What is an ‘Evangelical Christian’?
Before I went to college, I would have described myself as an ‘Evangelical Christian.’ Now I’m not so sure. To be honest, I didn’t really know what the term meant—I assumed, as it contained the word ‘evangelical’ it meant that the person thought it was right to ‘evangelise,’ in other words, to tell other people about God. However, depending on who you speak to, it means different things. And sometimes it’s used as an insult in the Christian world. Shocking! Or maybe not…
There is a handy (if not scintillating) book that defines what ‘evangelicalism’ means, using seven points. If I am honest, I have been aware of these within churches I have attended, and they’re not always good. What do you think?
- Conversion. To be a Christian, evangelicals tend to emphasis a moment in time when you committed yourself to God. They talk about ‘repenting of your sins’ and ‘changing direction’ and asking God for forgiveness. I too think this is an important step, though I’m not so sure it happens only once, and certainly not necessarily at the start. I also don’t think there’s an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ and until you have ‘prayed the prayer’ you are definitely in the ‘out’ club (if you see what I mean!) Things are fuzzier than this, in my experience.
- Assurance of Salvation. This means a belief that Christ becoming human, living, dying and rising again is all that is necessary for salvation. It slightly contradicts point one above (in my view). Now, being sure you have been accepted by God is important, but I’m not sure that everyone gets there all at once, in a single leap. Nor am I sure that we agree on what ‘salvation’ is. People talk about ‘going to Heaven when I die’ but (as discussed before) that’s what Plato taught, not the Bible. Again, I think things might be fuzzier than sometimes presented. I also worry that ‘assurance of salvation’ is most often used to point a grubby finger at the person who we are ‘sure has not been saved’! Comments such as: “Oh, he was ever so kind, and he’s not even a Christian you know,” tend to be revealing.
- Biblicism. Evangelicals tend to say they believe the Bible is the ‘Word of God’ and available to everyone, but then go to great lengths to explain every contradiction and to teach things the way they believe them. Whilst they might be right, they might also be wrong, and maybe a little more caution is called for. It’s easy to find verses in the Bible that support your beliefs. The KluKluxKlan did it, so did the fascists. I think that using the Bible to learn who God is, is great. I think using the Bible to make rules for other people is not so great.
- Prayer. Evangelicals believe that prayer is important—both private prayers and prayers in church. The early evangelicals taught that prayer should come ‘from the heart’ (which I agree with) and therefore pre-written prayers, and especially liturgy, are not really prayer. (This part I disagree with.)
- The Cross/Penal Substitution. This goes back to point 2., that Christ died to save us from our sin. This is a huge concept, and I don’t think we really understand it, so I won’t comment. I do believe Christ died, and I do believe that somehow that repaired the relationship between God and us. But I don’t know how exactly, and I am suspicious when others seem very certain about concepts which seem to me to be beyond human understanding.
- Holiness. When we are saved (see point 1.) it will affect the way we behave. The ancient Methodists believed it was possible to become sinless. The ancient Baptists believed holiness should be pursued through behaviour. In the 1870’s the Keswick Convention was set up, to try and decide this issue. They stated that ‘sin is perpetually counteracted.’ (Keswick is also home to an excellent kitchen shop, which is unrelated.) All I know is, I am not perfect, some terrible people do some really good things, and some apparently ‘holy’ people do really bad things.
- Mission. After conversion (see point 1.) a Christian will be dedicated to God’s service, hoping to convert others. Sometimes this can feel like ‘scalp-hunting’ if done badly. At best, it’s the sense of having something special and wanting to share it with others.
Unfortunately, the Church is made up of humans, and none of us get it right. God is very patient with us. I find it helpful to step back, and look at what defines the things I believe, and then to decide whether they are really the things I believe, or if they are simply unquestioned teaching.
 Peter J. Morden, ‘Evangelical Spirituality’, in Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (eds.) The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (London: Taylor and Francis, 2018).
Interesting and informative!
Thanks Anne. I tend to avoid religious discussion. There are so may landmines and traps that it is usually a very difficult subject. I think the labels we apply to ourselves can be aspirations. I wonder why we use the labels we do?
As far as religion and God, none of the arguments and none of the religions do anything to sway my opinion. What keeps me wondering and keeps me returning to the question are my encounters. I have had several encounters that could only happen in an after-school special on TV. At least two of these were completely private.
I hope you find your answers and I hope someday I find mine. But until then have the best life you can!
Thanks Will. I think you are right, religion can cause a lot of problems. But it’s the way that we try to worship God, and it can be invaluable. We need to find the best way we can, and remember that other people might have different experiences. But God is God, and knowing him is precious. We mustn’t let religion get in the way.
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