Again, who are the evangelicals?


This post originally appeared at For the Church (here) and is slightly updated for this site.

**Another update: Tim Keller writes on this issue for the New Yorker. If you have limited time, his article should take priority. Click here.

What’s in a name? Well, sometimes a lot. People name their kids after a family member, a biblical character, or a favorite theologian. We give names to our sports teams or nicknames to our friends. Names sometimes carry weight because they often convey important information or make significant connections.

Yet, names are sometimes superficial and carry no weight at all. John Wayne, in the movie Big Jake, named his dog, Dog. I’d wager there wasn’t a lot of thought given to that name and most likely it wasn’t meant to convey any eternal truth. Nonetheless, the names given to specific things, like people or movements, are often tremendously important because they intend to communicate significant points. So it is with the term, or name, evangelical.

What does “evangelical” mean? It seems the term is used so broadly today one wonders if it has any significant meaning anymore. Historian Thomas Kidd raised this issue in the Washington Post and in a post at The Gospel Coalition. And in light of the special election in Alabama recently (listen to Albert Mohler’s review), and how “evangelicals” voted, more than one person has wondered aloud about the usefulness of the term.

At one level, such questions are a waste of time. And yet, given the name is used so often in our culture, it seems we should decide if we ourselves should (or want) to own the name. We might find the name is used to denote people and movements with which we do not align.

Identifying, or defining, evangelicalism is no easy task. Albert Mohler writes, “evangelical definition is dependent on a continual conversation and debate among evangelicals, association with evangelical institutions or churches, and identification with core evangelical beliefs” (Mohler, The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, 74). Thankfully, the “continual conversation” has taken place. A score of books covers the history and essence of evangelicalism. The best-known attempt to define the movement was written by David Bebbington in 1989. In Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to 1980’s, Bebbington identifies evangelicalism as distinguishable from that of earlier Protestant movements (e.g. Puritanism) using his now famous quadrilateral. For Bebbington, evangelicalism is that movement within Protestantism that was characterized by (1) conversionism, (2) biblicism, (3) activism, and (4) crucicentrism. Furthermore, according to Bebbington, it was activism that displayed the most noticeable discontinuity with preceding movements. Thus, evangelicalism, according to Bebbington, stood in discontinuity from previous Protestant movements.

Others have challenged the way Bebbington interprets history, arguing that evangelicalism finds earlier roots than he allows and isn’t as dependent on the Enlightenment as he suggests (see the essays edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart in The Advent of Evangelicalism). Regardless of the validity of Bebbington’s claim(s), defining evangelicalism is far from simple. Yet, it seems we must draw a line somewhere if the term is to have any useful existence. Bebbington made advances in defining the movement in 1989, but, to affirm Mohler, there must be a “continual conversation.”

The conversation about what it means to be an evangelical continues to be an important one because of the continued use of the name. It continues to be used on news broadcasts, in printed articles, and in our churches. But what does the term mean? Who are the evangelicals? We might respond by quoting Bebbington’s quadrilateral, but his criteria take us only so far. After all, what does conversionism mean? What view of the Bible qualifies as “evangelical” biblicism? What form of activism is within bounds? What does crucicentrism mean in reference to atonement theology? Are there missing elements? According to Thomas Kidd, Bebbington misses the most critical characteristic. That is, “New England evangelicalism was most markedly distinguished from earlier forms of Protestantism by new expectations for seasons of revival…” (Kidd, The Advent of Evangelicalism, 129). In other words, what theological positions must you hold (or not hold) in order to rightly claim the name of evangelical?

It seems to me “evangelical” has become a superficial and meaningless term, much like the name of John Wayne’s dog. Persons who preach health wealth and prosperity can serve on “evangelical advisory boards”. In another sense, evangelical has turned into a political term that denotes a particular voting bloc (the recent Alabama senate race is a case in point). The term seems to describe a group of people that are increasingly losing their political and cultural influence and have no clear common ground when it comes to theology in general and the evangel in particular. Thus, I simply do not know who fits the category of evangelicals.

But here is what I do know. I know I’m a follower of King Jesus. I’m one who believes in the Triune God of the Bible. I believe that God the Father sent God the Son to live a perfect life and die a justice-satisfying death in my place. I believe that the Son rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. I long for the day when he returns to judge the living and the dead, casting his enemies into hell and ushering his people into his kingdom. I believe the Spirit of God is poured out and into all who are born again. I believe that all people must repent of their sins and turn towards God through faith in Jesus. In other words, I believe we are justified by grace through faith, having our sins charged to the account of Jesus and his righteousness charged to ours. In short, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And I believe that Spirit-filled followers of the King bow to the authoritative Word of the King as they seek to carry out the Great Commission of the King. Finally, the mission of the King has a church. The church, tangibly expressed in local congregations, seeks the joy of all peoples and the fame of the name of Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the gospel and in loving service to their neighbors. And we do this until Christ returns or calls us home.

If being an evangelical means what I just described in the previous paragraph, fine. If it means something else, well … call me by another name.

What is clear is that the term evangelical is tremendously unclear. So, let’s continue the conversation about what it means to be an evangelical. And let’s own the name if we can and should. Or, let’s cast it off and come up with something else, or nothing else. At one level, I’m content to simply be known as a follower of King Jesus who is seeking to make Jesus known to all tribes and tongues.

Call me an evangelical, or don’t. Regardless, the evangel must mark my life and the life of every follower of King Jesus.

This post originally appeared at For the Church (here) and is slightly updated for this site.


3 thoughts on “Again, who are the evangelicals?

  1. Hi Jonathan! Some really interesting reflections on the term ‘evangelical’ here. I live in London, and I think perhaps the terms is more associated with politics in the US than here in the UK. I think my understanding of the word is that it is a kind of zeal for others to be converted – a very outward looking style of doing church, which aims to convert as many people as possible to the faith. This could be contrasted with Anglicanism, for instance, which (although it may profess the same goals) is rather more subdued and inward looking.

    Anyway, just thought I’d share a few thoughts, for what they’re worth! God bless you and keep writing great articles. Steven

    • Steven,

      Thanks for the comment, brother. I’ll trust your assessment of the situation in the UK. The context of my post, obviously, discusses the issue in light of the usage here in popular American culture. As for your understanding of the word and its association with those who have “a kind of zeal for others to be converted,” I think that’s historically accurate and may still reflect the situation in your context. A focus on the new birth marked early American evangelicalism. Today, I’m not sure where that fits in the theology of many who claim that name.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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