What exactly makes someone an evangelical Christian?

Among the Australian public, few adjectives are considered more condemning than evangelical. After all, most evangelicals are misogynistic, homophobic dinosaurs. At least that’s what you’ll get from the haters on Q&A. Assuming there’s more to it than that, what exactly is an evangelical?


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Before answering that question it’s worth getting a common misunderstanding out of the way. By evangelical I do not mean evangelist or evangelistic. To get technical for a moment, in Greek the word “Gospel” is the eu-angelion (good-news). So to be an evangelist or evangelistic is to be someone who speaks the gospel to others- they evangelize. Although it sounds similar, the term evangelical usually refers to something different.

So what exactly does it mean to be an evangelical?

Well… on one level you would be technically correct to say that an evangelical is just a “gospel person”- since that’s where they get the name. However since that’s basically no help to anybody, I will briefly outline two popular suggestions put forward by historians in the last few decades.

Bebbington’s four marks of an evangelical

The Bebbington Quadrilateral gets its name from a Brittish guy named David Bebbington. In 1989, Bebbington outlined four attitudes and convictions that he believed were specific to all evangelicals. These were:

  • Biblicism- a high regard for the Bible as the authoritative word of God and rule for all of life.
  • Crucicentrism– a central focus on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
  • Conversionism– the belief that people are not born Christians, but need to experience the “new birth”.
  • Activism- the belief that faith needs to be expressed in our personal lives and in the world.

This seems like a pretty decent list. Whether or not I’d use exactly these four words to describe what I believe, at least on this criteria I’d be happy to call myself an evangelical. But Bebbington’s four marks are not the only proposal for what makes someone an evangelical.

Piggin’s evangelical synthesis

A similar but slightly different suggestion has been put forward by the Australian historian Stuart Piggin. In 1996 Piggin first described three strands, that when held together, make for a strong evangelical movement. These are:

  • Spirit- the gospel is experiential and is the divinely given instrument for the rebirth of the individual soul.
  • Word- the gospel is Biblicist, since the Bible is the Word of God and our highest authority.
  • World- the gospel is activist, since it leads to the renovation of society and culture.

Another way of describing these three elements is that evangelicals are concerned with right-heartedness (orthokardia), right thinking (orthodoxy), and right action (orthopraxis). According to Piggin, evangelicalism calls for the consecration of heart, head and hand.

So there you have it. Two historians attempting to define exactly what it means to be an evangelical. Are they right? Maybe, but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The term evangelical is just a name. Far more important than whether or not you call yourself an evangelical is whether you’ve actually got the evangel (the Gospel message).

If you’re a gospel person, you’re an evangelical. That’s what matters. That being said, these two frameworks are a helpful way to recognise what others might be referring to when they look down their noses, spit in your general direction, and then mutter, “Crazy evangelicals” as they walk in the opposite direction.

Question: what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of these two views? What alternatives would you propose? Add a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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