What is an Evangelical?

The definition of evangelical is one of the hardest things to pin down. It has a long and complex history. In the United States its beginnings were closely connected to Billy Graham and Christianity Today. I am not so interested in the history (at least not for this post), I want to know what the term means today.

For some people (both adherents and critics), evangelicals represent a certain political stance. It is also often connected to certain social positions with regard to homosexuality and abortion. There are some who were raised in the evangelical church who have taken a different path on some of these issues and now self-describe as post-evangelicals. Some equate evangelicals with intolerance and hate (see my When It is Wrong to be Right).

I self-describe as an Evangelical and I am not ashamed of the label, even if I am embarrassed by some of those who share the label. But what does evangelical mean?

I would start with a belief in orthodox Christian theology. By this I mean the trinity, incarnation, deity of Christ, resurrection of Jesus and salvation by grace. Evangelicals, however, place more emphasis on two other doctrines.

One is a high view of Scripture. Even if they believe in the Wesleyan quadrilateral, there is one of the four that is more equal than the others. The Bible is not just a collection of reflections by people who believed they had experienced God. The Bible is the inspired Word of God and it is something that we can rely on for us to know and follow God through Jesus Christ. This does not mean that all evangelicals believe in a Norm Geisler style of inerrancy (although many do) but rather there is simply a high view of Scripture.

Another aspect is that of a personal relationship with God rather than just describing oneself as an adherent to a religion. This likely goes back to the Wesleyan revivals. For many evangelicals, this means praying the “sinner’s prayer,” but that is not required. There are many people who are raised in the church and who enter into this relationship without being able to pinpoint the moment.

There is one more thing that I want to touch on. The word evangelical goes back to the Greek for Gospel or Good News. I am not sure how one can be evangelical without focusing on the Good News. The Good News is much more than just Jesus dying on the cross so we can go to heaven. The Good News is about God’s Kingdom coming to earth (with Jesus’ death and resurrection being major steps in that). Every time we submit to God’s will, every time we follow God’s commands, the Kingdom is spreading. This may horrify some, but helping the poor and feeding the hungry are integral to being evangelical. Helping the needy is not a slippery slope into liberalism, it is Kingdom living and therefore evangelicalism.

I may disagree with some evangelicals and they may disagree with me, but what matters is that we are Good News people. As for my post-evangelical friends, what does it mean to be post-Good News?

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