Friday, March 13, 2009

What Is An "Evangelical"?

I was telling Mrs. Doulos the other day that I have a remarkable ability to be profoundly oblivious to the PAINFULLY obvious. To my kids, that’s no real news, but let me give two examples (and I am not making this up…):

#1 - I was preaching at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago last Tuesday night… presenting the Gospel from Isaiah 53:4-6 (what an incredible passage!). I was really captured by the text, and anytime you’re talking to anyone about the great need that we have and the unbelievable provision God has for us in His Son – and the unfathomably suffering He endured to deliver that provision, well… there aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. I felt that I had just a glimmer of a vision for that Truth when I stepped up to speak. I did my best, I was focused on the task at hand, and I finished on time. After returning to my seat, a co-worker greeted me with the following statement (or something like this):

“I’m amazed at your concentration – I can’t believe that didn’t phase you.”

I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. It turns out that while I was preaching, a man in the second row of the auditorium (center aisle, almost right under the pulpit) threw up! It caused quite a stir (and a mess), and required someone with a BUCKET AND MOP to clean up.

I understand that people sometimes feel sick when I talk, so I am not surprised that someone finally expressed this thought so graphically. But here's the point: I DIDN'T EVEN SEE IT! When they told me, I smelled it, but I still can’t believe it happened – literally – right under my nose without my notice!

#2 - Reading Phil Johnson’s talk (What Is An Evangelical?) at the Shepherds’ Conference reminded me of this reaction (the “oblivious” part, not the “vomiting”), and this is what I mean: I am amazed that I continue to be shocked at the condition in the Evangelical church these days. I’d recommend Phil’s talk – it merits close attention (part 1 here and part 2), but I think he is accurate in his assessment of the broader Evangelical movement.

What is an "Evangelical" these days? According to Johnson:

"It's frankly one of those questions you can answer almost any way you want and defend your answer as articulately as you like, and most people are still going to tell you you've got it wrong. Because it seems these days everyone has his own personal idea of what constitutes an evangelical. Ask 100 evangelicals to define that they mean by the term and odds are you're probably going to get 100 different answers—some of them so wildly different as to be virtually contradictory.

Evangelicals have been trying hard to be all things to all men for at least two or three generations, and in this regard they have completely succeeded: The evangelical movement is now so broad and diverse that you can define it practically any way you want. In an article celebrating their 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, Christianity Today said they think diversity is in fact the dominant feature of evangelicalism." (emphasis added)

And therein lies the problem. I don't think CT is alone in celebrating "diversity" - even on core doctrines like the nature of man, the work of God and the very definition of the Gospel itself! The problem is, when you question theological diversity in Evangelical circles, you are very quickly labeled as a trouble-maker, opinionated or, even worse, "negative." (There is a FAR worse label being tossed around these days, but that's the next post!)

Johnson says that people accuse him of being "negative" and so, in response:

"… So let me say it this way: I'm positive that the broad evangelical movement today is abominable. The brand of Christianity (or should I say "the assorted brands of Christianity"?) represented by Christianity Today, The National Association of Evangelicals, and the Christian Coalition—the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham, Fuller Seminary, and the Urbana Conferences—that large movement that most of our spiritual parents identified with—that vast movement is now as utterly backslidden and spiritually degenerate as Israel was in her most backslidden state during the times of apostasy described in the book of Judges. We have reached that point where ‘Everyone [does] what [is] right in his own eyes.’ And lots of so-called evangelicals think that's just fine. The current editors of Christianity Today seem to think that's just fine. They never tire of celebrating their constituents' "diversity." (emphasis added)

I frankly don't like to identify with the contemporary evangelical movement. I'm strongly tempted simply to stop calling myself an evangelical altogether, just to keep from being associated with every infamous religious scoundrel from Ted Haggard to Joel Osteen. What does it actually mean to say we're evangelical when the menagerie of heretics and charlatans appearing nightly on TBN all insist they are evangelical, too? Tony Campolo, who has renounced practically everything that's distinctively evangelical, insists on calling himself an evangelical. Lots of Roman Catholics call themselves evangelical. Lately even Mormons have begun arguing that they have a right to the label as well. None of them would agree on what the term means, of course, but they all want to wear it, because it gives them an artificial connection with the rich heritage of evangelical history.

You go, Phil. I’m with you when you say that
“I do affirm historic evangelical principles. The original evangelicals are my spiritual ancestors. I believe what they believed, and I'm passionate about the things they were passionate about. We share a common faith, and I happen to believe it is the same faith proclaimed by apostles and the early church. But in the broad sweep of church history, the set of convictions I hold is best known by the name evangelicalism. And I'm not ready yet to concede that label to people who in fact have no spiritual connection—and nothing whatsoever in common—with historic evangelical beliefs.”
I know there’s press all around on this subject, particularly since the Internet Monk met the Christian Science Monitor this week. And I’m also surprised at the way that the discussion lines are being drawn. (By the way, read IM's full posts before you dismiss him as some have for the CSM article). For those who have concluded that this assessment (from Michael Spenser or Phil Johnson or many others) is wrong, they’ve found “the Enemy.”

But for some of us, we think these guys are on to something that is not only right, but important. I'm not sure I'm understanding how to attribute electrical properties (like negative and positive) to this discussion - but I do think their assessment is accurate.

So here's my big shock: I'm surprised that people hate the truth so much. I'm surprised that people think personal attacks or blind optimism somehow deflect reality. And when I think about the state of things generally (and when I read the mainstream Evangelical thinking in response), I feel a little like the guy in the second row at Pacific Garden Mission. I guess I’m just surprised that I’m still surprised.

Next Time: Who Is the REAL Problem?


Shiloh Guy said...


I understand very well what you experienced when you were preaching at PGM! I've had similar things happen to me. Not the least of which may have been the night I was preaching at a meeting in India out in a village. When I sat down one of my fellow pastors leaned over and commented on how well I carried on while a group of our Indian brothers were casting a demon out of a young man on the near front left of the the platform. Huh?

Doulos Christou said...

Thanks David... I want to assure you that I've NEVER felt ill when listening to you preach! :)

Everybody - if you don't know Pastor David, get to know him over at

Anonymous said...

Good post, dude. Found your site and I'm glad to hear someone else saying what I think (it's kind of obvious, though).

Along the same lines, you should read this article from Here's a quote to start:

"In May, 1989, a conference jointly sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was held at the Trinity campus in Illinois. Dubbed a consultation on Evangelical Affirmations, the meeting revealed more than it settled. In the published addresses (Zondervan, 1990), Carl F. H. Henry, the dean of American evangelicalism, sets the tone for book with his opening line: "The term 'evangelical' has taken on conflicting nuances in the twentieth century. Wittingly or unwittingly, evangelical constituencies no less than their critics have contributed to this confusion and misunderstanding." He warned that "evangelical" was being understood, not according to Scriptural teaching and "the theological 'ought,'" but according to the sociological and empirical "is." In other words, Henry was disturbed that evangelicalism is increasingly being defined by its most recent trends rather than by its normative theological identity. Author after author (presumably, speaker after speaker) echoed the same fears that before long "evangelical" will be useless as any meaningful identification."

Indafog said...

Ok... so why not call yourself something other than an Evangelical? What's so important about that word/title? I was watching an interesting show as I was flipping channels and it was a meeting of Human Secularists. They were debating if envangelising was a good idea and if so should they use the term. If a title looses meaning and it no longer fits, use something different. I prefer to call myself a "Christ Follower" It leaves out all the denominational baggage and the baggage that even comes with the word evangelical and brings people to the central issue, Christ.

This does not strike me as a major loss...

Doulos Christou said...


I'm not concerned about the label... I'm concerned about what is being taught under it. And the label, by the way, is attached to us whether we want to re-label ourselves or not.

Say, what do you think our brother Jude is encouraging in Jude 3?

Indafog said...

This is true and your point is well taken...

On another note, I don't know if you saw this on CT's Website today but it is a good article with some scary numbers included.

The verse in scripture that says many will do things in my name but I do not know them comes to mind. There is much to be said for the fact that calling yourself a Christian does not make you one, calling yourself evangelical does not make you so. I think I understand your point but your reply stated it much more clearly than your blog did.

Doulos Christou said...

Really important thoughts in the article you mentioned, Inda:

"This is why J. I. Packer, on his 80th birthday, said that the greatest challenge of evangelicalism is to re-catechize our churches. More than ever, Christians need to be able to speak intelligently and courageously about the hope that lies within."

"Personal faith is of course vital, but it is not sufficient. And yes, doctrine has often been taught so that it comes across as dry and dusty. But as Dorothy Sayers noted, once we grasp what Christian doctrines teach, "The Dogma is the Drama."

"The greatest challenge for serious Christians today is not re-inventing Christianity, but rediscovering its core teachings."