“Evangelical” and “Evangelicalism”
and their Status in the 21st Century
This is not a deep, scholarly theological treatise on the overall subject of “Evangelical” or the related “Evangelicalism.” Rather it is a simple, down-to-earth, easy-to-understand, practical, no-nonsense evaluation of the meaning of the terms and the use or misuse of those terms in the reporting or discussion of religion today.
It is clearly evident that there is much confusion, or at least lack of agreement, as to the meaning of the term. A recent Ellison Research report disclosed that 36% of all adult Americans say they have “no idea what characterizes an evangelical.” The report said “almost half of all Americans don’t really know what an ’evangelical Christian’ is, and the rest generally can’t agree on a definition.”
The present use or misuse of “Evangelical” and related terminology is confusing and an obstacle to a correct understanding of what the terms really mean. The media, print and/or broadcast, is perhaps the greatest offender. To them any individual or church (whether a denomination or an individual congregation) which is more conservative in theological thought than whatever the “average” belief is conceived to be, is labeled “Evangelical.” To some the term “Evangelical” is taken to be the equivalent of “Protestant.” To others the focus is even sharper, and ”Evangelical” is considered to mean “Pentecostal.“ Thus in some quarters the term is defined very narrowly; in others much more broadly.
Because of the broad, very frequent use and/or misuse of the terms, and because of the extreme importance of the concept in the overall ministry of the Christian faith, the world’s largest religion, it is important to establish the meaning of just what these terms really mean.
First, let us accept the fact that standard definitions do little to help clarify the issue. For example, the new American Heritage dictionary offers (among other choices) this definition: "A member of an evangelical church." Not particularly enlightening. An Oxford dictionary offering is considerably more meaningful: "... of a branch of Protestantism emphasizing biblical authority." The Merriam Webster Collegiate Encyclopedia offers this: "...stresses conversion experiences; the Bible as the only rule for faith ." Our citing more sources would only produce more of the same, or similar.
For every day, practical use, the Barna Research Group of Ventura, CA, a pre-eminent Christian research organization, offers these breakouts from the broad term "Christian:" First, "Born again" is taken to mean those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and who believe they will go to Heaven upon death because they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Second, "Evangelical" is taken to mean those who are "Born again" and who have certain other convictions, including the belief that their faith is very important in their daily lives and that they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, their belief in Christ, with non-Christians. We are not going to rely on published definitions, nor are we going to dwell on the fact that although the term "Evangelical" is not found in the Bible, it does come from the New Testament Greek word euangelion which means "good news" or "gospel," and essentially the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." (Acts 11:26) And aside from the term "disciple," which is used some 300 times in the New Testament, that one use is the only time the followers of Jesus were referred to as "Christians" -- and they were never referred to as "Evangelicals." Throughout the New Testament the followers of Jesus were called "disciples." In His Great Commission at the close of His earthly ministry, Jesus instructed His followers to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, and make disciples of all men. (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15; NIV) So we are not discussing a Bible-based concept or a biblical term, but rather one which men have created for the purpose of defining some Christians based on their doctrinal or theological beliefs.
Second, there is little point in tracing the history of the Evangelical movement, because at certain times in the history of any movement the men involved at that moment in its history have shaped the function and purpose of the movement at that point in time. For example, a major development in the history of the Evangelical movement was the creation of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) in London in 1846. It is still functioning as just that - an alliance of individuals and churches of Evangelical convictions. In 1954, the EA sponsored the Billy Graham crusade in London which opened the door to the international spread of evangelism in the 20th century. In 1867, the American EA was established, but in 1908, it became the Federal Council of Churches, and in 1950, the National Council of Churches - hardly a conservative or evangelical organization by any standard.
The motivating factor in the development of the Evangelical movement in America was the sharp division among the Christian church in the early years of the 20th century - the division between Modernists and Fundamentalists. In those first decades of the 20th century, the broad theological spectrum ran from right to left with these groupings essentially following the traditional bell shaped curve: Fundamentalist, Conservative, Liberal and Modernist. The further to the left an individual's theological viewpoints were positioned, the more the authority of the Scriptures was weakened. Theologically conservative Christian ministers and others in positions of leadership who believed strongly in the authority of the Bible, took their stand under the banner of the basic fundamentals of the Christian faith. As a result they were labeled "Fundamentalists." In time that term became a target for ridicule, criticism and even open antagonism.
At the start, these five were considered as the essential fundamentals:
1. The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture;
2. The virgin birth of Christ;
3. The belief that Christ's death was atonement for sin;
4. The bodily resurrection of Christ;
5. The historical reality of Christ's miracles.
Somewhere in the early 1940s, the Fundamentalist groups were infiltrated by some much stricter leaders, and the concept of "separation" became a dominant theme. In those years a litany became popular to the effect that the "5 Cardinal Sins of Fundamentalism" were Smoking, Drinking, Dancing, Card-playing and the Movies -- not one of which is specifically addressed in the Scriptures.
Then in 1942 a new association of like minded Christian believers was formed: the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Now a new term was established, and "Evangelical" began to take the place of the older "Fundamentalist." And as that term began to fade away, so did its diametrical opposite, "Modernist." But "Conservative" and "Liberal" were still valid designations. and somewhere in that major space on the bell shaped curve, the new designation of "Evangelical" found its place.
Thus by not relying on dictionary or encyclopedic definitions and by not dwelling on the history of the use of the term “Evangelical,” we can be much more sharply focused on the use and meaning of that term in religious thought today .
The entry of the term “Evangelical” into present-day theological vocabulary essentially began with establishment of the NAE, which was formed to counteract a drift toward the extreme right, to the extreme forms of fundamentalism. The concept of "separation" -- not at all a non-Scriptural concept, if not taken to excess -- became almost one of "segregation." The mission of the Church which Jesus Christ established, to evangelize the world and make disciples of all men was thus seriously impaired.
Those extremists advocated a Christian life style based on "don'ts," things that a Christian must not do in order to develop a spiritual life. But a person does not become spiritual by not doing things. If that were true, a corpse would be the most spiritual person in the world, because he isn't doing anything. To become a spiritual Christian requires a positive action -- "be filled with the Spirit," (Eph. 5:18, ff)
The positions taken by some of the more strident and opinionated fundamentalists were giving the Conservative view of the Christian faith a bad name, and led by the early supporters of the NAE many Conservative Christians began to use the "Evangelical" label to establish the difference between themselves and those extreme theological right-wingers.
As the NAE began to operate and unite those Christians who held to the fundamentals of the faith, but who believed in an aggressive, positive Gospel witness, a new wave of evangelistic outreach began to be manifest in America and throughout the world.
The great gulf between the extremes of American theological thought (Fundamentalism on the right, and Modernism on the left) which the NAE sought to bridge, was addressed by Carl F.H. Henry, who was rightly known as the “father of Evangelical theology.”
His book, "The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism," published in 1947 spoke to the complaints from the Modernists that Fundamentalism excluded all efforts of humanitarianism. In his brief but aggressive analysis of the issue, Dr. Henry laid down this principle: "The evangelical task primarily is the preaching of the Gospel in the interest of individual regeneration by the supernatural grace of God, in such a way that divine redemption can be recognized as the best solution of our problems, individual and social."
For those who tend to stress good works, feeding the hungry, aiding the poor, offering medical care to the ailing, as more meaningful than the proclamation of the Gospel, true Evangelicals have long advocated that these are the outworkings, the demonstrations of the true Christian life. Dr. Henry expressed it this way: "The corporate testimony of believers, in their purity of life, should provide for the world an example of the divine dynamic to overcome evils in every realm."
From a time line standpoint it should be remembered that the "Billy Graham Era" in evangelism began with the Los Angeles Crusade in the Fall of 1949 in a tent at the intersection of Washington and Hill Street. From that point in time -- now an amazing 60 years ago -- the
Evangelical movement has seen its highs and its lows.
Billy Graham was never an "Evangelical leader." He was always an Evangelist, and was always one who put the true Evangelical principles first, and never compromised in his world-wide preaching of the message first stated by Jesus Christ: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God ... Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." (John 3: 5,7) But active, aggressive evangelism is just one aspect of the broad term "Evangelical."
It has been established that the concept of "Evangelical" belief as a theological position grew out of the early 20th century designation of "Fundamentalist." Those who were so labeled held to the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith. That basic principle is still true for "Evangelicals," and reviewing them helps in understanding who is and who is not an "Evangelical." The old saying comes to mind: "A square is also a rectangle."(Give that some thought. )
Alister McGrath, one of the better (or best) theological minds in Great Britain, offers these distinctives as held by Evangelicals in his "Evangelicalism and the Future of 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. Although they are expressed somewhat differently, these are closely akin to the fundamentals of the faith held by the early American "Fundamentalists," and, like those beliefs, are true and essential because they are from the Word of God.
Michael Youssef, Ph.D., one of America’s most successful and most true to the Gospel “mega church” pastors, has written an analysis of this subject, “What is an Evangelical?” which may be found on WorldNet daily.com.
Dr. Youssef goes into slightly more detail than Dr. McGrath, but also begins with the over-riding importance of the authority of Scripture, and includes this concluding evaluation, "Anyone who does not believe that once they are saved they will always be saved through the sustaining power, discipline and chastening by the Holy Spirit -- is no evangelical." Dr. Youssef wraps up his discussion with this comment: "If you have concluded that all of these evangelical qualifications are defining a true Christian -- you would be correct. For a true evangelical is a true Christian."
Thus as a brief, basic statement, it may be said that an Evangelical believer is one who holds to the authority of the Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith alone, and who is active in sharing those beliefs with others. Those attributes of an Evangelical become also the attributes of an Evangelical church. And yet there is no uniformity of understanding as to who is an Evangelical, or as to which church is an Evangelical congregation.
In some classifications, to be an "Evangelical Christian" is seen as being a right-wing fundamentalist Republican. (Hillary Clinton's term was "vast right wing conspiracy.") In other classifications the term "Evangelical Christian" is used to distinguish an individual as apart from being a Catholic Christian or an Orthodox Christian. The media is perhaps the most guilty of misuse of the term, and use it to refer to any Christian who doesn't fit the traditional, main-stream Protestant minister category.
Although there has been considerable political activity on the part of evangelicals, association with a particular political party is not a foregone conclusion. Yet in fairly recent years, Evangelical leaders have played an important role in national politics. Just a few years ago, in 1980 Jerry Falwell utilized the informal association "Moral Majority" to build on the theme of moral values which led to the election of President Ronald Reagan, and Falwell remained the leader of America's Evangelical movement and its principal spokesperson until his death in 2007.
The Evangelical world experienced a double leadership loss in that year, with the death of D. James Kennedy. To date, no one has stepped into their shoes to lead the Evangelical, Moral Values, Moral Majority movement in this nation. In large measure the election of Barack Obama in the 2008 election can be attributed to the leadership vacuum in the Evangelical world. And in looking to the future, no replacement for these two leaders has appeared on the horizon.
The NAE, which, as a national association of churches and individuals, should represent the Evangelical cause, has also suffered leadership losses which have seriously damaged the association's reputation and ability to lead. The NAE president, Ted Haggard, pastor of a mega church in Colorado resigned, or was forced to relinquish all leadership positions, in 2006, after being involved in homosexual relationships and narcotic use with a male prostitute for a period of years. It has now been revealed that at approximately the same time he had also been involved in similar relationships with a young male volunteer at the church. More recently Haggard has appeared in an HBO documentary film (produced by Alexandra Pelosi -- yes, it's that family) and has made several promotional appearances on various TV shows.
As if that were not a large enough problem, Richard Cizik, for more than 20 years an NAE official and its political spokesperson (lobbyist), has recently resigned after admitting in a TV interview that he favored gay civil unions, and was not certain of his view of traditional marriage between a man and a woman. He had also long been a supporter of the theory of man-caused global warming. His statement in that interview:: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think." Family Research Council President Tony Perkins used the term "left-leaning evangelicals." Unfortunately that may represent a growing number of individuals, although there is considerable support for the opinion that such terminology is really an oxymoron.
None of these events help enhance the reputation of true Evangelicals and/or the NAE, whose original intent and purpose were focused on the highest goals.
So it is a confusing situation. The true and accurate meaning of the term “Evangelical” for an individual, and the term “Evangelicalism” (or even the current “New Evangelicalism” or “Neo-Evangelicalism”) for a system of belief has not changed. But the designation of “Evangelical” is glibly assigned to anyone who is a Protestant who does not profess extreme liberal views of the Christian faith, or who has achieved some success in attracting large crowds to one of the nation’s “mega churches.” In many -- even most -- instances of such use of the term, there is no evidence of belief in the basic elements of the Evangelical Christian faith which have been so clearly defined by Carl Henry, Alister McGrath and Michael Youssef as cited herein -- who are only a few of the many theological scholars who have based their convictions on the authority of Scripture.
The Evangelical cause is not dead, or not even seriously ill. What it needs, what it must have, is a new leader or leaders of the stature of Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy, to share in the challenging responsibility of returning this nation to the position of world Christian leadership which it once held, and which its Founding Fathers intended.
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