I have always been a fan of Evangelicalism, although I have not always known how to define it. I remember having a discussion about this when I was in my early twenties. I was already well into what I felt was my calling to teach the Bible. It was at one of these studies (if I remember correctly) that someone asked me “What is an Evangelical?” I did not really know how to respond. All I knew was that the people I admired most—the people that I thought were the most committed to the Gospel—called themselves Evangelicals. Therefore, I was one (or, at least, wanted to be).

To this day the question “What is an Evangelical?” still gives me pause. Not so much because I don’t know how to define it, but because I don’t know who I am defining it to. You see, claiming to be an Evangelical can go a long way in molding someone’s thoughts about you, for good or ill. While most definitions of “Evangelical” that people assume have a bit of truth to them, they all have one characteristic over another as their primary point of reference. Some assume that “Evangelical” is a simple way to say “Christian fanatic.” There is some truth to that. Others believe that it means “far right-winged Republican” (the old “Republican-party-at-prayer” definition). In some cases, this is true too. I know some who would equate Evangelicalism with Bible worship. I understand where they get this.  Others believe it is merely a synonym for “fundamentalist.” In this, Evangelicals are judgmental. Again, a bit of truth has to be conceded. Still, on the other side of the conservative Christian fence, many think of Evangelicals as compromisers and ecumenicists who are one step away from full-blown liberalism. I think we do compromise in some areas (and this may be a good thing). So, check again. Many think that Evangelicals are simply out to convert them to their faith—to “evangelize” them. Rightly understood, this is fair. Finally, to many inside the Evangelical fold,  Evangelicalism has become nothing more than the skin of cooperate America over the bones of infant breeding Christian leadership (at best).

Associations abound not only with ideas, but with representative leaders and scholars. Put Billy Graham, George Bush, Joel Osteen, Francis Collins, Pat Robertson, Sean Hannity, Benny Hinn, Ken Ham, Jerry Farwell, Kirk Cameron, Mel Gibson, Roger Olson, Denzel Washington, The Fray, Daniel B. Wallace, John MacArthur, and William Lane Craig in a room together and you will have run the gamut on people’s thoughts of association. But try to assign a marriage counselor to this group and you will need to send him to a psychiatrist shortly after he pulls his hair out and recommends class-action divorce. The only thing many of them would have in common is the name “Evangelical.” Beyond that, their messages will represent an ever broadening rift of people’s thoughts on the mission and doctrine of the Church. With so many people claiming to be Evangelical, it makes one wonder whether Evangelicalism is beyond the possibility of defining. To put it another way: If Evangelicalism can mean so many things, doesn’t it cease to mean anything at all?

This difficulty in defining Evangelicalism should not surprise us. All movements are difficult to define, especially when their is no dictatorship which holds all the cards in their hands. Even when it comes to institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, one finds that there is hardly unanimity on what the Catholic church is and what it is supposed to be doing. If the Pope tries to clarify things, the church endlessly debates what the true meaning of what the Pope said! Try to define liberalism, conservatism, or the “idea” of America, and you will find the same issues. However, in each of these, like with Evangelicalism, history has narrowed the playing field to where some definite boundaries can be found. There is hope.

Lots of Evangelicals are ready to jump ship for due to the variety of associations. They are looking for cleaner waters to wade in. Not only are they dissatisfied with the ship, but they believe it is sinking and there is no reason to fight to keep it afloat. Some, both inside and outside the Christian faith, have even been predicting the demise of Evangelicalism in the next decade or so. “Emerging” and post-evangelical variations have been attempting to tag the hand of Evangelicalism for nearly two decades, but have yet to have much success. Evangelicalism simply won’t get out of the ring.

Though an incredibly large majority of Americans identify themselves as Evangelicals (some reports have as many as 92 million, but it is probably closer to 78 million), most outsiders do not have a favorable estimation of Evangelicals. From a Barna study from a few years ago, Evangelicals ranked tenth out of eleven in terms of positive impressions. Who did Evangelicals out-rank? Prostitutes. But we came behind Lesbians, Lawyers, Republicans, Democrats, and “born-again Christians.” You might ask what is the difference between a “born-again Christian” and an Evangelical? Important question and we will get to that, but for now it is important to see that the outside world believes there is a difference and Evangelicals are definitely behind in popularity. Only twenty-two percent of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of Evangelicalism while twenty-three percent were definitely unfavorable.

More importantly, most of seventy million plus who identify themselves as Evangelicals would not be able to truly define it any more than self-identified capitalists would be able to define capitalism. “I don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, I’m one them.” This ignorance is used as a dangerous broad sword by those who wish to manipulate religion, politics, and society at the deepest level. And it often works.

Evangelicalism is both broader and narrower than people think. There is simply no singular characteristic or belief that qualifies one to take the title. Rather, as we shall see, Evangelicalism is a mix of many different essential characteristics and beliefs. 

It has already been said obscurely, but it is important to emphasize clearly: there is no body, group, or leader of Evangelicalism. There is no office, building, or home church which serves as the Evangelical headquarters. It is an adjective that serves to describe characteristics in a diverse body of Christianity. It is “transdemoninational” in its scope. One can be an Evangelical Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, or the like. One does not even, strictly speaking, have to go to church to be an Evangelical. As well, contrary to popular belief, there are many characteristics that people think belong to Evangelicals which Evangelicalism carries no stock in.

  • Many Evangelicals are Republican. But not all Evangelicals are Republican any more than all Republicans are Evangelicals.
  • Many Evangelicals are Premillenialists (believing the Christ is going to set up a future kingdom here on the earth for a thousand years). But not all Evangelicals are Premillenialists any more than all Premillenialists are Evangelicals.
  • Many Evangelicals are young-earth creationists. But not all Evangelicals are young-earth creationists any more than all young-earth creationists are Evangelicals.
  • Many Evangelicals are complementarians (believing that only males should be in spiritual authority in the church). But not all Evangelicals are complementarians any more than all complementarians are Evangelical.
  • Many Evangelicals believe in inerrancy . . . I will save this one for later.

So what is an Evangelical? What is Evangelicalism? How broad is it? What are the lines that cannot be crossed? What is the center? Is Evangelicalism worth holding on to? For goodness sake, would the real Evangelical please stand up!

I am an Evangelical. I believe very strongly in Evangelicalism. While I don’t think only Evangelicals can be good Christians, nor do I believe that Evangelicalism is perfect by any means, I do believe that Evangelicalism is the best representative tradition in Christianity that is the closest to the Biblical ideal. But this assumes a proper definition.

That is why I am going to spend some time attempting to define what Evangelicalism truly is.

And yes, I have charts coming!

Here is another peek at it.

click to enlarge

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

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