Skip to content

What is an Evangelical?

5 May 2017

What is an Evangelical?

This is a question that has bothered me for a long time, but especially since 1999 when an outfit called The Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance assiduously and very intolerantly tried to propagate scare stories that “Evangelicals”, disappointed that the world had not ended in the year 2000, would set off bombs in public places to show their displeasure that the Almighty had failed to oblige.

More recently I reviewed Fr Andrew Stephen Damick’s book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, in which he described a number of religious groups and viewpoints, and evaluated them from an Orthodox point of view. Nothing wrong with that, but I thought that his chapter on Evangelicalism and Revivalism was the weakest in the book, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his having come from an Evangelical background himself.

And most recently I read this article, and thought perhaps it is time to try to counter some of the media (and other) spin on Evangelicalism. The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society – The New York Times:

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

That innocuous phrase — “biblical worldview” or “Christian worldview” — is everywhere in the evangelical world.

I’m by no means a fundi on Evangelicalism. I’m not an Evangelical, but an Orthodox Christian, though I do believe that the Orthodox Christian faith is evangelical. But I can claim to have some knowledge, first from having been steered in the direction of having a Christian worldview by an Evangelical school teacher, and secondly from having majored in Church History.

The word “Evangelical” means “pertaining to the Gospel”, and has quite a wide range of meanings. but when used as a noun, rather than an adjective, it refers to those who stress the importance of faith as more than assent to a set of propositions, but rather personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In order to understand this, one needs to be aware of the circumstances in which it arose. Following the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and the Wars of Religion of the 17th, Protestantism, in most of the countries where it flourished, settled down to a rather dull doctrinal orthodoxy. The churches were afflicted by formalism, and the most important thing was not to rock the boat.

Dissatisfaction with this took the form of Pietism in central Europe, which in turn influenced the Methodist movement in Britain in the early 18th century, which was led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, and these and others, like Jonathan Edwards, preached a similar message in North America. As I noted in my review of Fr Andrew Damick’s book, he himself calls for something like this when he says:

I am not suggesting a Churchless “Christianity,” but rather warning against a Christless “Church.” Just as there is no Christianity without the Church, there is also no Church without Christ. If I cannot detect Jesus Christ—in all His warmth, personality (if we can use such a word), and transformative love—in someone’s speaking about the Church, then I have reason to doubt whether I should heed him.

Yet he compares Evangelicalism with Gnosticism, but can what he says above be seen as Gnosticism? Is the Orthodox teaching on Theosis based on Gnosticism? When the priest asks a catechumen “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”, is that Gnosticism? Even the common phrase heard among Evangelicals, about the need to “accept Christ as your personal Saviour”, though it is not found, in that form, in the Holy Scriptures or in the writings of the Church Fathers, means substantially the same thing as “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”

As a friend of mine once put it:

Moses has received the ten commandments. God confronts the people with his will. Note that he does not say `The Sabbath day is to be kept holy’, but `Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day’; not `Adultery is not to be committed’, but `Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ God does not hide his identity or that of his audience behind a screen of impersonal passives, like our constitutions and statutes. He rises up against his servant and identifies him by addressing him as `Thou’. If you accept the ten commandments, you are not accepting one code of principles among many, you are not acquiescing in a general disapproval of murder; primarily you are committing yourself to a God who has a purpose and a judgment and who reveals that purpose to his people, part of which purpose is that you should not deny your neighbour’s God-given permission to live. Accepting the ten commandments is an act of faith in the living God, not of approval of an ideal way of life. They are not man’s idea of what God wants; they are God’s own word, addressed to man, second person singular.

And similarly the priest in addressing the catechumen does not say “Do you think union with Christ is a good idea?” He says, “Dost thou unite thyself to Christ?” second person singular. It is personal.

Note that the phrase used by Evangelicals is “do you accept Christ as your personal Saviour” and it is similarly using the second person singular. What they do not say is “do you accept Christ as your individual Saviour”, though perhaps nowadays many Evangelicals might interpret in that way.

But this is the origin and the essence of Evangelicalism, and that should not be forgotten when one examines later developments.

One development of Evangelicalism is, as I suggested above4, to interpret “personal” as “individual”. Evangelicalism developed alongside the Enlightenment in Western Europe, and the Enlightenment promoted individualism, and this affected Evangelicalism to some extent. So, in the 19th century some evangelicals regarded this personal relationship with Christ as the most important thing, or even the only thing. For such Evangelicals the church was of lesser importance, and so they were referred to in England, at any rate, as “Low Church”. In their ecclesiology they came to see the church as a collection of saved individuals, like a heap of stones, rather than as a finished building, with each stone going to make up the whole.

The essence of being a Christian thus came to be seen as “making a decision for Christ”, and those who had come to make such a decision were said to be “born again”. But in the Orthodox Church, the decision “I have joined myself to Christ” is followed by Holy Baptism and Chrismation as the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This is being “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), and “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). So in being released from the power of the devil (exorcism), renouncing the devil, accepting Christ as King and God, being baptised in water and sealed with the Holy Spirit, one is transferred from the authority of darkness to the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col 1:13)  The theological term for this is “baptismal regeneration”, whereas the truncated Evangelical version is called “decisional regeneration”. And “regeneration” means being born again. So Orthodox Christians who are baptised and chrismated are born again Christians.

Not all Evangelicals have taught decisional regeneration, and Calvinists, especially, have rejected it. It is worth noting that in Germany at least, a distinction has sometimes been made between Lutherans, who were Evangelical, and Calvinists, who were Reformed, so that being Evangelical is one thing, and being Reformed is another. This was not universal, however, because in Prussia (north-eastern Germany) there was a state-sponsored union of Lutheran and Calvinist churches, which was called the Evangelical Church.

John Wesley

But when there is a revival, where the church is trapped in a dead formalism, there is also resistance. John and Charles Wesley, in their preaching of revival, were priests of the Church of England, and Charles Wesley never left it. But the formal church clung to its formalism and resisted revival. Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, told John Wesley “the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” Enthusiasm of any kind was taboo.

That kind of attitude was common in Protestant churches in Western Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Any manifestation of the Holy Spirit must be seen as extraordinary and irregular and some form of charlatanry, and so in many ways Evangelicalism was forced out of the “mainstream” churches. But not in every instance. some Evangelicals remained in the Church of England, and, though they took a “Low Church” attitude, did not think that one could dispense with the church entirely. They became quite influential in movements for social reform, and especially the abolition of the slave trade. One group of Evangelicals in particular, known as the Clapham Sect, though they were generally politically conservative, nevertheless brought about several social reforms.

What is the Orthodox Church’s attitude to “extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost”?

It has never sought to suppress such things, as did 17th-18th century Protestantism, though of course pretending to them is not acceptable. Such things have always been around. The Orthodox  Church does not believe that maverick Lone Ranger Christians can manifest genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit, but such things are found within the Church, and are exercised under Church discipline. There have always been clairvoyant spiritual elders. And sometimes such things have been found outside the Church as in Acts 10:47, for example when Orthodox missionaries went to Alaska, and found that the shamans had prophesied their coming, and had seen angels who revealed such things to them.

Those Evangelicals who left “mainstream” churches and formed new denominations often adopted new distinctive doctrines and ecclesiology, so the variety of Christians called “Evangelical” increased, and they became known for different things, and to be contrasted with different things. So there were Evangelicals as opposed to Reformed; Evangelicals as opposed to Fundamentalists; Evangelicals as opposed to Ecumenicals, and Evangelicals as opposed to charismatics.

Evangelical missionaries went to many different parts of the world in the 19th century, and their emphasis was generally on “saving souls” rather than planting churches. But this was not universal. One group of Anglican Evangelicals called their missionary society the Church Missionary Society. This led to a peculiar Anglican joke: the “High Church” missionary society was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The joke was “The SPG is the Church Missionary Society, and the CMS is the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.” If you get the joke, you’re on your way to grasping the basics of Evangelicalism.

One of the problems with the view of “decisional regeneration” is how do you know? How do you know if someone has really decided to follow Christ, or is just pretending to? When I was a student there was a beggar who used to follow people around the streets and his hard-luck story was always that he had made a decision for Christ a couple of weeks ago, and needed money to get back home to a distant town. I heard him tell the same story several times over the next three years.

So the decision-making process tended to become fixed and formalised in different ways in different branches of Evangelicalism. It became a cultural trait, and then a tradition, and then a decision that does not follow the pattern is not counted as genuine. In some it took the form of the “altar call” — “every eye closed, every head bowed, if you accept Jesus raise your hand… I see your hand, and yours…will those who raised their hands please come forward.”

The problem here is what sociologists call “routinisation of charisma” –once “making a decision for Christ” becomes a routine act, following an expected pattern, it can become just as dead as the churches when the Evangelical revival first started.

In the East African revival in the mid-20th century those who were “saved” during the revival became known as “balokole”, and soon the balokole were seeing themselves as different from and separate from other Christians. They would go to different churches, and if the preaching was not Evangelical enough by their standards they would interrupt the preacher saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This could be a wake-up call for moribund churches, but it could also very easily become self-rightousness on the part of the balokole, and where do you draw the line?

And so I return to the article I cited at the beginning, The Evangelical roots of the post-Truth society. And I ask how “Evangelical” are those roots really? Could one not equally well speak of The post-Truth roots of the media’s perception of Evangelicals? That was certainly the case with the perception of Evangelicals that the Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance was trying to create back in 1999.

And how many so-called Evangelicals have gone such a long way from their roots that what they are practising is a syncretistic mixture of Moneytheism, ethnic nationalism and perhaps a few other things, with a very thin veneer of a formal acceptance of Christianity — the very kind of society that the Evangelical revival reacted against in the first place?


9 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip permalink
    5 May 2017 7:11 am

    Indeed the anti Charismatic nature of many so called Evangelical Christian groupings has been coming to the fore recently with opposition to Angus Buchan and his involement in healing and other miracles. Surely we should be seeking unity amongst Christians and not be trying to be legalistic and judgemental:
    Luke 9:50 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

    • Yvonne Aburrow permalink
      12 May 2017 12:55 pm

      Calls for unity often seem to be about suppressing dissent over very important issues, instead of seeking truth and justice together as a body.

    • 12 May 2017 6:01 pm

      I don’t know enough about Angus Buchan to comment. I’m in touch with some Evangelicals through the TGIF gathering on Fridays, but I’m not sure how representrative they are, and I haven’t heard them mentioning Angus Buchan either.

      • Phillip permalink
        13 May 2017 2:30 pm

        Have you perhaps seen this sermon:

        • 14 May 2017 6:35 pm

          Now, and I’m unlikely to because we’ve used 95% of our monthly bandwidth, and it’s only the 14th! Got a link to a text version?

  2. Yvonne Aburrow permalink
    12 May 2017 12:53 pm

    There seem to be many strands and influences in the Evangelical movement, including Arminianism (which was originally a liberal response to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination; by saying that anyone could be saved who accepted Christ as their saviour, they asserted a middle position between the Universalists, who believed in salvation for everyone regardless of accepting the Christian message, and the Calvinists, who asserted that only the predestined would be saved). The Arminian position was only adopted by evangelicals in the 20th century, as far as I know.

    It’s also important to distinguish between fundamentalists and evangelicals. There is some overlap between the two, but fundie evangelicals tend to be more socially conservative, more focussed on “Biblical inerrancy” and creationism; whereas liberal evangelicals are more focussed on a personal relationship with Christ, and see him as the embodiment of the Word (instead of focussing on “Biblical inerrancy”). The liberal wing of evangelicalism is less likely to be virulently homophobic, too, a development of which I thoroughly approve.

    • 12 May 2017 6:18 pm

      The Methodist movement was split over Arminianism/Calvinism right from the start, in the 18th century. Of the founders, the Wesleys were Arminian and George Whitefield was Calvinist. In that, the Wesleyans were closer to Orthodoxy, though you can’t say that Orthodoxy is Arminian, because Arminianism is post-Calvinist and therefore a reaction against Calvinism, while Orthodoxy is pre-Calvinist, and its theology stands alone, and was not adopted to counter Calvinism. Nevertheless, John Wesley was quite well-read in the Early Church Fathers.

      Yes, Fundamentalism is indeed different, and was basically a reaction against the “Liberal Protestant” theology of mid-19th century German biblical scholars. So it was primarily concerned with doctrine, while Evangelicals were primarily concerned with religious experience. There’s been a certain amount of cross-fertilisation on the boundaries, but I think they can still be distinguished at the core.

  3. 28 November 2017 8:50 pm

    We need to look at the lifestyles sought by those who chose to describe themselves as Christian and ask ourselves do they stand out starkly from those with no such claims. As far as I can see there is in general little to chose between them. They nearly all seek a comfortable western democratic lifestyle , they nearly all wish to climb the ladder of ambition by means of education. They nearly all seek the benefits of civilisation no locusts and wild honey but the local supermarket. One third of the world live on $2 per day and in India twenty million have no toilets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: