Who and What Is An "Evangelical"?: Evangelicals and Politics (Part 2)

How is the term Evangelical understood? What do Evangelicals believe? What is the perceived role Evangelicals play in politics, especially during this election year?

In light of how the Evangelical and Evangelicalism is understood, or more accurately misunderstood, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Lifeway Research worked on a definition of Evangelical: What is an Evangelical?

As they began their research, both NAE and Lifeway Research acknowledged their indebtedness to David Bebbington, a church historian specializing in the global Evangelical movement, and his understanding and definition of Evangelicals based on four primary characteristics.

    • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
    • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
    • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
    • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

It is these four distinctives/convictions that define Evangelicals. Evangelicals are marked by the gospel with accompanying theological convictions, they are not primarily defined politically, socially or culturally. This does not mean Evangelicals cannot be identified in any of these latter ways. They can be and they are. But it misses the mark of who and what Evangelicals are.

In this study done by NAE and Lifeway Research, which built upon Bebbington’s definition, they attempted to come up with a definition that would capture the essence of Evangelicals which would provide understanding to those who write about Evangelicals. This is especially pertinent during this election year since Evangelicals are more often defined sociologically as a voting bloc rather than a people of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Evangelicals are a common subject of research, but often the outcomes of that research vary due to differences in the methods used to identify evangelicals. In response to that challenge the NAE and LifeWay Research developed a tool to provide a consistent standard for identification of evangelical belief.

The NAE/LifeWay Research method includes four statements to which respondents must strongly agree to be categorized as evangelical:

      • 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.

Another summarizes this work, What Is an Evangelical? Four Questions Offer New Definition, and rightly concludes “belief should trump politics on surveys.” (This is quite ironic, as the article was written last November, prior to Trump becoming the leading GOP candidate!)

For those of us in the EFCA, our understanding is grounded in the gospel, the evangel of the Evangelical, cf. Evangelical Convictions, 22,  fn. 11):

The meaning of Evangelical has been defined historically, experientially and sociologically. As helpful as these definitions are, we understand the term Evangelical first and foremost theologically, viz. by the gospel. . . . our theology (Evangelical) is defined by and finds its importance in the gospel (the evangel).

As you ponder this, let me ask a few questions:

  • Why is it important to make these distinctions?
  • What difference does it make?
  • Are you careful in your speaking and teaching to define carefully what it means to be an Evangelical?
  • One of the most important things to recognize as an Evangelical is that we are people of the gospel, which means we not only believe the gospel, we also proclaim the gospel, and we also live based on the gospel, so that our lives reflect Christ and have an aroma of Christ. Is this true in your life?

In our final post, we will include ten truths for Evangelicals to consider during this election year.

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