How do you define an evangelical?
“Someone who likes Billy Graham and likes to debate the definition of ‘evangelical.’”
We chuckle because there’s more than a little truth to that joke. But these days, more than a few wonder if the “evangelical” label is well past its sell-by date.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
British scholar David Bebbington is known best for his description of four major traits of evangelicalism (conversionist, biblicist, cross-centered, activist). This definition played a major role in a book released a decade ago, in which four scholars debated the meaning of the term and the spectrum of Christians encompassed by it. (The four perspectives were “fundamentalist,” “confessional,” “generic” and “post-conservative.”) Notably, all the scholars and editors were white men, a fact that unwittingly adds credence to the claim that “evangelicalism” as a movement is predominantly white.
Recent researchers have attempted to define evangelicalism by doctrinal and ecclesial commitments, and they’ve found that many people who adhere to common evangelical beliefs do not claim the label for themselves. At the same time, many who do not adhere to common evangelical beliefs wear the badge proudly, usually while going into the voting booth.
It’s the close association of evangelicals with the Religious Right that has caused confusion in recent years. The term has evolved from its American manifestation as a renewal project in the middle years of the 20th century. At first, American evangelicals provided a counterpoint both to the isolationist tendencies of fundamentalists and also to the modernists who held unorthodox views of Scripture. It was the movement’s political mobilization in the 1980s that altered the landscape, and the 2016 election of Trump, who captured a large percentage of white evangelicals, exacerbated the identity crisis.
Today, there are leaders within historically evangelical institutions who don’t immediately answer “yes” to the question “Are you an evangelical?” because they don’t know how the questioner defines the term. This shouldn’t surprise us. A decade ago, this conversation was anticipated by Os Guinness, who spearheaded An Evangelical Manifesto, a statement of evangelical belief that sought to distinguish between evangelicalism as a renewal movement and its too-frequent political connotations.
TWO-TRACK UNDERSTANDING OF EVANGELICALS
So here we are, 10 years later, and the definition of “evangelical” is still being debated. Do we define evangelical by those who identify as such? Do we define evangelical the way political pundits do? Or do we define evangelical by core doctrinal commitments?
I vote for a variation of the doctrinal definition, but I do so with eyes wide open to the fact many more claim the label, while many who fit the doctrinal description don’t want the label at all. I don’t think we can dismiss self-identifying evangelicals who hold to theological or political positions we find problematic (whether on the political right or theological left). Neither can we dismiss brothers and sisters who hold tightly to evangelical distinctives and yet want nothing to do with the label.