What does ‘Evangelical’ mean?

May 27, 2008 — 1 Comment

A friend asks you,What does ‘Evangelical’ mean?”  You think to yourself, “Uhhh… how do I explain this?” It’s a common question for those who are new to a church like Christ Church.  Plus, we have Evangelical in our denominational name. 

The media world has begun wrongly lumping Evangelical and fundamentalist together into a political and religiously narrow stereotype.  But it’s important sometimes to not just surrender vital words to the shallow lexicon of pop-cultue.  Recently a group of Christian leaders, who I deeply respect, got together to graciously, but profoundly, take back the term, Evangelical.  The result is a masterpiece of writing and a new conversation that I pray will bear much fruit.  It’s called An Evangelical Manifesto.

Click here for the website where you can read or download the document as well as a detailed study guide for small group use.  I urge you to take the time to read it.  It is especially relevant for the Amerian culture at this time and in a political year.  Here’s a portion of the Introduction from the website:

As an open declaration, An Evangelical Manifesto addresses not only Evangelicals and other Christians but other American citizens and people of all other faiths in America, including those who say they have no faith. It therefore stands as an example of how different faith communities may address each other in public life, without any compromise of their own faith but with a clear commitment to the common good of the societies in which we all live together.

For those who are Evangelicals, the deepest purpose of the Manifesto is a serious call to reform—an urgent challenge to reaffirm Evangelical identity, to reform Evangelical behavior, to reposition Evangelicals in public life, and so rededicate ourselves to the high calling of being Evangelical followers of Jesus Christ.


One response to What does ‘Evangelical’ mean?


    Hi Lyle.

    Well, this one sure got my attention, Lyle. There was nothing in the various media I consult that reported this pronouncement. And I have heard no authoritative voice in the Evangelical world stand up and offer this kind of clarification for the Christian world and–as importantly–the public at large. It’s at least 30 years overdue. And regrettably, its support and authority even now stands only on a handful of signatures. But better late than never, for it is a wonderful and welcome Christian declaration. Now how to add the number of signatories and, yes, establish some kind of overseeing, protective organization to continue to publicize and defend these principles. This will be a difficult job.

    For the last 20 years, at least, I have been offering notions like these to people who call themselves evangelicals–many of them in Christ Church. I would always start right where these signatories did, with the word “Evangel” and the Good News and sought example and identity of our Lord. Other than theological dictionaries, I had to dig into the theological archives to find authoritative statements that supported this. I tried hard to distinguish Evangelical from evangelistic, but with little success, for that–evangelistic–is what most thought was at the heart of the Evangelical Christian. And consistent with that, they elevate the Great Commission above the two elements of the Great Commandment. And in the process, and following some of the most public “Evangelical” voices, they become easily led to legalism and Fundamentalism–and they mute the Church’s voice and identity in Christ. I feel I was seldom successful in my attempts to make these points.

    Regrettably, as the signatories note, these self-proclaimed public spokespersons for Evangelicalism have now created a clear Evangelical identity among the public at large and many “mainstream” Christian denominations that is our worst fear, or should be: that of legalistic, luddite Fundamentalists. The view is pervasive. Outside Christ Church, I have long found that I cannot claim this identity or affiliation without creating this impression of who I am as a Christian. And so, I have stopped identifying myself that way. I now just identify myself as a Christian. Period.

    And I fear that the public perception and definition of Evangelical cannot be changed–or if it can, if will take a considerable and concerted active effort on the part of all Evangelicals and their churches. But let it start at Christ Church. Offer this statement and declaration to the Elders Council and champion adopting it ourselves as a statement of Christian Identity. If we are to do our part, it is the least we can do.

    But I must share these two points of pragmatic realism:

    (1) For many years, I would foolishly try to correct people–privately, of course–for their misuse of certain words or phrases with clear, long-standing usage and definition, which had, in recent decades, fallen into popular misuse. I would say “forte”, meaning notable strength or ability, was pronounced “fort” not “fortay,” which means strength in music. But you know what? That “improper” usage had become so pervasive that it had become the first meaning of forte, pronounced “fortay,” as I was to learn one day when consulting the OED and the American Heritage some years ago. Language and meanings take on the meaning that people say they do by the prevalence of their everyday usage. And that’s what the best dictionaries are bound by and take their direction from. The word Fundamentalism did not always mean to the public at large what it means today. My research informs me that in its origins and early usage it was much like Evangelicalism, at least so far as its desire to recapture and defend its identity and aspirations to faithfully adhere to the fundamental truth of the Scriptures. But it has long had an unchangeable meaning and unredeemable identity to the world at large. And my fear is that the word Evangelical may have already reached the very same place. We waited too long to take responsibility and act. And the act, so far, has not even reached the notice of most in the Christian world, never mind the world at large.

    (2) Without a broadly and openly supported authoritative body to publicize, clarify, and defend this statement’s view of the Evangelical identity, it remains just one view among others. And the prevailing public view remains intact and the failure of the Evangelical identity and mission with that public–in and for our Lord–becomes inevitable. But because so many self-proclaimed Eveangelicals really are legalists, Fundamentalists and cultural political warriors (it has provided great cover for their real identities), the probabily of finding broad agreement and support is unlikely. And those who do will be a much smaller group who will have to qualify their identifying name and distinguish their true identity in Christ. Who knows, maybe something that brings the names Jesus and God into the identity–for the word Christian, too, is working its way toward meaninglessness or unwanted meanings. But you know what? No matter what other name might ever be chosen, if the behavior of these Christians and their perception by the world brings discredit upon them, they too will become an unwelcome and shunned identity. And that’s what people do, even Christian people. That’s the history of the reformed or protestant church in Christian history: renewing, falling short, dividing or re-identifying, and renewing again.

    All my pragmatism and human disappointment aside, we are called to always be God’s people of Hope, and continually seek and live Christ. Pastors and church leaders need to take ownership of this fledgling movement and its historical statement of Evangelical Christian identity–and publicly approve it, preach it, publish it, and defend it. And somewhere, somehow there has to begin the forming of an authoritative Evangelical oversight body–God willing. I think this is yours to champion, Lyle.

    Warm regards, Greg

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