When is an Evangelical?

These days everybody wants to be an ‘evangelical’. Maybe it’s because the liberals have never been much good at attracting numbers to their churches. But for whatever reason, everybody wants to tack ‘evangelical’ onto their viewpoint. It has become something of a crime to say that someone is not an evangelical.

Words, as Humpty Dumpty said, can mean whatever you wish them to mean. In this sense, anyone can use the title ‘evangelical’ in any way they like. For some, ‘evangelical’ is a sociological term referring to a group of warm-hearted people with a particular personal devotion accompanied by certain moral standards. For others, it describes a political grouping of ‘low-churchmen’. But for those of us who have grown up through this century as ‘evangelicals’, it is a much more clearly defined theological viewpoint. It points back to the ‘evangel’, the gospel itself. Don Carson describes classic evangelicalism as “Christianity at its straightforward best”.

The roots of the evangelical movement are found in New Testament Christianity; to be an evangelical is to believe what the gospel preaches. Little wonder, then, that everyone in Christianity wants to be seen as an evangelical! Everyone wants to be seen as the genuine article, as being connected with the historical roots of true Christianity.

Real differences

However, in the New Testament there are clear indications that not everyone who claims to be the genuine article is in fact that. In Galatians 1, for example, Paul says that if anyone preaches a gospel different to the one Paul originally preached, let him be damned. Galatians is about justification by faith alone. The troublemakers of Galatia wanted to add the good works of the law to the cross of Christ as the means of salvation. For Paul, this placed them outside the boundaries of genuine gospel Christianity.

Similarly, in 1 John 4 we are told that we must test the spirits, and are given two ways of testing them. Anyone who does not acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh is not of God. This is the spirit of anti-Christ which, John warns, is already abroad in the world. The second test is the acceptance of the apostolic word: “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn 4:6). Christ’s sheep will hear and recognize his voice and when they fail to do so it is because they are not of him.

Jesus also warns us about the difference between genuine and phony brothers. In Matthew 7, it is not those who proclaim Jesus as Lord, or prophesy in his name, or drive out demons in his name, or even perform miracles in his name who will be in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, only those who do the will of God will get in.

Peter also warns his readers about those who would distort the apostolic gospel: “[Our dear brother Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (2 Pet 3:16-17).

From these and similar parts of the Scriptures, we are able to establish certain key elements that will be essential for all genuine believers. And from these key elements could be developed a full theology. These essential elements will involve a right view of Jesus (as God and man); a right view of salvation (in the name of Jesus alone by his substitutionary death and resurrection); and a right view of the authority of Scripture (hearing, believing and obeying it).

No name tags

We must not be surprised when people that we counted as brothers or sisters, move away from the truth. Paul repeatedly warned the Ephesian elders of this danger (Acts 20:30,31). When ‘evangelicals’ deny or distort these great truths of the Scriptures, then they are no longer being ‘gospel people’, if indeed they ever were. It may be a momentary lapse in understanding, of which we are all capable. But true evangelicals will repent of their misunderstandings and turn back to the Scriptures rather than persist in error.

We tend to expect that the opponents of genuine Christianity will always come to us from outside our ranks, wearing a name-tag emblazoned ‘A. Heretic, Rampant Liberal’ or ‘Ravenous Sheep-devouring Wolf’. These sorts of people do come, but they are not the real danger. Jesus warned that wolves come in sheep’s clothing. The real threat to ‘evangelicalism’ is from within, from our fellow members who drift away from the basic elements of evangelical belief and who call on us to follow.

For example, the Uniting Church claims to be ‘evangelical’ and, as the descendants of Congregationalism, Presbyterianism and Methodism, this would seem reasonable enough. Yet it rejects 1 Timothy 2, Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 14 because the teaching of these passages does not accord with the Uniting Church’s version of the gospel. It does not hear and obey the apostolic word; it rejects it as unacceptable. On the basis of 1 John 4, the Uniting Church, as a denomination, has ceased to be evangelical.


But isn’t it just a matter of interpretation? Couldn’t evangelicals be in disagreement with each other over the meaning of the text, but still be evangelicals? We certainly have to acknowledge that none of us have interpreted the Scriptures with 100% certainty. Each and every one of us can misunderstand any text in the Scriptures, and on some subjects Scripture does allow for differences ofopinion. For this reason, evangelicals will always be concerned to re-examine the Scriptures to find out the truth, like the noble Bereans of old.

However, this openness to see our own mistakes and to re-evaluate our understanding must not be confused with woolliness of thought and confusion over basic theology.

In parliamentary debates, no amendment can be moved to a motion if it denies the purpose of that motion. In much the same way, no revision to our biblical understanding can be accepted if it ends up denying the very message of the Scriptures.

The interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 is a good example. In vv. 11-12, Paul writes: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”. While this passage may have its complexities, it is hard to understand how it could be taken to mean that there is no difference between what men and women can or should do within church, that a woman can have authority over any man, that she need not be quiet and can be the teaching/ruling elder of the congregation. But this is what some ‘evangelicals’ have been arguing. If this is just an interpretative difference, it is hard to envisage what a denial would ever mean. Even the Uniting Church admits that they are not persuaded to the ordination of women by a different interpretation of this passage. They just say that Paul was wrong.

We all hate the personal conflict that takes place in these debates. We know that the speaker has been an ‘evangelical’ and so we find it hard to believe that what he or she is saying now is somehow not ‘evangelical’. It seems judgemental to raise a question about his or her evangelical status.

However, we must not deceive ourselves about other people or about ourselves. We mustn’t think that we can continue to be genuine inheritors of New Testament Christianity and yet ignore, twist or deny God’s word. And we mustn’t think that because somebody has an evangelical pedigree, he should be heeded when he is disagreeing with the word of God.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury is said to be an evangelical. But he is the first Archbishop of Canterbury this century to refuse to be the patron of the Mission to the Jews. His concern about not offending Jewish people by being involved with explicit Christ-centred, Christ-unique evangelism is an appalling failure of nerve. In this matter, he is not being true to his evangelical pedigree, and it is this pedigree which makes him such a danger to true faith.

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