five major fundamentals of the faith, but which eventually came to be associated with ultraconservatives who were against scholarly studies, against new translations, against anything new, and generally against anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist. Some of the more opinionated fundamentalists gave conservative Christianity a bad name, and in the 1950s moderate conservatives began to group themselves under the “evangelical” label to give themselves some verbal distance from their right-wing cousins.

So what is an evangelical? Alister McGrath, an evangelical Anglican, offered six major distinctives of evangelical Christianity: 1) The supreme authority of Scripture, 2) Jesus Christ as incarnate God, 3) the Holy Spirit, 4) personal conversion, 5) evangelism, and 6) the importance of the Christian community (Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, InterVarsity Press, 1995, pp. 55-56). These six beliefs are not a hard and fast boundary, but in general they serve to mark the boundary between evangelicalism and mainstream Protestantism. (A different list of beliefs and practices would be needed to describe the boundary between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.)

Evangelicals have much in common, yet are fragmented, often by doctrine. Though they all accept the authority of the Bible, they interpret it in different ways. Some baptize infants, some stress predestination, some speak in tongues, some insist on a specific form of governance, some emphasize social work. Perhaps this variety is better than enforced conformity, but it can make Christianity appear to be obsessed with trivialities — and indeed, sometimes we Christians do get distracted by such issues.

As you know, I have repeatedly noted our need to emphasize the main things, not peripheral matters. We can and do have beliefs about the periphery, but we must not emphasize them so much that we create barriers, as if people who don’t agree with us could not possibly be converted. We of all people should know that it is possible for Christians to be wrong about important matters, and we should understand the need to be charitable toward others who serve Christ as best they know how.

For these reasons, we strive to keep our central beliefs relatively simple, rather than lengthening our list of what’s “essential.”

I found a recent book by John Stott particularly refreshing: Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness(InterVarsity, 1999). Stott has been an evangelical leader in England for 50 years, so he is well acquainted with theological diversity, and he has consistently advocated patience and peace. So I’ll highlight some of the key points that he makes in his book. Stott distills the essentials of evangelicalism down to three doctrines: revelation from God, the redemption of Christ, and the transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit.

The gospel is tightly connected to these three priorities — it is revealed by God, centers on the cross of Christ, and is effective through the work of the Holy Spirit. Stott uses 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to make these six points about the gospel: 1) it is about Christ, 2) it is based on the Scriptures, 3) it is rooted in history, 4) it proclaims a theological significance to Jesus’ death, 5) it is the message of the apostles, and 6) it is personal, in that people receive it, take their stand on it, hold on to it, and are saved by it.

The death of Jesus is of central importance. The ceremony that Jesus gave us to remember him is a memorial of his death. That is how he wanted to be remembered, and that is indeed the most distinctive feature of the Christian faith. Jesus died for us, for our sins. There are several theories of why his death saves us, but Scripture repeatedly says that we are saved through his death — he died for us, for our sins. Stott puts it this way: “Christ died as our substitute — instead of us — so that we might not have to die for our sins…but he also died as our representative, so that when he died we died with him” (p. 81).

Justification is the theological link between Christ’s crucifixion and our salvation. Because of what Christ did on the cross, we can be justified — counted as righteous — accepted by God — completely forgiven — our sins no longer counted against us. (Scripture uses a variety of words to convey the idea.) Stott sees five important aspects of justification: 1) it comes by grace, 2) it is based on Christ’s death, 3) we must be “in Christ” — united to him and his church, 4) it is received by faith — and faith is not a “work” that earns our salvation. “Faith has no function but to receive what grace freely offers” (p. 78) and 5) justification is given so that we are led by the Holy Spirit in a new life — “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10).

Faith and works are both enabled by the Holy Spirit, the third essential element of evangelical faith. Christian life begins with a spiritual rebirth, a regeneration. The Holy Spirit comes into us and we are born anew, born of the Spirit, born from above. We have been given a new life, and the Spirit within us assures us that we are indeed God’s children. We can know, we can have confidence, we can be sure, because our salvation does not rest upon our fallible performance, but upon the work Christ has already finished.

But there is still work being done in our lives, the work of the Holy Spirit leading us in a life of obedience and good works. There is work being done in the church, the body of believers. Evangelicals do not have a sophisticated theology of the church, but the church is important in evangelical life and faith. It is important in our worship, our ministry to one another, and our mission to the world around us.

Fundamentalists often retreat from the world, viewing the church as a place of safety in which they may hide from the evils around them. In decades past, evangelicals often fell into this fortress mentality, too, but this has been changing. Evangelicals now average higherlevels of social involvement than either fundamentalists or mainstream Protestants. They are taking seriously Jesus’ command to love your neighbor, and they are making a difference for the kingdom through the good works that we are called to do.

This side of Jesus’ return, evangelicals will probably never have organizational unity. We will always come to different conclusions on peripheral doctrines, and we will always have different denominations promoting those different conclusions. These doctrines may be important, but they should never become so important that they become our focus, nor should they be mental barriers that prevent us from recognizing other believers as Christians. They should not prevent us from worshipping with and working with people who share the essentials of the faith: respect for God’s revelation, a trust in salvation by grace based on Christ’s crucifixion, and a recognition of the necessity of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

Christianity has a tremendous depth, touching on a wide variety of human endeavors and ideas. It has enormous complexity, for those who want to plumb its depths, but at its heart it is simple. There is a basic “core” Christianity — a belief that we can be set right with God through the death of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Scriptures. Salvation does not depend on the kind of clothes we wear, the days we meet on, whether we drink coffee, whether we interpret the millennium literally or figuratively, our understanding of predestination, or a host of other issues that Christians are sometimes concerned about. It is not wrong to study such matters, but we need to keep our focus clear.

Note: If you are interested in the history and definition of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, here are a few sources you might consult, and a few quotes from them:

“Evangelicalism. A movement in North American Christianity that emphasizes the classical Protestant doctrines of salvation, the church and the authority of the Scriptures, but in the American context it is characterized by stress on a personal experience of the grace of God, usually termed the new birth or conversion” (B.L. Shelley, in Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel Reid (InterVarsity, 1990), p. 413).

“Evangelicalism. A movement in modern Christianity emphasizing the gospel of forgiveness and regeneration through personal faith in Jesus Christ, and affirming orthodox doctrines” (Millard J. Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Baker, 1986), p. 52.)

“Evangelicalism. A modern Christian movement which transcends confessional and denominational boundaries to emphasize conformity to the basic principles of the Christian faith and a missionary outreach of compassion and urgency…. “The term first came into use during the Reformation to distinguish Protestants from Roman Catholics, and it stressed the centrality of Christ, grace, faith and Scripture…. Even today evangelical is synonymous with ‘Protestant’ in much of Europe” (Richard V. Pierard, in New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 2nd edition, edited by J.D. Douglas (Baker, 1991), p. 311).

“Fundamentalism. Movement which first took shape primarily in the United States as a protest of conservative Protestants against theological modernism in the early 20th century. In reaction to more naturalistic theologies, fundamentalists emphasized certain fundamental doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Christ, and the second coming. (The exact list of these ‘fundamentals’ has varied)” George Marsden, in J.D. Douglas, p. 345).

“Fundamentalism. A movement organized in the early twentieth century to defend orthodox Protestant Christianity against the challenges of theological liberalism, higher criticism of the Bible, evolution and other modernisms judged to be harmful to traditional faith…. During the 1950s Norman Furniss and Ray Ginger defined fundamentalism primarily in terms of its pervasive anti-intellectualism, as seen in its opposition to evolution and other kinds of modern thought” (T.P. Weber, in Reid, pp. 461-462).

“After the controversies of the 1920s, many fundamentalists withdrew from major American denominations and formed their own networks of organizations” (Marsden, p. 346).

“The years after World War 2 saw a dramatic turn-around. In the judgment of many conservative Protestants, fundamentalism had reached unacceptable positions in its resistance to American culture” (Shelley, p. 416).

“Around the time of World War II, some elements within the conservative or fundamentalist party grew dissatisfied with their isolation and wish to see a more broadly based cultural, theological, and ecclesiastical engagement. Describing themselves as ‘evangelicals,’ they set out to build coalitions of cooperation in evangelism, missionary work, and unity against liberalism” (Pierard, p. 312).

“Within a broad unity based on commitment to the Bible as its religious authority and on the gospel of Christ’s saving work as the church’s central message, we can identify at least seven evangelical traditions of faith:

  • Evangelicals in the Reformation tradition, primarily Lutheran and Reformed Christians.
  • Wesleyan evangelicals, such as the Church of the Nazarene
  • Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicals, such as the Assemblies of God
  • Black evangelicals, with their own distinctive witness to the gospel
  • The countercultural churches (sometimes called Peace Churches), such as the evangelical Quakers and Mennonites
  • Several traditionally white Southern denominations, led by the Southern Baptists
  • The spiritual heirs of fundamentalism found in independent churches and many parachurch agencies” (Shelley, p. 416).

Author: Joseph Tkach


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