What Is An Evangelical? Part 1
First off, thanks to The Evangelical Outpost for providing a summary answer to this question that answers everything I've read on the subject--this post is largely based off of that summary. So now, on to business: What, just what, is an evangelical? It is a word fraught with many meanings...okay, really there is one central meaning. The word evangelical, at its root, is unavoidably tied to the Gospels. The word evangel, or "good news," is the word used of the four Gospels in our New Testament. So, at root, an evangelical is one who follows the Gospels. Sounds simple. The "evangelical church" is a term originating with Martin Luther during the Reformation. Describing his church, he coined the phrase evangelische kirke, which is still used to describe the Lutheran church today. So, given the above definition, an "evangelical church" is one that places primary emphasis on the Gospels. Sounds even simpler. But here's where things get a little wonky for us. As the Great Awakening emerged, the term "evangelical" came to be used of the preachers, churches, movements, and denominations that arose from this period. Some prominent evangelicals of this time (can they be called proto-evangelicals?) include Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles and John Wesley. So now we have "evangelical" referring to preachers, churches, and denominations that not only followed the Gospels as their primary emphasis but also placed a large chunk of real estate on fulfilling the Great Commission, or evangelism (spreading the Good News to those who are lost). Still simple, but a little more complex. The World Evangelical Alliance puts this definition very practically: "By definition an evangelical is someone concerned for the gospel. This means more than that he preaches the gospel now and then. It means that for him the gospel of Christ is central. It is, of course, his message and he preaches it, constantly. But it is more than a subject of preaching. The gospel is at the centre of his thinking and living." But now, the modern use of the term "evangelical" further complicates the matter. It now refers to:
- conversion, or "the belief that lives need to be changed";
- the Bible, or the "belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages";
- activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifest in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies);
- the conviction that Christ's death was the crucial matter in providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans.