The gospel impulse: real evangelicalism
On an election eve, let’s remember what defines evangelicals
On the eve of the US election, writing about Evangelicalism comes with some hesitation. As an Australian Evangelical, I have never seen the term Evangelical so much in the secular media as I have in the last five years. The media has been trying to make sense of a polarised and turbulent political climate in the US, in which Evangelicals seem to have had a major role to play.
This leads to some awkwardness as an Australian Evangelical trying to explain why it’s not quite the same here – and why I still choose to use the term of myself. But I keep on calling myself evangelical, because I’m still captivated by the gospel.
The common depiction of US evangelicals is of white conservatives. But a 2017 Lifeway Research survey showed that while 1 in 4 Americans see themselves as Evangelical, only 45% of those strongly agreed with the core beliefs of Evangelicalism.
On the other side, only two-thirds of those who were Evangelical by belief would call themselves Evangelical. So, it seems in the US that the word “Evangelical” can describe, on the one hand, a more culturally formed group or, on the other, a theologically formed group.
I know people who identify as Evangelical within the Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Reformed, Salvation Army, and Uniting denominations, as well as among the various Pentecostal denominations.
In Australia, this confusion of the cultural with the theological is less evident. But people do still mistakenly equate “Evangelical” with one particular expression of it. Australian Evangelicalism is broader than, say, the Australian Christian Lobby, or the Sydney Anglican Diocese, though both represent parts of it.
Within Australia, Evangelicals are found within several denominations, and each denomination tends to impart its own particular flavour to the movement. To name some, I know people who identify as Evangelical within the Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Reformed, Salvation Army, and Uniting denominations, as well as among the various Pentecostal denominations.
This denominational diversity is not the only difference to be found. From the first, Evangelicals have had ongoing, often fierce debates. Two influential early leaders, John Wesley and George Whitefield, had an at times fiery disagreement over election, a difference that remains among Evangelicals today. As a pastor, I used a book called Across the Spectrum by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy to help my congregation learn about key evangelical debates. That book listed seventeen such debates, and it was by no means exhaustive.
I co-host an Eternity podcast, With All Due Respect, with another Evangelical minister, Michael Jensen and we hold different views on several key Evangelical debates
I co-host an Eternity podcast, With All Due Respect, with another Evangelical minister, Michael Jensen, and we hold different views on several key Evangelical debates. Besides Michael taking Whitefield and me Wesley’s side on the election debate, we also hold, for instance, differing views on women in ministry, and the relationship of social justice to the gospel. That one about women in ministry is particularly sensitive between us, as I’m an ordained minister in the Baptist Church, and Michael’s own diocese does not allow women to be ordained as presbyters (priests).
So why are Michael and I bothering with each other? Well, we both are rather fond of Evangelicalism. It is, granted, the kind of fondness you have for a family which includes some rather odd aunts and uncles and a clash of viewpoints over the Christmas dinner table. But it also recognises the strengths that have been brought to that table.
Those strengths are related to the core Evangelical beliefs of the Lifeway survey. In essence, these were: the Bible as the highest authority for faith, the priority of evangelism, Jesus’ death as the means of salvation, and the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. These are close to the long accepted Evangelical characteristics outlined by historian David Bebbington: biblicism, activism, crucicentrism, and conversionism. If I had to sum these up, I would say that at Evangelicalism’s core is a focus on the gospel and the Bible (our source for the gospel). That’s fitting, as the name Evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means gospel.
We may fight over the meaning of passages, but we agree that this is a worthy battle, because we give the Bible primary authority.
The strength this core can give us is the recognition that other differences, while significant, are secondary to the central task of the gospel. I have found this with many Evangelicals I know, who otherwise have major differences from myself. We take delight in each other’s experiences of the personal love of Jesus. We rejoice together when someone comes to know Jesus and is transformed by him. We may fight over the meaning of passages, but we agree that this is a worthy battle, because we give the Bible primary authority.
This leads to what some have suggested is a fifth characteristic: our impulse to reach across differences to work together for the gospel. Why did Wesley and Whitefield keep working together? Why do Michael and I? It is love of Jesus, his gospel and the people formed by that gospel.
It is this impulse that lies behind the Evangelical love for Billy Graham. Sure, Billy Graham could draw large crowds. But we loved him because he could bring those crowds to know Jesus. Graham was known for putting aside differences so that he might be able to reach more people with the gospel. Many have wondered whether the Evangelical unity seen in Graham could outlast his death. I believe it can. Because this unity was founded not in Graham’s personal charisma, but in a shared desire to see the gospel transform lives.
And this is why I think Evangelicals getting fixated on discussions over who is in or out is to be lamented. A focus on the boundaries tends to distract us from the core task of the gospel. The debates and disagreements will continue to be discussed, and I have no problem with that. Many such debates are worthy of convicted passion. The trouble is when that conviction becomes legalism, unable to see the gospel at work within those different from us.
If we genuinely do prioritise the gospel, we will do what Evangelicals have done since their beginning. Which is to reach out across difference so that we might be able to work together for the sake of the gospel.