What is an Evangelical Anyway?

My blog is about quitting cynicism toward evangelicals. But before I talk about that, we need definitions. What is an evangelical anyway?

This is weirdly complicated, and has gotten me in trouble a lot. I’ll explain with a mostly-true story:

I denied my faith in the Yale Law School courtyard. Or maybe I didn’t, I’m not really sure. It started with a question from one of my classmates during our year-end picnic:

“What are you, some kind of evangelical?”

Noah asked me this because I told him I went to Pepperdine for a year before transferring to Yale Law School. Pepperdine’s Malibu campus is nestled in a mountain overlooking the ocean. Mentioning it usually leads to my stories of endless hours in the library, battered by the waves and mocked by the beauty of the hills and sea as I hunched over my law texts.

Noah inferred that I was evangelical.

Pepperdine is connected with a Christian denomination, and is conservative compared to most law schools. But assuming I was evangelical was still a leap.

Noah raised an eyebrow, and I knew I had to answer. But I floundered. Yale’s gothic spires leered over me as I sputtered qualified dodges.  What was an evangelical anyway?

Finding a definition of evangelical is like finding Bigfoot. Everybody so far has failed, and it may not even exist, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

The most famous definition is probably David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral of priorities”—conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. My favorite definition is from George Marsden, who calls an evangelical “someone who likes Billy Graham.”

But none of these really help. Evangelical means different things to different people:

  • If a fellow evangelical uses the term, it’s honorific—the person takes their Christianity seriously, and wants other people to take it seriously too.
  • When non-Evangelicals use it, it’s code for “crazy Republican who once mentioned the Bible to me.” For them, an evangelical is an uneducated backwoods hick who is stupid, ignorant, and a bigot.1

More fundamentally, evangelical is more subjective than objective. People don’t get the label because they check hermeneutical boxes. They get it by conveying a certain impression.

Because the impression is too elusive to define, I’m not going to bother trying. If you’re reading this, you probably already know evangelicals well enough to get this “certain impression.” You can’t pin it down in the abstract, but you can point to concrete examples:

Everything from Billy Graham to James Dobson, AWANA to vacation Bible school, Wheaton College to Dallas Theological Seminary, Faith Bible churches to John MacArthur study Bibles, street-corner preaching to Christian radio that’s “safe for the whole family.”

So I’m not going to argue for what the definition should be, or whether or not I qualify as an evangelical. There are other, better people for those arguments.

Really, I’m not going to dwell on what I mean about the term evangelical at all. I’ll use the “I know it when I see it” standard.

Do any of you have a good definition of evangelical? Is it even worth bothering to develop one?

_________

1  And no, the people making this sort of accusation never realize the irony.

Photo Credit: Yale Law School Courtyard by Step via Flickr

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8 thoughts on “What is an Evangelical Anyway?

  1. Beth

    It usually is a “I know one when I see one”. Okay I have to get to work now! I’m really enjoying your blogs. I have to admit though, I will have to get out my dictionary and look up some words!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree. “Evangelical” is such an amorphous description of anyone. Do I think it’s important to evangelize? Yes. Do I go to an evangelical free church? No. But that’s not the point of the blog.Good choice, Matt.

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  3. Doug

    I hate to say it, but I’m a cynic. I see an evangelical as most often being politically conservative, uneducated, and possessing a shallow literal interpretation of the parts of the Bible they like. An evangelical holds a great deal of confidence that their way and only their way is the only way to spiritual fulfillment, and those that do not adhere are lost, living in sin, or rebelling from God.

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    1. Jon,

      I made a law student move and went with a “I know it when I see it” standard. On a slightly different note, this may not be the best definition I’ve ever seen, but it’s the pithiest:

      An evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.
      A fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is an apostate.
      A liberal is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a fundamentalist.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Robbie Castleman

    Good one, Matt! “Evangelical” means significantly different things in distinct geographical areas. Latin America, not-Catholic; Germany, any free-churcher.
    In the US, very much associated with right-wing politics, sadly enough–and usually the anabaptist communities. This is probably one box you are breaking out of?
    Me? Just a trinitarian sojourner, found by God’s Grace, grounded in Scripture, worship and dependent on prayer and the community of fellow sojourners. Out of the box, but gratefully in the Body of Christ.

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    1. Thank you!
      Since I wrote the post, I found a good definition of “evangelical” from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary: “Agreeable to gospel; consonant to the Christian law contained in the holy gospel.” That works for me.

      Like

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