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Who is an Evangelical?

November 30, 2015

I use the term “evangelical” a lot and consider myself a member of that particular tribe.  I do this knowing that (a) I have differences, sometimes significant ones, on some issues with others who use the term, and (b) there is no single authoritative definition of an evangelical is.  Back in 1989 David Bebbington introduced his “quadrilateral” giving four characteristics that define our tribe and I’ve sort of accepted it, even though many of my compatriots who identify themselves as evangelical do not.

Now however, the National Association of Evangelicals, working in partnership with LifeWay Research, has submitted a new definition.  I suppose they have to since, as an association, they need to define who they are willing to associate with.  But the step is significant and both Christianity Today and Charisma have articles explaining the new definition.  Although it is rather close to Bebbington’s effort it is interesting.  I guess definitions require one more point than sermons because, like Bebbington, they use a four-point summary.   Here is their list to define us:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

While it is a good effort, I have three concerns.  First, like any other definition, it seems to point toward the need for “gatekeepers” to determine who gets into the evangelical tribe.  While I applaud them for using first-person descriptions, suggesting that this is to allow me, and others, to make the decision, it is clear that the purpose is really a tool to let us judge others.  Christianity Today makes this clear when they call the NAE “one of several stewards of the term.”  Charisma is even more obvious.  They say, right in their headline, that we have to follow this four-step rule to be “True Evangelical Christians.”  This then doesn’t solve the “competing gatekeepers” problem.  No matter what I think there is always someone out there to tell me I am not in the tribe.

Secondly, this “research” is really nothing more than a poll, first of “a diverse group of sociologists, theologians, and evangelical leaders” and then an actual phone survey of 1,000 Americans, presumably those who are ready to answer something other than “Huh?” to being asked if they are evangelicals.  Polls, while fun to watch, measure what people think now.  There is nothing to stop either the leaders or the rank and file from adding to, subtracting from, or changing the list.

Most importantly, the primary qualification is saying that the Bible is the highest authority.  Setting aside the objection that some have given saying that God is the highest authority, we still have a critical stumbling block, namely, who gets to decide what the Bible teaches?  Evangelicalism, and indeed the wider Christian world, is littered with nasty conflicts where both sides claim that the Bible is their authority.  The way the whole effort was structured implies that the “several stewards” are the ones who make this choice; which leads to the question “Who gets to decide who the stewards are?”

I’m guessing the stewards will be the ones that CT approves of.  Or Charisma.  Or the National Association of Evangelicals.  Or me; maybe I should run for the job of steward/gatekeeper.  While God may be the best judge of all I don’t think he cares all that much about who calls himself an evangelical.  Maybe I shouldn’t either.  I withdraw my name from nomination as a steward.

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