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.Â
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 anÂ 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 syncritismÂ as someÂ 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 arisesÂ from the list of name-claimers above is this:Â Has Evangelicalism lost its identity? Many would not know how to answer thisÂ 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? WhatÂ 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 strongÂ and correctÂ doctrine is ofÂ vital importance, building a foundation for the rest of the Christian life.Â In the 19th century, with theÂ threatÂ 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 EvangelicalsÂ returned to the name “Evangelical.”Â Many people ask me what the difference is in today’sÂ Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. They often laugh when I say that Evangelicals are just niceÂ Fundamentalists. ButÂ that is another story . . . AllÂ of this toÂ 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.Â Â
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 centuryÂ both inÂ the First Great Awakening revivalistic movementsÂ 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 HenryÂ 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.Â From the perspective of theÂ 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, orÂ 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 ofÂ 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 onÂ 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, theÂ eternal God-man,Â 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 GodÂ 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 evangelicalÂ 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 hourâ€ (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?