Theological FAQ:

You describe yourself as "evangelical." What exactly do you mean by that?

I get this question from three classes of people: those who already describe themselves as "evangelical," those who belong to communities called "evangelical," and those who don't. It is especially interesting how many people use the label for themselves without explicitly knowing what it means.

The word is originally Greek: evangelion means "good news" (see Mark 1:1). (Ev = good, angelion = message, as angelos = messenger. Angels are divine messengers. In the Bible they are usually sneaking up on shepherds to tell them that saviors have been born, pouring wrath on sinful humanity, and so on. Some messengers are more pleasant than others. An evangel is a herald of good news.)

So "evangelism" is spreading the "gospel" or good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. "Evangelical" means relating to that good news.

Businesses fight to keep their brand names ("Xerox") from turning into generic terms ("aspirin"). Church movements work the other way, fighting to turn generic terms into brand names: The "catholic" (universal) Church becomes the Roman Catholic Church. The "orthodox" (proper praise) Church becomes the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. (Don't "eastern" and "oriental" mean the same thing? Yes, until they become brand names!) People testifying in favor of reform become pro-test-ants, then Protestants. Those that follow John Calvin's reform program become Reformed. People who only baptize obvious believers become Baptists. People who follow the methods of John Wesley's spiritual exercises become Methodists. People preaching a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit become Pentecostals. And Lutherans who describe the essential character of the true Church as keeping the good news of justification by grace through faith become Evangelicals. (In Europe "Evangelical" just means "Lutheran." Some Lutherans want to fight the losing battle of preserving that meaning in America.)

These are nice reminders that (a) the movements that became today's denominations originally centered on something besides their own institutional preservation, and (b) Christian division has massively corrupted our own vocabulary of grace. The most reasonable inference from all this language — that only Catholics believe in the Church's universality or that only Lutherans are engaged in keeping and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ — is absolutely wrong. (For instance, while Protestant "evangelicals" were concentrating entirely on Europe, Roman Catholics were leading a revival of western world mission.) All these groups seek to be "lowercase" catholics, orthodox, evangelicals, and pentecostals.

In my circles the term "Christian" is often used only to refer to people who have been "born again" through explicit commitments to "Jesus Christ as Lord and personal Savior" (the language has to be just right, as if it were a sacramental formula). A common student question, asked quite innocently, is "Can Catholics be Christians?" This question is not as ridiculous as it looks, because it understands the label "Christian" as describing volitional discipleship rather than just formal membership, and that is a defensible theological claim. Yet this use of "Christians" leads to distortions such as the bizarre phenomenon of faithful Roman Catholic students who refer only to evangelical Protestant friends as "Christians"!

(The answer, by the way, is yes, Roman Catholics can be Christians. Ever actually listen to the Nicene Creed or the Lord's Prayer they say at Mass? I'll take those any day over "as seen on TV" sinners' prayers.)

Anyway, in America the term evangelical usually refers to a conglomeration of renewal movements rooted in the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, Lutheran Pietism, Reformed Fundamentalism, the Pentecostal movement, and Billy Grahamish evangelistic movements in the twentieth century. Here the Bible is taken very seriously in worship, doctrine, and life. Renewal, evangelism, and mission are high priorities. Commitment and spiritual growth are supposed to be sustained efforts with identifiable results. These movements and priorities coexist, not always easily, in a subculture. Families and churches that share them are evangelical families and churches, even if they are also Episcopal or Presbyterian or Methodist or nondenominational or Congregational or Baptist. It's all very messy — historically, theologically, and sociologically. Outside the United States it gets even messier. But evangelicalism really does describe something.

Furthermore, I belong to it. My church is like that; my school is like that; my heart is like that. After a pretty intense commitment to Jesus as (yes) my Lord and savior, whose effects unfolded over a series of years, these people have become my people.

Now I am not the most natural evangelical in the world. I didn't grow up evangelical, so I have not really absorbed the subculture the way many evangelicals have. I didn't grow up doing daily devotional Bible studies (i.e., quiet times), going to Bible camp or Vacation Bible School (VBS), buying material produced and distributed through evangelical merchants (Christian books, Christian music, Christian radio), or attending evangelical schools (Christian schools). I was baptized Episcopal and confirmed Presbyterian. But one of the beautiful things about evangelicalism is that none of that disqualifies me!

Evangelicals are by no means the only faithful disciples of Christ. We have many faults, weaknesses, and blind spots. We have committed sins against each other, other Christians, and non-Christians that are (as always) shameful and inexcusable. Sometimes we are more afraid of being insufficiently Evangelical than being unfaithful to Jesus. Yet evangelicals offer precious things in the Kingdom of God that are worth praising, encouraging, strengthening, and nourishing among evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. In fact, I would say more: The evangelical tradition embodies convictions that are essential to healthy Christianity.

Every Christian has a room in Jesus' mansion. For quite some time my room has been in the evangelical wing. I love to visit other areas. After all, my own wing is constantly under construction, and sometimes it's downright dangerous unless you're wearing a hard hat. But I have no desire to move, and I love to entertain. Come any time!

If you want further reading, consult studies like Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston, Varieties of American Evangelicalism, and Randall Balmer, My Eyes Have Seen the Glory. There are plenty of other good books to choose from.

Grace and peace, Telford