What is “Evangelical”?

I fear I’m really wandering off my topic here, but maybe I can tie this back in somehow. In my continued reading about Protestant theology, I’ve really been struggling with the definition of the term “evangelical.” This seems relevant to understanding where I’ve come from and consequently who and where I am now.

Certainly the word evangelical itself, taken to its roots, has a pretty basic meaning. It originates from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion), which stems from ευ (“good”) + ἀγγέλλω (“bear news”). The εὐαγγέλιον is the message being borne, the “good news” — in Christian usage, the Gospel of Christ. An evangelist is someone who bears the Gospel, and in Catholic circles usually refers to the four authors of the biblical Gospels, Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So evangelical literally means “of, pertaining to, or conveying good news (the gospel).”

So, according to that definition, it would seem that all Christianity is evangelical. But that’s not the way the word is used in our culture. “Evangelical” is a label that, especially in the U.S. South, seems to encompass the majority of Protestants, especially where I’m coming from: Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational Christians. The churches that seemed to be excluded were more “high church” denominations, such as Catholics, Episcopals (Anglicans), and possibly Methodists.

So what is “evangelical”? Do these “evangelical” churches bear any more “good news” than anybody else? How was this word being used? I reckoned in some of my reading that people were using “evangelical” Protestantism as simply the opposite of “mainline” Protestantism. But “mainline” is just as amorphous and undescriptive as “evangelical.” What is it that qualitatively defines “evangelicalism”?

Naturally, I turned to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which provided a very capable and informative article on evangelicalism, and even better, linked me to an authoritative source: a report from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals on “Defining Evangelicalism.” According to the document:

In the English-speaking world . . . the modern term usually describes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Key figures associated with these revivals included the itinerant English evangelist George Whitefield (1715-1770); the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791); and American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). These revivals were particularly responsible for the rise of the Baptists and Methodists from obscure sects to their traditional position as America’s two largest Protestant denominational families.

This is toward the definition I was inclined toward as an American historian: that brand of Christianity that first emerged out of the First and Second Great Awakening, in contrast to the dominant Puritanism and Anglicanism of the day. So what, qualitatively, defines evangelicalism? The document above, citing historian David Bebbington, defines four characteristics:

  1. The need for personal conversion experiences (or being “born again”)
  2. The centrality of the Bible as the authoritative, written Word of God
  3. An emphasis on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection as the way to salvation
  4. An imperative toward active, outgoing evangelism through the Gospel

Reading this, my initial reaction is, “No duh.” All four of these seem no-brainers to me, the sine quas non that define Christianity to my as-yet evangelical brain. Until coming to the Catholic Church, I had never been a part of a church that didn’t adhere to these four tenets. Without any one of these, a church of my evangelical youth would have seemed to be lacking something essential. These certainly provide a good, sturdy definition.

I still don’t know who is evangelical. And asking, “Is your church evangelical?” hasn’t so far gotten the response I’m looking for. I asked a Reformed friend and fellow classicist, and he responded, “Of course we believe in the Gospel!” How do people “get saved” in different churches? The presence of a personal conversion experience seems to be the most visible mark of evangelicalism. Southern Baptists are evangelical; Pentecostals are evangelical; what about Methodists? I know historically, Methodists have been evangelical — but according to the wiki, United Methodists are considered mainline. Now, what the heck is “mainline,” besides “not evangelical”? This again, seems a term searching for a definition.

8 thoughts on “What is “Evangelical”?

  1. As far as I can tell, “mainline” is a term somebody thought up somewhere to describe the major American Protestant churches of the 20th century–there are a few good links under the Wikipedia article to databases and online resources that talk about them. The seven “major” mainline protestant churches were the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

    “Mainline” is a bit of a misnomer now. Their numbers are declining and the fundamentalist/evangelical churches have more members and more political clout.

    • Thanks; that’s helpful. I asked the oracle (Google), “Are United Methodists evangelical?”, and apparently, some are. Perhaps “evangelical” is more a label for individuals and groups than whole denominations. Certainly some denominations (e.g. Southern Baptist) are by and large evangelical; but evangelicalism (defined by the traits above) may be something in addition to one’s basic theology.

      Apparently, there is a such thing as “Evangelical Catholic.” Since I seem to be both evangelical and Catholic, am I “Evangelical Catholic”?

      Some of these articles I’m finding still seem to place “evangelical” as synonymous with “orthodox,” and in contrast with “mainline” and “liberal.” Do “liberal” Christians consider themselves “liberal,” or is that a charge thrown at them? Do “mainline” churches consider themselves “liberal”? Apparently, charges of “liberalism” from “evangelicals” tend to be connected with stances toward homosexuality, women’s ordination, abortion, etc.

      • I think liberal Christians would consider themselves liberal. At least I do. And I think you have a point that “evangelical” is a label not tied to specific denominations. It’s a word with different meanings to different people (as we are all finding out). You pointed out that all churches are evangelical in the base meaning of the word.

        In general, the mainline Protestant churches are fairly liberal–not just in their homosexuality/women’s stances, which their critics focus on most often. Mainline Protestant churches are also fairly liberal in the social justice stances and policies.

        • I’m seeing more and more that people are using the word in different ways, and it creates so much confusion. I think one thing that confuses many evangelicals — even frightens them — is the belief that “liberal” Christianity involves theological liberalism, to the point of obscuring the Gospel, denying Christ’s divinity and the power of the Cross. Would you say that is the case? I know the label “liberal” has very many meanings, too, especially when it overlaps with political liberalism. I consider myself “liberal” in some ways, too, and I’m glad that Catholicism is largely free of the burdens evangelicalism has of being tied so closely to one political party and view. In what ways would you say you are “liberal”?

      • I consider myself liberal in that I support women’s and homosexual ordination, as well as encouraging social justice action to take care of the poor and hungry. On the other side, I can be theologically conservative in some areas–I like liturgy and tradition, and tend to dislike them being messed with. I don’t easily fit into one category or the other, which is how I like it.

        I am surprised to hear that the Evangelical fear is that liberal Christianity denies the divinity of Christ and the power of the cross. I know of no mainline protestant church that does that. They are all firmly Trinitarian and teach the divinity of Christ through the Nicene Creed. Martin Luther especially focused on a “theology of the Cross”. I’m sure that there are churches that deny those things, but they are certainly on the extreme end.

        How do you see Roman Catholicism being free from being linked to political views?

        • Well, you’ll notice again that “evangelical” and “orthodox” seem to be, in some minds, the opposites of “mainline” and “liberal.” Implying that “liberal” Christianity is not orthodox. Many evangelicals I know act as if, even if they don’t acknowledge it, that they consider “mainline” Christianity not even Christian. The caricature I always saw presented growing up of “those liberal churches up north” is that they had replaced a divine, redeeming Christ with a purely “social gospel.” I’m glad to see that’s not the case.

          Well, things in the Church have become a lot more polarized politically lately, since the president stuck his foot in the faces of many Catholics. A lot of people are very upset and feel threatened by the health care mandate, among other things. But before that happened, when I was first coming into the Church, I felt that there was room for a diversity of political opinions. I know my experience is very limited, to one parish, in a university town, but I believe Catholics in general are much more concerned about social justice for the poor and marginalized than most evangelicals. We take seriously the parts of the Gospel that many evangelicals seem to forget about, about feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and service and self-sacrifice for our neighbor. I felt that political views in favor of social programs, for example, would have been embraced, even by people who are otherwise very conservative about issues like abortion. In short, I just felt that the Church’s views as an institution didn’t line up completely with either party, and that the message in the church stayed much more focused on the parts of the gospel that really matter (quite refreshing, having come out of a church that tended toward the “prosperity gospel”).

        • Basically, the Church is neutral on economic and welfare issues, and encourages its members to vote their conscience. Whereas in an evangelical church, voting for a candidate who was in favor of social programs was tantamount to heresy. The bishops only ever speak out about issues that impinge upon the teachings of the Church (e.g. abortion) — and not always in agreement with partisans on either side. For example, you may have heard about the controversial, restrictive immigration law in Alabama, which made it illegal to provide services of any kind to an illegal immigrant. The state’s Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist bishops all signed a letter to the governor decrying the law, which might have (if interpreted narrowly) criminalized providing the sacraments or counsel — made especially significant to the Catholic Church because the majority of Hispanics are Catholic.

      • That’s something I’ve always been grateful to the Roman Catholic Church for–you are careful not to side with a party. I did hear about that letter in Arizona, and definitely applaud it. More churches need to do things like that.

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