Language must have meaning to be of any use, even in a post-truth society. Evangelical is becoming a contested term – rejected by some and stretched to breaking point by others.
Evangelical support for Trump has caused many in the U.S. to be wary of the term. At the same time Rob Bell and Steve Chalke have sought to claim the term while holding controversial views on the atonement, hell and sexuality.
So is it a matter of self-identification? Should we abandon the term? Or perhaps add qualifiers such as ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’?
The Evangelical Alliance was formed in London 1846 and is the oldest body representing evangelicals in the U.K. Over the years there have been discussions about whether to change the name, but we have always felt the term is worth holding onto and when necessary, redeeming.
So, what is an evangelical? Well, it comes from the Greek word ‘evangelion’ which is usually translated ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. So evangelicals are passionate about, and want to be defined by, the good news of Jesus.
Those who adopted the evangelical label were often contrasting themselves with those who were simply religious or defined by tradition. There is an inherent passion to share the good news about Jesus in the way that the New Testament Gospel writers are called ‘evangelists’.
So evangelicals are defined by good news – an event that really happened in the form of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and an event that is good for society – it changed everything allowing restored relationship with God. This gives a direction of travel, but surely more definition is possible.
Evangelicals can trace their roots (beyond the New Testament) to the radical preacher and translator John Wycliffe and the prophetic Czech church leader Jan Hus. Evangelicalism as we know it today was decisively shaped by the Protestant Reformation and particularly the ideas of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and John Wesley stressed assurance of salvation and activism in preaching the gospel and engaging in good works.
Key studies by David Bebbington and Alister McGrath have identified five key characteristics of an evangelical:
1. The centrality of the Bible – Through the Bible, the God who is objectively there has revealed universal and eternal truth to humankind in such a way that all can grasp it. This is not about literalism, but whether the Bible is true and authoritative for our lives.
2. The centrality of Christ – God’s eternal Word became human in the historical man Jesus, who definitively reveals God to humanity.
3. The centrality of the cross – The good news of God’s revelation in Christ is seen supremely in the cross, where atonement was made for people of every race, tribe and tongue.
4. The importance of conversion – The truth of the gospel becomes personal through repentance – that is, a discernible reorientation of the sinner’s whole life towards God.
5. Activism – Gospel truth must be demonstrated in evangelism and social action.
Though some have conflated evangelicalism with the Christian right and fundamentalism, they are not the same. In simple terms, the Christian Right often includes non-evangelicals (e.g. Catholics and Mormons) and many are concerned that at times it pushes a political and ideological agenda at odds with the gospel. Also, many evangelicals would identify with the political left.
Fundamentalism and evangelicalism share some history, but the former tends to be more prescriptive on issues such as creation, Israel and women in church leadership, whereas evangelicals tend to agree to disagree on such matters. This space to disagree well can be challenging, but a generous orthodoxy requires us to continue to strive to do this better.
It is worth noting that while the term evangelical is used to distinguish, it has a rich history of uniting people. Our churches contain a diverse range of people and beliefs. Many have found it helpful to unite across church boundaries around the characteristics listed above. The Evangelical Alliance does just that, reaching beyond denominational boundaries to unite evangelicals in mission and voice.
For me, evangelicalism is not so much about drawing boundaries and deciding who is in or out. Rather, it is a dynamic movement, calling people to the standard or banner of the King of Kings. We love Jesus and want people to encounter him. We love the Bible and take it seriously, letting it rule our lives. We love the church and want it to thrive. We love the public square and want to equip Christians to flourish in it.
Given all that, I confess – I am an evangelical!