What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities

Look up “evangelical” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you will find roughly twelve meanings that stretch back nearly 500 years to William Tyndale’s use of the term in 1531. (“He exhorteth them to procede constauntly in the euangelicall truth.” Yeah, spelling’s changed a bit since then.) Yet the definition that concerns me most is the one that expounds upon the “evangelical” as a sect of the Christian faith. The OED says:

b. From 18th c. applied to that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of ‘the Gospel’ consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy.

Other features more or less characteristic of the theology of this school are: a strong insistence on the totally depraved state of human nature consequent on the Fall; the assertion of the sole authority of the Bible in matters of doctrine, and the denial of any power inherent in the Church to supplement or authoritatively interpret the teaching of Scripture; the denial that any supernatural gifts are imparted by ordination; and the view that the sacraments are merely symbols, the value of which consists in the thoughts which they are fitted to suggest…

It goes on to give a brief history of the word as used by various Christian sects, noting its proclivity for Calvinist adherents and “Low Church” Anglicans.

Look up “influential evangelical leaders” in a Google Images search, and you will find pictures of figures from a rather wide spectrum: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Francis Schaeffer, Ted Haggard, Joyce Meyer, Rob Bell, Tim Challies, Mike Huckabee, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Billy Graham, Brian McLaren, Jerry Falwell, John Piper, and James Dobson, to name a few.

So, what do we make of this definition? These “evangelical” figures? Is “evangelical” even a meaningful word? Does it transcend denominational boundaries or does it describe Christians only of a certain stripe?

I have to admit that, for me, “evangelical” has become an almost pejorative term and, in some cases, a caricature. And I don’t think I’m alone. It has seemingly gone from being a simple descriptor to a synonym for “fundamentalist” (or even “obnoxious”) in the parlance of my generation, gathering significant political connotations and associations that many of us Millennials don’t necessarily agree with. Organizations like Recovering Evangelical (check them out, they’ve got some great stuff on their site) are gaining steam, and media like Relevant magazine have become the new mouthpiece for a young generation of Christians that don’t know how to own the “evangelical” label.

Indeed, the OED corroborates this shift, showing how the contemporary connotations of the word in secular speech tend toward the negative. From the 1993 edition:

4. transf. Eager to share one’s enthusiasm with others; hortatory, proselytizing.

Take a look at the names I listed above. Can all those figures really be lumped together? Is there a common thread that links them? While some fit the OED definition, many do not. And, despite its sometimes negative connotation, many of my generation– including myself– still identify with the label “evangelical” in some way or another. To be an evangelical seems so broad, and yet also carries a rather specific meaning.

So what does it mean to be an evangelical? Is it a social term, a political term, a religious term, or a bit of all of these? Do you think titling yourself as an evangelical automatically produces negative connotations? None at all?

I believe in the importance of answering these questions and forging perhaps new and more helpful definitions of what it means to be evangelical that better articulate and encapsulate the universal identities of all Christians and their involvement in the world. In my next post, I’ll make my case for what I believe “evangelical” should mean and why. Until then, please share your own thoughts on what being “evangelical” does/should mean, and how this affects the perception of Christians in the world.

Also, look for my posts on the early church to resume in the coming weeks, as well as our first guest post from the Rev. Tim Baranoski on Monday! (In the meantime, check out some of Rev. Tim’s blogs at his own site The Timothy Blog.)

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