Just last week I saw yet another article from some Christian who said that he could no longer be called an evangelical because of some political reason.
I am tired of those articles. I don’t think it is particularly brave or helpful to jettison the word “evangelical.” It seems those kinds of articles are only applauded by the secular left and Christians tired of how evangelicalism seems to largely be defined by pollsters and the media as a political/sociological subgroup.
I think those of us who consider ourselves evangelical should reclaim the word and educate people about what it really means. To reclaim evangelical we need to first define the word and discuss characteristics of evangelicals.
“Evangelical” comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliterated “euangelion”) which means “gospel” or “good news.”
The English word “evangelical” first appeared in 1531 when William Tyndale wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of John, “He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” Tyndale used “evangelical” as an adjective that likely meant truth that was rooted in the Gospel.
However, we didn’t the subgroup of protestant Christianity labeled as Evangelicals until the 1730s with the First Great Awakening with George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley being predominant figures.
Probably the simplest definition we can give for someone who is an Evangelical is a person who has heard the good news of Jesus Christ, is born again as a result of hearing that good news and seeks to share the good news of Jesus with others.
Historian David Bebbington offers four primary characteristics of an evangelical:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
The National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research include four statements in their research and polling that respondents must agree to before they categorize them as evangelical:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
I think it is also important to note what evangelicalism is not.
It’s not just white.
I don’t like evangelicals being relegated to a political/sociological polling subgroup, but I abhor when pollsters just poll among “white evangelicals.”
This gives the idea that to be an evangelical one has to be white and that’s simply not true.
Thomas S. Kidd in his book, Who Is An Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis, wrote, “The original evangelical movement was multiracial. It remains multiracial today, even though many white evangelicals still take political and social stances that are dismaying to evangelical people of color. At the onset, evangelicalism was basically a spiritual movement.[…] The typical early evangelical wanted to introduce all people – regardless of ethnicity or social standing – to the joys of salvation and the felt presence of God.”
It is not Republican.
This is typically linked with race. If you look at the definitions above, you will see that nothing is said about a particular political ideology or party. While many American evangelicals do identify as Republican, there are evangelicals who are libertarian, independent, and even Democrat.
If you think one’s political affiliations determines whether someone can be an evangelical or not, that is not a historical or biblical view.
It is not monolithic.
Something that many journalists don’t seem to understand when they write about evangelicals and politics is that we are not monolithic. We are trans-denominational. We have no Pope. There is no one person that speaks for all evangelicals.
While we have distinctives (see above) that make us evangelical, we don’t all believe exactly the same thing about every point of theology. Evangelicals include fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, confessional evangelicals and those who reject creeds, charismatics and non-charismatics.
Ultimately, it’s about the good news of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible, that through Christ’s death and resurrection we can be born again, and we are to share that good news with others.