Saturday, December 02, 2006

what is "an evangelical"?

The past few days I've been thinking a lot about what I mean when I say that I am "an evangelical." I know that the word "evangelical" can be tricky to define. For example, I was talking to a friend at Annual Conference this last summer. She said something that sounded rather "liberal" in my mind. I responded to her, "Oh, I guess I just assumed that you were an evangelical." She said, "I like to consider myself an evangelical liberal."

I know this is a category that some United Methodists place themselves in, and they have every right to do so. I won't try to explain for them what that means. I just say this to make the distinction between how different people use the word "evangelical." From what I can tell, saying that I am an evangelical, is different from using evangelical as an adjective.

For the sake of distinction, I have at least once called myself "a conservative evangelical." I did so not because I think the adjective "conservative" is really necessary, but to let people know that I'm not an evangelical liberal. I'm an evangelical.

As I've been thinking about this, here is a list of things that I consider to be true of people who are evangelicals. (This is a work in progress.)

1) They believe that Jesus is the only Savior of humankind.
This means that no other religious pathway, other than Jesus, will lead to God. There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. Every human being has sinned. The only available candidate to die for another's sins is one who has no sins of his/her own. Jesus, the only sinless human being, is the ony substitute who has ever lived. He paid the sin debt for the entire human race in his blood.

2) They believe that the Bible is God's Word.
This doesn't mean that Jesus is not the Incarnate Word of God. While Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is the written Word of God. One could say the Bible is the Word of the Word (hat tip to Mike Rayson). This means that even the parts of the Bible that are written by Paul, Peter, John, or Solomon, are the Word of God. This also means that in order to get a full picture of who Jesus is, one must look as much at what Paul said about him as one must look at what he said about himself.

3) They believe that the Bible should have the final say in understanding every moral issue. This means that if scientific research suggests that a different moral understanding of a behavior might be appropriate, the evangelical would stick with what the Bible says on the issue.

4) They believe that the miracles in the Bible (the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead, etc) were actual historical events.

5) They believe that heaven and hell are both very real eternal destinations.

6) They believe that the only way to escape hell is through faith in Christ. They would say that this does not make God unjust, unloving, or unfair, because hell is what humans deserve for being desperately wicked. God's love and desire to redeem wicked human beings is demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Evangelicals do not find the doctrine of hell incompatible with God's incredible love for the human race.

7) They believe the earliest Christians, including the apostles, were evangelicals. This means that being "an evangelical" is not some new invention, but what it really means to be a Christian.

Here's a list of clarification statements to hopefully answer questions before they are asked.
1) Some evangelicals would say that its not possible to be a true Christian unless someone is an evangelical. I would hesitate to say that for a number of reasons, even though I would call myself an evangelical.
2) Evangelicals have made some horrific mistakes throughout history.
3) Anyone who believes the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church at face value would be what I consider an evangelical.
4) I believe John Wesley was an unapologetic evangelical.
5) An evangelical should never dismiss the social responsibilities that accompany being a follower of Christ, under the argument that right doctrine is more important than right behavior.
6) I believe evangelicals have good things they can learn from liberals ("evangelical liberals" and just plain "liberals").


Keith Taylor said...


I am so glad you put this up.

Thanksgiving week, John at Locust & Honey put up a post about if the American public would support a Mormon candidate for President. Joel Betow commented about evangelicals balking on JFK because he was a Roman Catholic.

I then commented that I didn't know the term "evangelical" used by the mainstream media even existed in 1960. I was curious and I asked the question, "what exactly is an evangelical?"

I personally consider myself a conservative evangelical, but I absolutely hate the word, "evangelical". I never use it. I don't really know what it means.

When I mentally picture an evangelical, I get the mental picture of these non-denominational, mega-church attending Christians, singing praise choruses and holding their hands up all in church all day long while waiting on God to bless them and make them happy and rich.

Now I know that isn't true, but it is just the mental image I have that I fight to block out of my mind.

Where did the word evangelical come from? The closest word I can relate to it is the word evangelist. Now I love that word. The character, Evangelist, is one of my favorite minor characters in John Bunyan's Christian allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress. I immediately think of Billy Graham when you say the word evangelist, but when you say the word evangelical, I only come up with mentally negative images of modern American Christians. In my mind, we are commanded by our Lord to all be Christian Evangelists. But, where exactly did this word, evangelical come from?

I like your list, and I am a conservative like yourself. I believe everything that you put on your list. In "my" opinion, every true Christian Church SHOULD believe all the things that you listed. However, I know without a doubt that Roman Catholics meet that list to the tee, but a vast majority of "Evangelicals" will probably tell you that they don't even consider Roman Catholics true Christians.

So where exactly did this term come from?

Keith Taylor - Fidei defensor

I'm giving myself this title for the firestorm I started at John's blog with the infamous Thanksgiving Heresy argument that errupted into a free for all on the Methodist Blogsphere! :-)

Jason Woolever said...

Keith, I love your new title!
You know what they say:"It only takes a spark to get a fire burning!"

Honestly I don't know when folks started using the word evangelical to refer to what I described.

I know that in the last 8 or 9 years, I just began hearing it used, and using it myself, in discussing the evangelicals vs. the liberals.

The Greek word "euangelion" (sp?) is the word translated in our Bibles as "gospel" or "good news."

I really don't like to overuse the word "conservative" because I know that many people assume I'm talking about the Republican party, if they haven't been in on the theological discussion.

There's politial conservatives, financial conservatives, etc. So, I always feel the need to explain what I mean when I say conservative.

It seems that many of our commonly used words are loaded with different meanings!

JD said...


I appreciate your post and the things that you write about just continue to help me in my work on my next post.

I tend to refer to myself as an evangelical due to the root of the word, evangelize. I guess my main goal with my blog and any conversations that I share with others tend to be about Christ and what He can do and has done for us.

The last week has gotten a little "religious" in the Methoblogosphere. I think the debates that are occurring are more about the rules than the Bible. My biggest challenge is not to get caught up in the theological debate. I love the mental challenges, and I see the importance of them, but I think for us to really be "Evangelical," we need to get back to the roots of the Methodist Church and focus on the sharing of Christ more than the debates we have. (premise of my next post.)

Your ministry, both on the web, and at your home congregation is, I am sure, greatly appreciated. I believe that the attacks come from the fact that you are getting it right more than you are wrong.

Oh, well, I regress.


I appreciate your comment on Catholicism. Although, today, I choose not to practice my Christian faith in the Catholic Church, my 27 years there carry a strong tradition and respect for our Catholic brethren. I had to defend the Catholic faith the other day on the Heresy post for the same reason that you stated, someone thought that Catholics did not believe something and were not Christian. I do my best to research and understand any denomination that I may have a disagreement with before making statements that are uneducated and inflammatory. In my experience, most evangelicals and non-denominational Christians make blanket statements about the Catholic Church as a whole, without really trying to understand the complexities of the practitioners of the Catholic faith.

I appreciate your input and appreciate the time that you take to respond to various posts.


Jason Woolever said...

JD. thanks for your encouragament and your reflections and thoughts concerning the conversation!

Kansas Bob said...

Your post reminded me of what Michael Lee said in "Why I am (still) an Evangelical"

Keith Taylor said...


I got my engineering degree from Christian Brothers College, now University, in Memphis, so I had four years of life with the Brothers. And let me tell you, I have the greatest respect for the Brothers. I loved the campus. There was a crucifix above the chalkboards and whiteboard in almost all the classrooms and there were status of Christian Brothers and of the Christian Saints on campus. I will tell you that in a highly techincal degree such as engineering, it is good to look up in a Kinematics or Thermodynamics class and see the cross on the wall.

I think many protestants think of the Roman Catholic Church of Martin Luther's day and they see that as the Chruch of today. The Protestant Reformation did its job. I am glad that it happened, but that doesn't mean that the RC of 2006 is the same as the RC church of 1406. It is strange that many Protestants think that there would be a Christian Church if they didn't exist. Who do they think carried the torch of Christianity for 1500 years? If there was no Roman church, there would be no Protestant churches. None.

I wrote a Catholic friend of mine after Pope John Paul II past away. I told him that even though I was a dyed in the wool Protestant, a 9th generation United Methodist, I felt like my own local pastor had died when the Pope died.

John said...

Keith, my Dad got his engineering BS at CBC as well.

Keith McIlwain said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly with one caveat concerning #6...I believe that Wesley (Calvin, Luther, Augustine, et al) would say that the only way to "escape hell" (though I would prefer a more positive approach, like "experience salvation") is by the grace of God, typically rendered effective through faith in Christ...more God-centered, less experiential. Just my two cents.

Jason Woolever said...

may "by grace of God through faith"? i guess accept for infants, because he believed in the baptismal regeneration of infants.

Joel Thomas said...

With reference to point number one, it is interesting to note that John Wesley purposely chose to delete this article from the original 39
Articles of Religion:

"18. Obtaining salvation only by the name of Christ.
Those who presume to say that every person shall be saved by the rule of life, religion, or sect that he professes, provided he makes diligent efforts to live by that rule and the light of nature, must be regarded as accursed. For holy Scripture declares to us that it is only in the name of Jesus Christ that men must be saved."

Why did John Wesley choose to delete this article? I think I may have found the topic for my next post.

Jason Woolever said...

(I just noticed two typos in my last comment. huh.)
Hey Joel. That is interesting. I look forward to hearing what you find out about it!

Jason Woolever said...

Hey Joel. I was just looking at our Articles of Religion and saw this one:
Article IX—Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.
Just a thought, he may have thought that this article basically got the job done, expecially since the Methodist Church was not specifically trying to define itself against the Roman Catholic Church. This of course is totally speculation.

JD said...


Thanks for the response. I went to Catholic School from Kindergarten until I graduated College, so I do understand the influence that the brothers and sisters have on education.

I also agree with you about most Protestants not really understanding the Catholic faith. I harkens it to being to the joke about the woman that cuts off the end of her ham before baking it. She always did it because her mother did it. I think that is the same for most Christians. They don't spend the time trying to understand the basic differences in the way they worship and end up focusing on the less important things which in turn causes conflict in the Christian community.

Each and every Christian denomination needs to have a mini-reformation and get away from the religion and focus on Christ. With that, I believe we would be all one step closer to Christian Unity. And if we can truly live what it means to be evangelical, the ecumenical aspect of the movement can really help unify the Christian Church.


Joel Thomas said...


Good point. I should say I'm not even pre-judging, nor even speculating as to why Wesley took it out. I have to do some research first. It is possible that he simply considered it to be an unncessary duplication of the article you cite. I'm only to the point of curiosity.

I believe that all salvation is mediated through Christ and I accept the doctrinal standard article you mentioned. I am not a universalist; albeit I might have a broader understanding of Christ as Savior.

I expect that you will read this upon your return, which I will await.

Dr. Tony said...

For the record, one of my brothers is a graduate of CBC (or CBU, depending how you think of the place). I might have gone there myself if other factors hadn't been in place.

To the question (and the reason for the post), where does spreading the Gospel come into play in the discussion? To me, an evangelical is one who spreads the Gospel. The root word for evangelical comes from the Gospel and I think that is where the discussion must focus.

I may add more to this later.

Jason Woolever said...

Hi Joel, I just checked my email one last time before hitting the road. I'm glad you're looking into the question you raised. I'm curious too!

Jason Woolever said...

Hey Tony, you bring up what may be another discussion, which focuses on what evangelicals do (which would be much harder to pin down in my opinion!). My purpose was to lay out doctrinally what I think evangelicals believe. Thanks for commenting!

Stephen said...

Excellent post Jason! I have been frequently asked what exactly an evangelical is, and found it hard to pin down one definition.

The only question I had was on issue number 3. My problem comes from being a minister in the south (where I might add racism is still present in some places even churches). Down here the Bible was and is still being used to justify racism and slavery as a morally acceptable issue.

I am not saying to do away with the Bible as a moral guide. I just want to offer that the guide can be used to justify evil things.

Anonymous said...

When Marin Luther was alive, he referred to the German church as the Evangelical Catholic Church.

The distinction of Martin Luther's movement was the the Five Solas.

The authority of Scripture: sola scriptura (Scripture alone)
the basis of salvation: Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
the means of salvation: Sola Fide (Faith alone)
the merit of salvation: Solus Christus (Christ alone)

Later in time, these principles set by Martin Luther would be co-opted by the Calvinists.

Most would say that those predestined hyper-Calvinist that state God knows who is going to heaven and who is going to hell are not evangelicals. If that is true, why preach the gospel? Has been the argument.

But I would never in my right mind fail to recognize Wesley, D.L. Moody, Spurgeon, Finney, Billy Sunday as evangelicals.

Luther would be most distressed that several churches would call themselves "Lutheran". Wesley would not be a happy camper to hear of the factions in Methodism and that several demonations have his name in their church name.

There are several demoninations within Lutheran theology that have the name Evangelical Catholic.

Per my good friend Wilkipedia, Evangelical Catholic has been used to define movements within high church Anglicanism and Methodism.

There are even Roman Catholics that describe themselves as Evangelical Catholics.

On paper, this website comes close to Jason's criteria. At one time prior to leaving the Roman Catholic Church, I identified myself as "born again, Christian evangelical".

Exercise: Look up Fred Phelps website, does his church statement of faith meet the working defintion of evangelical.

Most Baptists I know would preach that the Roman Catholic pontiff is an uncriptural office, that the theology being preached is a salvation by works.

Per Wilkepedia, Evangelical describes a Christian moderate who is not leaning to the right "Fundamentalism" nor leaning to the left "Liberalism".

God Bless,

John Flores
Frisco, Texas

Anonymous said...

Barna Research Group [6] surveyed Christians in the United States in 2004 and asked nine questions to determine whether the respondent was an evangelical Christian. Seven of the questions asked were:

Are you a born again Christian?

Is your faith very important in your life today?

Do you believe you have a personal responsibility to share your religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians?

Do you believe that Satan exists?

Do you believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works?

Do you believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth?

Do you believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today?

I can affirm all of the above.

John Flores
Frisco, Texas

Keith Taylor said...

Joel wrote:

"18. Obtaining salvation only by the name of Christ.
Those who presume to say that every person shall be saved by the rule of life, religion, or sect that he professes, provided he makes diligent efforts to live by that rule and the light of nature, must be regarded as accursed. For holy Scripture declares to us that it is only in the name of Jesus Christ that men must be saved."

Why did John Wesley choose to delete this article? I think I may have found the topic for my next post.

Very good point Joel and it is an excellent topic to cover in your next post.

I know that the simplest and easiest definition of the word heresy is to define or believe that your salvation is dependent on Jesus and "anything else". Once you put the "anything else" next to Jesus you have committed heresy. I look forward to reading you post on this.

JD said...

I appreciate your posts John. As you stated to Gavin regarding your relationship with Jason, though there are some areas of theology that we disagree, I appreciate that you try to understand the different denominations as they relate to a dialogue between the various denominations of Christianity. Sometimes I read Jason's posts just to see what YOU have to say. Oh, did I actually write that down? HI, JASON :)


Jason Woolever said...

Stephen, you're right about how the Bible has been used to mistreat people. That is not a good thing!

Anonymous said...

Note to all,

Never put one of those "Family Bibles" on the top shelf of your home library.

From personal experience, the Bible gets dusty and it really hurts when it falls on your head.

Thanks JD and all for contributing to the discussion.

I would be interested in hearing more about how John Wesley abridged the Anglican Articles of Religion and the Common Book of Prayer.

Some of my sources on this line of thought describe Wesley as an
"evangelical Anglican".

Keep the Word close to your heart and don't let a Bible or Lectionary hit you on the head from the fourth shelf.

John Flores
Frisco, Texas