What does it mean to be evangelical?

When I was growing up our family attended an evangelical church. We knew it was because it was in the name. Broadstone Evangelical Church was even a member church of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. The name was later change to Broadstone Baptist Church because it was felt no one outside of the church really knew what an evangelical was but had a better idea what a baptist was.

The situation is no longer like that because no one inside the church really knows what an evangelical is partly because lots of people believing quite different things in quite different ways all claim to be an evangelical. We even have helpful books that try to determine What is Evangelicalism? I have had a number of web based conversations where I’ve found it a struggle to recognise what was being claimed as evangelical.

Carl Trueman writes,

I am not persuaded that [evangelicalism] actually exists as anything other than a loose network of non-ecclesiastical institutions (professional societies, seminaries, publishers etc.).  Thus, terms such as `liberal evangelicalism,’ `generic evangelicalism,’ `open evangelicalism,’ and `confessional evangelicalism’ all run the risk of mistakenly assuming the real existence of a sort of Platonic ideal of `evangelicalism’ in which they each participate.


Evangelicalism, at least as a doctrinal movement as opposed to a network of institutions, does not possess any real existence beyond the imaginations of those who have a vested interest in the idea.

Evidence of such fractures in evangelicalism was last seen most clearly in the debate about hell. Two examples, Al Mohler highlights some keys pieces from a Time article that spell it out and on a more popular level, blogger Adrian Warnock writes about Bell being an ‘evangelical insider’ and the clear implication is that one cannot be an evangelical and think as Bell thinks. For some these differences mean we can’t work together. John Piper expresses this view (in what I thought was a good explanation of a poorly thought through tweet) about his ‘farewell Rob Bell’ comment. The Word Alive and Spring Harvest parting of ways in the UK would be another example.

This sense of the word evangelical being hijacked is alive on both wings. So Kurt Fredrickson (HT: Doug Paul) writes,

“I am an evangelical, and I have been robbed” and essentially complains that the narrow right wingers are defining the term for the rest of us.”

Yet on the other side of things Randy Alcorn wonders, does the word evangelical mean anything any more? and says,

“I am increasingly concerned that the “big tent” of evangelicalism is rapidly becoming so big that the term “evangelical” is now almost meaningless.”

Alcorn concludes with the question many are asking,

“is it reasonable to suggest that there is a point where if you no longer believe that the whole Bible is true, and you deny core truths evangelical Christians historically believed, it is misleading and even nonsensical to continue to call yourself an ‘evangelical Christian’?”

All this is to say that how we answer or even try to answer this question could be the biggest theological debate of the next twenty years.


10 thoughts on “What does it mean to be evangelical?”

  1. Martindownes1 says:

    There’s nothing especially new about the hand wringing over the term.  Warfield said the following back in 1915:

    “There is that good word ‘Evangelical’.  It is certainly moribund, if not already dead.  Nobody any longer seems to know what it means.  Does anyone know what ‘Evangelical’ means, in our current religious speech?” 

    Perhaps “Evangelicalism” is as broad as it has always been.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi Martin, that’s a great quote from Warfield. It would be interesting to know what Warfield would make of todays ‘evangelicals’!

  2. Jake Belder says:

    A question I’ve had to ask myself a lot since I moved to the UK! It’s odd, during the time I lived in the US, I found that evangelicalism generally has a bad name. That is, evangelicals are moderately-committed Christians who attend megachurches, generally don’t care much about doctrine, and reserve their Christianity largely for Sundays or for defending Republican-oriented politics.

    Here in the UK, it seems to be defined as a) a commitment to the authority of the Bible, b) personal piety, and c) opposition to the ordination of women.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      That’s an interesting observation, particularly c). There would be a ton of people who would self-identify with being evangelical who would rush to deny that last one.

      1. Jake Belder says:

         Indeed. And I’ve heard many conservative evangelicals say they wouldn’t consider that a defining aspect of being an evangelical. But when it comes to practical outworking, especially in terms of unity, it does seem to come into play.

        1. Phil Whittall says:

          Depends what we think unity means and looks like, I guess. I think for some being an evangelical rests on the methods you use and for some its to do with the conclusions you arrive at.  

  3. ianjmatt says:

    The problem is that what if someone agrees with Alcorn that, “the whole Bible is true” but believes that, for example, the Bible doesn’t teach a literal hell, supports the ordination of women, does not condemn gay relationships, does not teach PSA as an essential doctrine or any other controversial opinion (I’m not suggesting I hold any of these positions, just trying to think of the more controversial ones!)

    The problem is that some see evangelicalism as not only committed to Scripture, but also to a particular interpretation of the scriptures. Is someone who is genuinely committed to an evangelical understanding of Scripture, but doesn’t come to the same conclusions as most evangelicals?

    You also have Bebbington’s quadrilateral: Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism and Activism. These seem to have been embraced as a good definition until fairly recently when people came to different conclusions to the accepted position on issues, but still held to these.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      That’s where I’m going with this I think – for some there are ‘evangelical’ conclusions. Answers you must come to in order to be called evangelical. For others the process by which I come to different conclusions is what gives me credibility to be called an evangelical. 

      It gets all the more confusing when you try and determine what is a primary and secondary issue and whether conclusions on these issues also matter.

      1. ianjmatt says:

        Perhaps the serious issue is the obsession with defining who is in and who is out? This process soon leads to the ‘People’s Judean Front/People’s Fornt of Judea’ mentality (or the Particular/Strict and Particular/Primitive/Independent Baptists perhaps?).

        You’re right – the question is whether it is the integrity of process or the acceptability of outcome that counts. I would suggest the latter is, in the end, fundamentally (no pun intended) self-destructive. That way lies a myriad of miniature Magisteria issuing judgements to their increasingly small number of pure followers.

        However, it isn’t really that simple is it – if someone claims that their interpretation of Scripture shows clearly that the Trinity is an erroneous doctrine that can hardly be acceptable. But this isn’t a new problem – it is not different to the challenges of the past. One could see the historic creeds as answering the question “What is essential to be believed”.

        1. Phil Whittall says:

          Therein lies the problem. Methods matter but so do conclusions but we all have differing opinions about which conclusions should matter most. For some your methods must clearly be faulty if you come to what is thought as an ‘unacceptable’ conclusion. 

          All of this probably leads to the conclusion as Warfield suggested (see earlier comment) that the word evangelical is probably useless.

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