Are we “evangelicals”?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

I was talking recently with a member who was wondering where Grace Communion International fits within the larger body of Christ. Noting that GCI is not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they asked, “Does that mean we’re Protestant?” I answered yes, and they continued: “Since we’re not liberal or fundamentalist Christians, does that mean GCI is evangelical?” Again, my answer was yes, though as I’ll point out in this letter, the term “evangelical” is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Note this comment from Christian scholar and professor Mark Noll:

In the rough and tumble world of American politics, the label [evangelical] is now often used simply for the most active religious supporters of President Donald Trump. By contrast, in the rarified world of professional scholarship, academics now sometimes treat it as a term with so much ambiguity, fluidity and imprecision that it cannot meaningfully designate any single group of Christians. (Source)

Despite the ambiguity and controversy swirling around the term evangelical, Professor Noll believes that it does have continuing value and should not be abandoned. He concludes: “When used with responsible attention to history and careful focus on generally accepted norms of… definition, [it] can still communicate reality and not just confusion.”

A related question is this: Who gets to define who and what an evangelical is? Often overlooked in answering that question is that, first and foremost, evangelical is a theological identifier. Before it identifies a group of people, it identifies the gospel (the evangel) of Jesus. It is first Jesus’ gospel, not ours—it is first about him, not about us. Those who rightly call themselves evangelicals are careful to point first to Jesus and his gospel, and then to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Faithfulness to the gospel is measured by faithfulness to the Bible, whose authors were appointed by Jesus. Central to the Scriptures are the four Gospels authored by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As these authors show, Jesus is the gospel—he is the true evangelical!

Sadly, for many in North American society, the term evangelical is defined not by Jesus and his gospel, but by the media and entertainment industry, along with politicians, psychologists, sociologists and historians—people often with little or no understanding of the biblical and theological roots and meaning of the term evangelical. The result is the confusion, controversy and outright misrepresentations that swirl around the term in our culture today.

To add to the problem, there are religious leaders who call themselves evangelicals but, at best, are on the extreme edges of what theologically can rightly be called evangelical. Some of these leaders are hypocrites who, wanting to justify themselves or cover up their unfaithful ways, co-opt the label evangelical. Though these pretenders are rightly criticized, the media often portray evangelicals as a monolithic group that is largely white, privileged, ultra-right-wing, racist and homophobic. The unfortunate result is that all who call themselves evangelical are tarred with the same brush by the media, casting a spell of guilt-by-association on those who, in actuality, rightly bear the name evangelical.

The reality is that evangelicals are not a monolithic group—in fact, they are quite diverse, including racially and ethnically, as shown in this chart:

In an article published by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Ed Stetzer notes that research on evangelical identity has tended to focus on three measures: behavior, belonging and belief. The article quotes NAE President Leith Anderson who, in weighing up the research, notes that “evangelicals must be defined primarily by their beliefs rather than politics or race.” Stetzer then offers this:

Dr. Ed Stetzer

In the hopes of crafting a consensus definition of core evangelical beliefs, we evaluated the statements of a diverse group of sociologists, theologians and evangelical leaders. In weighing the insights of these leaders, LifeWay Research developed a definition of evangelical belief around strong agreement with these four statements:

  • 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. (Source)

GCI agrees with these statements, though we would locate them within the larger theological context of our whole Statement of Beliefs. Our agreement is reflected by our membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (in the U.S.), the World Evangelical Alliance, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK and Philippines) and similar organizations elsewhere. The beliefs and ideals that characterize these evangelical organizations are addressed in The Capetown Commitmentan 80-page document that resulted from deliberations at the Third Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization. If you’d like to learn more about what it means to be evangelical, I highly recommend that you read this document.

Sue and Don Lawson

As a denomination, churches and individuals, we are healthy when we are living out our biblically based, evangelical beliefs. With that in mind, I close with the admirable example of one of our retired pastors, Don Lawson. For many years Don served GCI-USA as a pastor then as a district superintendent. Following retirement, Don experienced severe health problems, had to be hospitalized, then spent time rehabilitating in an assisted-care facility. Don sent me a note recently, letting me know he had returned home. His note included this:

About a month ago, the nurse in charge of memory care, where [my wife] Sue lives, asked if I would do a church service each Sunday for the Alzheimer’s patients in her ward. I agreed, and have spoken to them for the last three weeks. What a challenge for an 81-year-old, but I enjoyed it. We have had an average of 15 attending and I will continue to help them as long as I am able. My purpose is to try to find a level of teaching they might understand. I begin with He knows my name. Second: Jesus loves me this I know (and some sang along with me). Third: What is Jesus doing now? (I talked about a place of eternal joy and happiness, with no sorrow or tears).

That’s what being an evangelical looks like, and that’s the gospel evangelicals love to share!

Gospel blessings to you all,

Joseph Tkach

PS: Is the evangelical movement in the U.S. and elsewhere perfect? Of course not, and its leaders know that. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, a denominationally, racially, ethnically and politically diverse group of 50 prominent evangelical leaders met at Wheaton College, west of Chicago. Their purpose was to discuss the current condition of the evangelical movement in the U.S. According to Skye Jethani, a meeting participant,

We gathered to have an honest, and at times uncomfortable, conversation about the current state of American evangelicalism. The focus of the dialogue was not the [U.S.] President or any current policy matters. The focus was how to have a consistent Christian public witness that affirms the dignity of all people as created in the image of God. We explored our history and affirmed when evangelicals did this well, and when necessary we lamented when we have not. There were extended times of prayer, confession, repentance and open discussion.  (From a post on Skye Jethani’s Facebook page, 4/20/2018)

For an additional report on this meeting, click here.

9 thoughts on “Are we “evangelicals”?”

  1. Joe,

    This is a helpful explanation of a frequently posed question even within our own fellowship.

    Much appreciate the marvelous example of Don Lawson. It is truly amazing how God leads His children. Don is obviously the right man, in the right place, at the right time.

    Every blessing,

  2. Thanks. It’s not easy these days to say I belong to an evangelical denomination. The looks I get on some people’s faces before I quickly explain we’re nonpartisan as an organization.

  3. I appreciate the points made by LifeWay Research. However, I suspect that if you mentioned those points to the average church member in almost any denomination, they would say, “Yes, my church believes that.” The NEA may be more conservative [in some ways] and the NCC more liberal [in some ways] but they both believe that Jesus is Lord and we are all brothers and sisters in Him. Mk. 9:38-41 is a beautiful gem of truth and wisdom or Lord left us.

  4. Thanks Joe for these clarifications. I usually add that GCI is evangelical Trinitarian in belief and practice. Would be interested in a sequel that would explain how being Incarnational Trinitarian fits in with being Evangelical. I know they are not exclusive terms, but how exactly do they relate, and what is the “best” way to explain to others what our description is? Thanks JR

  5. Thanks Joe. We continue to appreciate introspection as to our outreach to others in Jesus’ name, without reservation, in respect to all to whom he is calling to him, even as he called us.

  6. Thank you Mr. Tkach for this encouraging and clarifying article. I think it will be very helpful to church members. As you indicate in this article, “evangelical” in many people’s minds is associated with how it is portrayed in the popular media. I appreciate your validation of who real evangelicals are, those united in Jesus.

  7. Thank you for this excellent article—–focused and precise. Evangelicalism is notoriously difficult to define, and yet has left an indelible mark on the world. Let’s not forget that our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters have kept the Creeds as well, and were doing so long before our movement was born!

  8. Around eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for the current President in the last election. Other surveys indicate that many of these voters were white evangelical men who felt that their station of privilege in American society was in jeopardy and that a certain candidate would restore and protect that station of privilege. It is clear that this dynamic is spiritually bankrupt – notwithstanding theological terminology. The tragedy is that, because of the electoral college, I must live with their self-invested decision.

  9. Joe, thanks for this helpful article. It allows us to “zoom out” of the day-to-day messiness of our times and gain some perspective.

    I think an important Take-Away for us all is to identify — for purposes of a prayerful response — some of the negative consequences of the co-opting of the term evangelical by so many. One pressing consequence of having the term evangelical so closely associated with “white evangelicals” is its negative impact on Christian witness here in the US and in countries where missionaries risk their lives to share the Good News.

    The negative impact here in the US is pretty obvious to us (eg Sheila Graham’s experience is fairly common) and so I won’t elaborate on it. But I would like to suggest two areas for prayer:

    1) Some missionary students I teach have had to leave countries in which they ministered for years because of that association. Let’s ask the Lord of the Harvest to reopen some of those doors that have been closed to us because of this sad state of affairs that has overtaken us.
    2) May the Lord inspire the deep soul-searching being done by some evangelical leaders so we repent of those areas where we have contributed to this mess. One area I see is that we, evangelicals in general, have not equipped folks to effectively recognize and resist the seductive lure of ideologies – ideologies that effectively claim a greater allegiance than many Christians are willing to give to Jesus. Another way of saying that is, we have not helped people recognize when they are committing idolatry. May the Lord help us to change that!

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