I would describe myself as an evangelical Christian. What does this mean?
A few years ago I was visiting a cathedral (I forget which one). There was a display board explaining that Christian belief stood on three pillars, like a three-legged stool: Scripture, Reason and Tradition. The idea it was trying to get across was that we need to understand, accept and follow the teaching of the Bible (Scripture). We had to use our mind (Reason) to understand this and be guided by wise people from the past (Tradition), otherwise we might misunderstand the Bible and believe daft ideas.
These three pillars roughly correspond to three groups of Christians:
Is that it? Can we neatly partition the church in this way? No, not really, because of boundary disputes and mixing. There are people who consider themselves to be evangelical, but other evangelicals (including me!) regard them as being liberal. I remember many years ago, when on a family holiday, attending a Sunday morning service. On the way in my Dad asked the person on the door if the church was evangelical and was assured that this was the case - I forget the denomination but like most it was a mixed one. It became clear during the service, especially in the sermon, that it was a liberal church. On the way out afterwards my Dad embarrassed the rest of us by making a comment to this effect. There are people who describe themselves as liberal catholics, and others are evangelical catholics.
Many charismatics are quite evangelical in their doctrine but would never use this word of themselves because they associate it with cessationist conservative evangelicals. Where does this leave us? What is an evangelical?
Evangelicals generally define themselves by their beliefs, or what they think are their beliefs. It could be argued that this itself is a defining characteristic of evangelicalism; other Christians may define themselves more by their denominational adherence, church structure or experience of God. Evangelicals consider themselves to be first and foremost Bible Christians, so they claim to get their doctrine from the Bible and believe that this doctrine is important.
The key doctrines relate to the person and work of Christ, and the nature of Scripture. Jesus is the Son of God, and after living a sinless life he died for us on the cross. This makes salvation from sin possible, but in order to benefit from this a person must repent from sin and trust Christ. The Bible is God's Word, so is completely true and authoritative. This is a very brief summary of the main doctrinal points, but evangelicals like to construct detailed statements of belief and use these not only to regulate their church membership but also to determine with whom they will cooperate.
This emphasis on doctrine is a useful safeguard against error creeping in, but it has weaknesses:
Many people have a mental picture of an evangelical: a very serious person, dressed in clothes suitable for someone 10-20 years older, who carries a large black Bible and will, at the drop of a hat, quote chapter and verse from it. They urge people to have a relationship with Jesus, but this seems to consist of lots of Bible study and speaking to someone who cannot or will not reply. While often speaking of 'the joy of the Lord' this is clearly very deep joy because it is never visible on the surface. It must be admitted that there is an element of truth in this, as most of us know someone like this. There are whole churches like this! Some evangelicals attempt to get away from this by deliberately going to the other extreme and dressing down, but this can sometimes look equally silly.
Most evangelicals now dress only slightly more soberly than their own generation. It is often easy to spot visitors at church, as they wear their 'Sunday best' and so look more formal than the church members. However, evangelicals are usually still conservative in other ways, especially morality. Some evangelicals are teetotal, but this is much less common than it was a generation ago. Broadly speaking, evangelicals are less aloof than they used to be.
Like all human groups, evangelicals believe things about themselves which are not necessarily always true. Their strongest belief is that their beliefs are firmly based on Scripture. There are at least two difficulties about this:
As a result, evangelicals sometimes read the Bible in the light of their doctrinal system when the converse ought to be the case.
Because they, rightly, have a high view of Christ and his work on the cross they can read this idea into Bible passages where it is not really evident. It may be present under the surface, but by immediately digging for Christ they can miss the plain teaching of the passage. Presumably God intends us to notice the plain, surface, meaning of a section of Scripture first? They can miss instructions for what we should do, while concentrating on what Christ has done or is doing. For example, Joshua prays before a battle, follows God's instructions and is successful. A sound evangelical will say that we should pray, and then be thankful that Christ is praying for us too. I guess the bit about following God's detailed instructions has to be left out (or converted to Bible study - a common evangelical sleight of hand) because there is no mechanism admitted by which he could convey such instructions to us nowadays?
Evangelicals tend to have a low view of human nature, sometimes even lower than God's view! Many evangelicals have a rather inadequate idea of salvation. We have been born again, raised from death to life, transferred from darkness into light, been adopted into God's family, given the indwelling Spirit and (corporately) are the Bride of Christ; yet we are still sinners, incapable of pleasing God. This almost suggests that the new birth hasn't actually changed anything apart from our eternal destiny. Such people find it difficult to enjoy their relationship with God, and often regard worship as merely a duty in which we recite truth statements.
As mentioned above, there is not clear agreement on what constitutes evangelicalism. I suppose a UK journalist or politician would assume that it is defined by the Evangelical Alliance, although this is a club for like-minded people and churches rather than a denomination. I remember hearing my Dad saying many years ago that the EA was a broad church; he meant that it included people who he regarded as liberal. I still retain my membership, but I have often been surprised by the views expressed in their magazine. Perhaps some people hold their nose while signing the statement of belief, or just regard it as a formal hoop to jump through when joining. EA has been weak in policing it.
Some years ago I was surprised to find that an introductory correspondence course from London Bible College was written by a woman and cast doubt on the historicity of the Fall and Flood. I was more concerned by the doubt about Genesis than the gender issue, but both violated my understanding of what real evangelicals believe. It now seems that almost any evangelical belief can be dropped without having to drop the evangelical label too.
I think part of the problem arises because of the tendency of evangelicals to assume that they are, more or less, the true church. When someone denies a biblical doctrine they ought to say that this person, to that extent, is no longer evangelical but is still Christian - provided that it is not a fundamental Gospel doctrine. Instead they extend the definition of evangelical to include people who deny that doctrine. Over time the scope of evangelicalism gets ever wider and weaker. The 'new evangelicals' then describe the original, more conservative ones as fundamentalists.
For many years evangelicals have had to deal with modernist liberalism nibbling at the edges. Modernists had different ideas about what was true. There is now a new threat: post-modernists have trouble with the very concept of truth. As a physicist I find post-modernism quite baffling; it is not so much a new way of thinking as a way to avoid thinking altogether. Post-modernism is now infecting the Christian church, and some are trying to accommodate it rather than combat it. Some may not like it, but the concept of truth lies at the heart of Christianity. We should not treat the Bible as merely a handbook of doctrine, as some evangelicals do, but we should equally avoid the post-modern idea of treating it as merely a story.
We should be stricter about evangelicalism, and more tolerant about Christians in general. We should do what evangelicals already claim to do, and base our beliefs on Scripture. To give two examples:
For historical reasons some Anglicans are regarded as evangelical, but I cannot see how their views on church order and baptism are derived from Scripture. They are merely the remnants of an incomplete Reformation. Similarly, the cessationism and non-interventionism of some 'Reformed' people looks more like deism or semi-liberalism than biblical Christianity. I would be happy to place such people outside the boundaries of evangelicalism, while still accepting them as Christian brothers and sisters, but I realise I might be on my own in doing this.
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created 29 Dec 2009