Dear Brothers and Sisters,
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:
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 Commitment, an 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.
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,
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.