Considering much of the discussion that has been happening on the blog recently, why don’t we acknowledge the off-beat chorus of the background music that is playing. Or to put it another way, an elephant is in the room. Or even worse, the emperor might not have any clothes. 

Alright, enough of that. Since much of the discussion is concerning Evangelicalism’s relationship to other Christian traditions, the question here is What does it take to be an Evangelical? In a world where Evangelicalism is losing its meaning, having planted in its name-sake soil the likes of Benny Hinn, George Bush, Jerry Farwell, Dan Wallace :), Pat Robertson, John Stott, Joel Olsteen, Rick Warren, Paul Crouch, T.D. Jakes, John Piper, Brian McLaren, Chuck Swindoll, and even Sean Hannity. The list could not be more diverse. We have even had some traditional syncritism as some Catholics and Orthodox groups have claimed the title in recent years. This is the beat playing in the background. This is the elephant in the room. What does it take to be an Evangelical?

This is no small question. In fact, the Evangelical Theological Society devoted it annual meeting in 2001 to this very topic. Look here at the list of papers and click on the topic “Evangelicalism.” Notice how many papers are devoted to defining Evangelical boundaries. The primary question that arises from the list of name-claimers above is this: Has Evangelicalism lost its identity? Many would not know how to answer this since they see being Evangelical as synonymous with being really Christian. No, not just Christian, but really Christian. But this conception is ill-conceived based upon our own ability to identify ourselves adequately. The question needs to start with identity. What does it take to be an Evangelical? What are the primary identifying characteristics that has defined who we are?

Historically there are three:

1. Evangelical in doctrine. This goes back to the Reformation in the 16th century. Protestants were often called Evangelicals. Traditionally, Evangelicals have been committed Protestants. This does not necessarily equate to committed anti-Catholics (although some would assume such), but those committed to the five solas of the Reformation (sola fide “salvation by faith alone,” sola gratia “salvation by God’s grace alone,” solus Christus “salvation by Christ alone,” sola Scriptura “the Scriptures alone have ultimate authority,” and sola Deo gloria “all to God’s glory alone”). They were committed to the belief that strong and correct doctrine is of vital importance, building a foundation for the rest of the Christian life. In the 19th century, with the threat of liberalism looming large, Evangelicals took on a new title “Fundamentalists.” They were those who believed, contrary to the liberals, in the basic “fundamentals of the faith.” Once the term “fundamentalism” was corrupted beyond repair, in the 1960s Evangelicals returned to the name “Evangelical.” Many people ask me what the difference is in today’s Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. They often laugh when I say that Evangelicals are just nice Fundamentalists. But that is another story . . . All of this to say that a primary characteristic of Evangelicalism has been strong doctrine which finds its roots in the articulations of the faith brought about during the Reformation.  

2. Evangelical in practice. As well, Evangelicalism has always had a outreach component. The word “evangelical” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek euangelion. This is the name designated to the four Gospels and simply means “Gospel” or “good news.” To be evangelical in practice means that you believe that one of the defining marks of Christianity is to make an impact in the world through the proclamation of the Gospel. This aspect of the word stretches far back into Church history, but finds its place most definitely in the 18th century both in the First Great Awakening revivalistic movements and the modern missions movement which began with William Carey. It gains further definition in the 1960s as Evangelicals leaders such as Billy Graham and Carl Henry began to see the need to engage in culture rather than separate from it. Essentially, to be Evangelical in practice means that you see yourself as salt and light to dying world. This can be as simple as sharing Christ with a neighbor or as aggressive as making an impact in culture through political means provided by the government (i.e. Christian social activism). In short, Evangelicals believe in the necessity of proclaiming the Gospel in every generation and making an impact as the Lord allows.

3. Evangelical in relationship. This is the subjective component to Evangelicalism. This again finds it most pronounced roots in the Reformation. As the institutionalized church had sought to protect the people from heresy, in the later middle ages this evolved to such a degree that the Church was not only standing between people and the heretics, but between the people and Christ. Hence, the Reformers sought to emphasize people’s need to have a personal relationship with Christ rather than one mediated by the church. From the perspective of the Evangelical, we do not need to go to priests to find Christ, but we are priests ourselves (1 Pet. 2:9). We can come boldly to the throne of grace as his children (Heb. 4:16). In short, there is no one, not parents, friends, the church, or your pastor, or any other representative that can mediate your relationship with God (1 Tim. 2:5). You must have a personal relationship with Christ. This does not exclude the community of believers and authorities that contribute to your spirituality, but it does say that the vertical relationship has primacy to the horizontal.

So, what does it take to be an Evangelical? While the term itself is always reforming, this reformation is not one of antithetical change, but of evolution. Therefore, my argument is that it takes all three.

However, I believe that most of those who claim the name either do not understand its meaning or are trying to redefine it. I would argue that there are many who take only one of these three and feel it sufficient to call themselves Evangelical. Some simply focus on the idea of a personal relationship with God, but their doctrine does not even qualify them to have the relationship. To them God or Jesus is the example to follow, the friend to share with, the great vending machine in the sky, or their “homeboy.” But their conceptions are usually far from the reality that Christ, the eternal God-man, is the sovereign Lord of the universe who will come one day with swift retributive justice. Others focus only on the outreach aspect. They are all about political agenda and Christian activism, but their message has little substance beyond a Gospel of morality which, while nice, cannot create moral people and cannot save people from the coming retribution. While it is less common from my experience, I do believe that their are those who are Evangelical in doctrine, yet totally neglect the relationship and outreach component. These are those who see sound doctrine as the end goal rather than the foundation for adequate care of the our personal relationship with God and responsibility to be salt and light to the world.

Having said that, I think that the first component is the primary cause of the current Evangelical identity crisis. I believe we have a crisis of belief. People don’t know, biblically or historically, what it means to be Christian. Most don’t really care. Yet they claim the name Evangelical. I believe that we must get back to our foundation which is a firm theology rooted in historic Christianity, finding its clearest articulation to date in the Reformation.

When we started The Theology Program in 2001 Dan Wallace endorsed it by saying this:

“The Theology Program offers so much more to lay folks than they could get in any other forum. TTP challenges their thinking, rather than confirming their prejudices. And it does it in a way that is fair to all parties and faithful to the text of Holy Writ. If this kind of program could be multiplied in churches throughout America and the world, there would be hope for the evangelical church. Solid biblical and theological thinking are desperately needed in our circles today; without it, the evangelical church doesn’t have 50 years of life left. May our gracious and sovereign Lord raise up more folks who will become serious thinkers, people who will engage society and life from a thoroughly converted perspective.”

I remember reading this thinking to myself The evangelical church does not have 50 years life left? That seems like an overstatement. But now, five years later, I see what he means. And I believe he is right.

J. Gresham Machen once said in his classic work Christianity and Liberalism, “A separation between the two parties [Christianity and Liberalism] in the Church is the crying need of the hour” (p. 160). I believe that this is the crying need of our hour, only the separation needs to come between Evangelicals and all those who falsely claim the name.

Is this an elephant in the room? Yes. Does the emperor (Evangelicalism) have no clothes? Let’s just say it is getting quite breezy.

What do you think?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    21 replies to "What does it take to be an Evangelical?"

    • kurtvader


      If you trace the history of the word “Evangelical”, the word started from the Lutherans. This was the word they attached to their movement as they were severed from the RCC.

      However today, they would not like that word affixed to them because it has been hijacked the same way the “solas” which they invented got hijacked. Evangelical is equivalent to being Revivalistic. As an example of the high jacking, take “sola fide”, by this they do not mean no sacraments. Another “sola scriptura”, by this they do not mean being a-creedal nor a-historical. Take “sola gratia” by this they mean gift of forgiveness of sins on account of Christ before anyone could repent or believe, a gift outside us.

      Modern Evangelicals are no where like their paleo-Evangelical roots so they shudder at that thought of being equated, in fact they make every effort to be distinguished from the former.

      Ted Haggard said that Evangelicals range from Benny Hinn to R C Spoul. That is a very wide sea which is 2 inches deep. Nothing is steady in today’s evangelicalism everything is 2 years old.

      Kurt Vader

    • C Michael Patton

      Great comments Kurt. I agree, we are the last to find our roots in history. Sometimes, evangelical seems synonymous for novel Christianity.

    • Chad Toney


      Thanks for this attempt to define “evangelical”, but the definitive work has already been written on the subject: “A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat” by Joel Kilpatrick.


    • C Michael Patton

      lol…that is good. I have never seen that book. Have you?

    • Chad Toney


      Yes, I’ve read it. It’s written by the same guy responsible for Lark News:

      It’s very funny and lined up with many of my experiences as an American Non-Denom Evangelical (ages 0-25). Now I’m a Roman Catholic — plenty to lampoon there as well.

      (p.s. I’m Ron from the CA forum)

    • C Michael Patton

      Great to see ya Chad.

    • Chad Winters

      “All of this to say that a primary characteristic of Evangelicalism has been strong doctrine which finds its roots in the articulations of the faith brought about during the Reformation. ”

      I’d say you hit the problem on the head right there. Now that strong doctrine rooted in the Reformation is not a primary characteristic of “Evangelicals” we are now all over the map

    • C Michael Patton

      ALL over the map. But you know what Chad, I don’t find this to be the case with regards to Evangelical scholarship in general. While there are disagreements to be sure, their is a common interpretive emphasis where people agree on the major issues even without an ecclesiastical head telling them to do so. This tells me that their is a regulating force behind the Scripture so long as we follow an authorial intent hermeneutic.

      This is why RMM was created. We have to find a way to find the ethos of the Evangelical scholarship world a place in the pulpit and pew. I don’t think most Evangelicals have any idea about hermeneutical guidelines. Yet, at the same time, when introduced to them, like we have been doing in TTP for several years, they are relieved by them.

      We just have to continue to find a way to connect the average person to this self-regulating community. We are all theologians and must find a way to be responsible for our beliefs. OK, done singing my song.

    • ChadS


      It’s interesting to see and hear the different reflections on what it means to be evangelical. I grew up in the United Methodist church. John Wesley emphasized scripture study and growing both intellectually and spiritually. The name Methodist started off as a derogatory term against Wesley and the other people that congregated around him — although I can’t quite remember why.

      Particularly in this country Methodism had a strong evangelical component. The circuit riders spread the message on horseback all throughout the American south. They aided and helped the poor and down trodden from rural farmers to slaves.

      To me I look to this historic example of what evangelicalism is and that contains a strong emphasis on scripture and evangelization.

      Although since my youth I have since swam the Tiber. But I took all that was good and holy from my youth and young adult life and used it and expanded on it in my conversion. I am eternally grateful for the example that the Wesleys and others provided for me.

      One last thing. A question to further this discussion. Most Christians of all denominations use or occasionally use the Nicene Creed in their worship. How do you view Evangelicalism when during the creed you say: “I believe in one, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic church.”

      As a Methodist I had my understanding but now as a Catholic that has since changed.


    • C Michael Patton

      Hey Chad, thanks for the continued comments that are helpful and interesting.

      I am not sure I quite understand the question. Evangelicals would be very favorable toward the Nicene Creed, believing that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is a very good and needed confession.

      The church is “one” in essence, holding to one essential creed (such as the Nicene).
      The church is holy, being set apart to God from the corruption of this world.
      The church is apostolic, continuing in the line of the teaching of the apostles as revealed first by word of mouth then codified in Scripture.
      the church is catholic in that it is universal in nature, not being confined to one particular people group, geographic region, or time.

      Hope that helps.

    • ChadS

      Thanks Michael,

      I think that does answer my question.

      Part of what I was getting at, at least for me, is that my understanding of that phrase “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” has changed since I became Catholic. For one quick example take the word “one.” As a Protestant I would’ve said that meant the invisible church is one in basic teachings and doctrines, and where denominational beliefs aren’t more important than the essentials of Christianity. Of course now as a Catholic I view it as meaning “one” visible church with a hierarchical leadership and unified doctrine and beliefs.

      See how the one word can mean different things just to one person over a few years. I can only imagine how many different understandings we’d get from within the Protestant and Evangelical traditions.


    • C Michael Patton


      I think you are right about the “one” church. I doubt that those in the early church would have made such a sharp distinction between ontological unity and visible unity. In fact, it would have been unthinkable for it to be otherwise. It is not unlike the idea of the possibility of an unbaptized believer–this would have been unthinkable.

      They could not have foreseen the Schism or the Reformation and therefore would have been rather naive to the issue. History has caused us all to have to redefine, or at least rethink, what “oneness” means ideally (now eschatologically) and what it means in our mundane circumstances.


    • kurtvader

      Agree with Michael here.

      The history of the creed dates back to 200AD back when there was no suggestion that the Bishop of Rome was Supreme over all.

      So the “one” there could not have referred to a section of the church. Remember that it is a confession, that is , you believe that the church is one, it is united even if you do not see or your senses say it is not. That is what a confession or a creed is. It stands outside you and brings your mind to this truth for your mind and reason is always opposed to faith.

      If you notice many in it are not verified by the senses. Take the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, some of them have not happened yet, nevertheless you believe it shall be the case.

      Lastly it should match up with “in the communion of the saints”.

      Kurt Vader

    • murmex

      Well Michael, we now understand a little more of what YOU understand an Evangelical is. I thought they were Fundamentalist that didn’t have to be in charge.

      But the way things are today, isn’t it in the mind of the beholder? You listed quite a list of people claiming to be the E word. They are all very different. How is it possible for people to be so diverse and claim the same title, if it didn’t pay so well?

      I appreciate your effort to bring a theologicql base as well as a subjective response to the definition. History is good also, but so few are willing to look at it today. keep trying to have people think!


    • Chad Toney

      3 Chad’s in one comment section?! Ridiculous!

      ChadS: I also experienced a shift in my understanding of the Nicene Creed when converting and I definitely know what you’re talking about.

    • ChadS

      Chad Toney — I guess we’re coming out of the woodwork & at least two of us are Catholic.

      Kurt — I would disagree with you on your statement on the pope. Certainly Christians did not have the same understanding of the papacy as we do now. However, that does not mean they did not adhere to an understanding that the Bishop of Rome exercised some final authority over the Church and other bishops. Many Orthodox will even admit that the Pope has a special place among all bishops — being the See of Peter — but will argue the Pope has gone too far with his authority.


    • kurtvader


      I assume you are referring to “development of doctrine” on the supremacy of the Pope.

      Giving respect to whom respect is due is one thing, to accord to yourself supreme over the rest of the Bishops is indeed going too far and should be rejected.

      BTW I was a catechized RC kid, I was involved in Opus Dei, gone to Cursillo, devotee of St Jude so I do have experience with RC piety.

      One thing I observe is that when the word ‘catholic’ is used by RCs they always think it refers to the RCC. This is where the equivocation happen, that word catholic and word Church gets double meanings and sophistical in treatment.

      In the creed, catholicity means generalness, universality ie ecumenical, that the church is one, united though spread far a apart and though may be diverse.

      It is a statement of faith, and faith does not always match the senses, when it does, it is no longer faith and faith even is no longer needed.

      Kurt Vader

    • ChadS

      Hi Kurt

      Thanks for your thoughts. As I’ve grown to appreciate more and more about the Catholic church and its positions I believe they have a well grounded understanding of the authority of the Papacy, both theologically and historically.

      Obviously we, as well as many others that post, would disagree with what this all means. I sincerely doubt we could resolve those theological arguments here since minds much greater than mine haven’t been able to come to an agreement either.

      In regards to the creed I think Catholics do understand both meanings of the word “catholic.” In light of the Vatican’s recently released document it doesn’t seem surprising that many Catholics would interpret the word “catholic” in its most strict sense and subconsciously see a “C” where only a “c” is.

      I hope that made some sense. But I do think that both sides could learn a lot by delving deeper into the orgins and history of the Creed. It really is fascinating and you realize that the assults that Christianity is undergoing today have been plaguing the church from its inception.


    • C Michael Patton

      Well, this is certainly some good discussion. Thank you all for taking such a humble tone. It is refreshing.

      (eating popcorn . . .)

    • C Michael Patton

      “Obviously we, as well as many others that post, would disagree with what this all means. I sincerely doubt we could resolve those theological arguments here since minds much greater than mine haven’t been able to come to an agreement either.”

      Come on . . . Parchment and Pen can do all things 🙂

    • murmex

      As thecomments continue, it seems as though “evangelicals” have an agenda. All of this can be solved quite easily, i.e. when everyone agrees with my position.

      But realy, how can one committed to the RCC really come to any conclusion other than the Pope, who recently stated that those outside the RCC were not legitimate expressions of Christianity.

      I have a novel idea. Instead of trying to come up with the lowest common denominator of what an evangelical is, Let us include as much as possible from God’s Word as Paul did in Acts 20:26-27. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.


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