Monday, September 12, 2016

What Is an "Evangelical?"

* Written for a segment called the "Pastor's Pen" for our weekly church bulletin.

Last week someone in the congregation asked me a great question that I thought would be good to answer in this week’s Pastor’s Pen.  You will notice that each week we pray for a nation of the world.  This week we are praying for Nigeria.  Added in the information given are the population numbers for “Christians” and “evangelicals.”  The question I received had to do with the definition of “evangelical”—“What is the definition of an evangelical in distinction from Christian?” 

The word “evangelical” is derivative from the word “evangel” (from the Greek word euangellion) which is the gospel.  British theologian Alister McGrath helpfully notes:

Evangelical is thus the term chosen by evangelicals to refer to themselves, as representing most adequately the central concern of the movement for the safeguarding and articulation of the evangel—the good news of God which has been made known and made possible in Jesus Christ.

The book Operation World and its smaller, abridged version Pray for the World are resources used to reference the population numbers in our “Pray for the World” section in our bulletin.  There is also an online listing of the nations to pray for everyday at  The Operation World website has the following definitions which are used to inform their work:

Anyone who professes to be Christian. The term embraces all traditions and confessions of Christianity. It is no indicator of the degree of commitment or theological orthodoxy. The primary emphasis utilized is that of recognizing self-identification as well as accepting the Scriptural principles illustrated in Matt 10:32 and Romans 10:9.

All who emphasize and adhere to all four of the following:

                The Lord Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation through faith in Him, as validated by His crucifixion and resurrection. 
                Personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit. 
                Recognition of the inspired Word of God as the ultimate basis and authority for faith and Christian living. 
                Commitment to biblical witness, evangelism and mission that brings others to faith in Christ. 
Evangelicals are largely Protestant, Independent or Anglican, but some are Catholic or Orthodox. It is one of the TransBloc movements in this book. 

This definition is very close but not identical to the definition introduced in David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s as the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which offered crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism as the four qualities of evangelicalism. 

Evangelicals are enumerated in Operation World as: 

                All affiliated Christians (church members, their children, other participants of the faith community) of denominations that are definitively evangelical in theology as explained above. 
                The proportion of the affiliated Christians in other denominations (that are not wholly evangelical in theology) who would hold evangelical views, whether Western in origin or otherwise.

This is a theological and not an experiential definition. It does not mean that all evangelicals as defined above are actually born-again. In many nations, only 10-40% of evangelicals so defined may have had a valid conversion and regularly attend church services. However, it does show how many people align themselves with churches where the gospel is being proclaimed as such. 

In the above mention was made of the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”  In that a number of researchers use this definition it is important to know its content.  Here are the four points with some brief definitions. 

1.     Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g., all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages.
2.     Crucicentrism [cross-centered]: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
3.     Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.
4.     Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.

There are, of course, others definitions of “evangelical.”  For example, Francis Schaeffer wrote that to be evangelical was to be:

Bible-believing without shutting one’s self off from the full spectrum of life, and in trying to bring Christianity into effective contact with the current needs of society, government and culture.  It had a connotation of leading people to Christ as Savior, but then trying to be salt and light in the culture.

John Dickerson, in his book The Great Evangelical Recession, comments on Schaeffer’s description (which is primarily given for American evangelicals):

Schaeffer emphasizes the “full-spectrum” of living in the culture.  Here, Schaeffer points out the practical distinctive of American evangelicals.  We have a heritage of intentionally interacting with the culture in a positive way, rather than isolating and reacting or submitting and capitulating to it.  This “engaged orthodoxy” stands noticeably apart from the spiritual bunker mentality that defined American fundamentalism.  It also stands apart from the spongy plurality that defines theologically liberal Protestants.

Defining and describing “evangelical” can be difficult but hopefully the above helps us better understand some of the defining characteristics of what it is to be “evangelical.”  Ultimately, at the theological level, evangelicals are concerned about the gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ!

* Quotations from Dickerson, McGrath, and Schaeffer all come from John S. Dickerson The Great Evangelical Recession (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013)--Appendix C "Defining 'Evangelical'" pages 229-232.

**Also of interest may be J. P. Moreland's brief essay Defining "Evangelical" in Public Discourse.