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Definitions of the Christian term "evangelical"

Some commonly used definitions,
including one used by this website

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Some definitions of "evangelical;" take your pick:

There are probably at least as many different definitions of the Christian term "evangelical" and "evangelicalism" as there are evangelical Christian congregations. As for the definition of "Christian," many evangelicals have a favorite definition of the term and are convinced beyond any doubt that theirs is the most valid one.

Various definitions that we have seen are listed below.

bulletSome are very restrictive. The definition used by Barna Research Ltd. covers only about one in twenty Americans.
bulletSome are very broad, and would include many mainline Christians.

Definition of "evangelical" by dictionaries:

bulletAmerican Heritage dictionary:
"... of, relating to, or in accordance with the Christian gospel, especially one of the four gospel books of the new Testament. of, relating to, or being a Protestant church that founds its teaching on the gospel. of, relating to, or being a Christian church believing in the sole authority and inerrancy of the Bible, in salvation only through regeneration, and in a spiritually transformed personal life." 1
bulletDictionary.com also has a number of definitions, including:
bullet"...a Protestant church that founds its teaching on the gospel."
bullet"...a Christian church believing in the sole authority and inerrancy of the Bible, in salvation only through regeneration, and in a spiritually transformed personal life." 2
bulletWebster's Dictionary cites multiple definitions, including:
bulletOf, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel, especially as it is presented in the four [canonical] Gospels.
bulletEmphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ, through personal conversion, the authority of scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.
bulletOf, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism. 3
bulletWorldReference.com's English dictionary has three definitions:
bullet"relating to or being a Christian church believing in personal conversion and the inerrancy of the Bible especially the 4 Gospels; 'evangelical Christianity'; 'an ultraconservative evangelical message'."
bullet"of or pertaining to or in keeping with the Christian gospel especially as in the first 4 books of the New Testament."
bullet"marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause." 4

Definition of "evangelical" by evangelical associations and groups:

bulletBarna Research Ltd.: This is the main evangelical polling organization in the U.S. They define an "evangelical" very precisely, as a person who can affirm all of the following:
bulletThey have been "born again;" i.e. they have been saved by having trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior.
bullet"...their faith is very important in their life today."
bulletThey feel that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with non-Christians.
bulletThey believe that Satan exists as a living entity.
bulletThe Bible is accurate in all it teaches.
bulletThey believe that salvation is possible only through grace, not by personal effort or works.
bulletThey believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth.
bulletThey believe that God:
bulletExists,
bulletCreated the universe,
bulletIs omniscient, omnipotent and perfect, and
bulletRules the universe today.

They estimate that about 5% of the U.S. population, and 11% of all Protestants meet their rather specific definition. 5
 

bulletCalifornia-Nevada Annual Conference evangelical Renewal Fellowship: "...evangelicals believe in the affirmations of the Nicene Creed, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the authority and reliability of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the necessity of conversion to experience salvation by grace through faith, the reality of heaven and hell, and salvation through Jesus Christ alone." 6
bulletThe Evangelical Manifesto Steering Committee prepared "An Evangelical Manifesto" on 2008-MAY-07. They list defining features of evangelicalism:
  1. "To be an evangelical is to hold a belief that is also a devotion. ... Jesus Christ and his written word, the Holy Scriptures, are our supreme authority."
  2. "Evangelical belief and devotion is expressed as much in our worship and in our deeds as in our creeds." They cite concern and aid for the poor, homeless, orphaned, imprisoned, victims of disaster and those experiencing injustice."
  3. "Evangelicals are followers of Jesus." The movement has always been diverse, flexible, adaptable, and non-hierarchical."
  4. "Evangelicalism must be defined theological and not politically; confessionally and not culturally." It is not to be limited to or be confused with being conservative, liberal, reactionary or progressive.
  5. "The evangelical message, 'good news' by definition, is overwhelmingly positive..."
  6. Evangelicalism should be distinguished from two opposite tendencies... liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism."
  7. "Evangelicalism is distinctive for the way it looks equally to both the past and the future." 7

bulletMichael S. Horton of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals comments:

"Since 'The Year of the evangelical,' corresponding to our nation's Bicentennial in 1976, the term (in North America, at least) has come to identify those who highlight a particular brand of politics, a moralistic and often legalistic approach to life, and a sort of ersatz, "corny" style of evangelism. For some, the term encompasses the emotionalism they see on religious TV. For others, hypocrisy and self-righteousness." 8

bulletThe National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) publishes a Statement of Faith to which churches must agree if they wish to join the Association. It implies a definition of their concept of "evangelical:"
bullet"We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
bulletWe believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
bulletWe believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
bulletWe believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
bulletWe believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
bulletWe believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
bulletWe believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ." 9

bulletDr. Brad Waggoner, President of B&H Publishing Group (of the Southern Baptist Convention): "An Evangelical is anyone who has experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ by faith and grace alone and who embraces a core set of theological beliefs such as the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity (the existence of God as Father, son and Holy spirit who is the creator and sustainer of the universe and is all powerful, eternal, and all knowing), the virgin birth of Christ, His sinless life on earth as fully God and fully man, His bodily death and resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy spirit at the point of conversion, the atoning work of Christ on the cross (serving as a substitution sparing those who place faith in Christ from the wrath of God), the conviction that salvation is possible only through the death and resurrection of Christ, the belief that those who are regenerate will spend an eternity with God in heaven and those who do not place genuine faith in Jesus Christ will be eternally separated from God in a literal hell, belief in a literal enemy called Satan, belief in the second coming of Christ, belief in the necessity of identification with a local church, and conviction that all believers are responsible to share the gospel with the lost." 1

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By the media:

bulletTime Magazine: "Protestants who believe that the Bible is literally true, that salvation requires a ‘born again’ conversion, and that one must share that faith with others. Some belong to established groups like Methodist and Baptist churches." 10

bulletCathy Lynn Grossman, religion reporter, for USA Today: "Until last year [2006] the answer seemed clear: 'Evangelical' was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality. Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding toward the same linguistic demise that 'fundamentalist' met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned." 11

bulletJeffrey Weiss, religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News: "Theologically, anyone who says he or she is Christian and takes the Great Commission seriously could be considered to be 'evangelical.' But that definition is much broader than current popular usage. In her new book, Christine Wicker makes a case that the term has become synonymous with 'Religious Right.' But I think that’s a bit more narrow than current popular usage. When I use it, I try to pair the word with some actual beliefs or positions relevant to what I’m writing about, but that’s not always possible. I think for most people, an evangelical Christian is someone who says they take the Bible very seriously and may well use the word 'inerrant,' believe they have an urgent divine mandate to proselytize people of other religions, consider ‘soul-saving’ mission work as ultimately more important than ‘social gospel’ mission work, and probably consider themselves to be politically conservative.

That scratches the surface of a complex and hardly monolithic public understanding of a complex and hardly monolithic religious identity." 1

By individual evangelicals and authors:

bulletCal Thomas: "An evangelical Christian is one who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and who has repented of sin and accepted Jesus as his or her savior. The evangelical believes he has the privilege and obligation to share the "good news" that Jesus came to save sinners with others so they might go to heaven rather than hell." 12
bulletG.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols: "...all forms of Christianity that are favorable to the preaching of the gospel." 13
bulletJim Packer: A Christian who gives "ultimate authority to scripture" (as compared to liberal Christians who give major weight to science, biblical sources, archaeological research, personal experience, etc., and to  Roman Catholics who give considerable weight to church tradition). 14
bulletLeon Morris: "...someone concerned for the gospel....for him [sic] the gospel of Christ is central....The gospel is at the centre of his [sic] thinking and living." 15
bulletKevin Reed: Individuals who have had "an emotional religious experience...[and who] possess a zeal for sharing their experience with others." 16
bulletLarry Eskridge: A style of religion, as much as a set of beliefs, which includes such diverse groups as black Baptists, Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Catholic Charismatics, and Southern Baptists. 17
bulletTim and Sandy Kruse: They define the term "evangelical Catholic" to mean a Roman "Catholic Christian committed to living an evangelical life and doing evangelical ministry within the Catholic Church." 18
bulletSydney Ahlstrom commented on a number of authors' descriptions of "evangelical:"
bullet"[Bernard] Ramm praises Scholastic Orthodoxy, tends to reject modern thought and yet speaks of 35 to 40 million evangelicals located almost everywhere.
bulletBloesch calls evangelicalism a 'mood,' yet names nine hallmarks and then undoes that sign of precision by throwing out dozens of names from St. Theresa of Avila to Bonhoeffer.
bulletShelley, as an historian of the National Association of Evangelicals, is more inclusive than Ramm, less eclectic than Bloesch, and more inclined to stress 'a true decision for Christ.'

All three distance themselves to varying degrees from fundamentalism, but do not exclude it." 19
 

bulletMichael Davenport: "A movement that affirms traditional theology and submits to the authority of the Bible while striving to participate creatively in modern society. ... 'Evangelical' identifies an approach to faith, rather than a separate denomination. ... The distinguishing features of the evangelical approach are:
bulletAcceptance of the authority of scripture over all other documents and traditions.
bulletAffirmation that, suddenly or gradually, individuals are transformed ('reborn') into believers.
bulletBelief that Jesus' death and resurrection were historical facts, necessaryy for our new life, and
bulletCommitment to prayer, discipleship, and faithful service to wider humanity." 20

Usage of "evangelical" on this web site:

Since about 95% of our site's visitors are residents of North America, we will use the following definition:

Evangelical: "The conservative wing of Protestant Christianity comprising many denominations and other faith groups that tightly hold to historical Christian creeds, beliefs and practices."

This umbrella term includes Christian Identity, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Reconstructionist, some Baptist, and many other faith groups.

Most theologians recognize two other main wings of Protestantism: mainline and liberal denominations.

We realize that this definition deviates from that used by many Christians -- particularly in Europe. But, until a consensus is reached on definitions, confusion will continue.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "America’s Definition:  What Is an Evangelical?: full study" Ellison Research, 2008-SEP-03. at: http://www.ellisonresearch.com/ **
  2. Dictionary.com, at: http://dictionary.reference.com/
  3. Merriam-Webster's collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Page 401.
  4. "Evangelical," WordReference, at: http://www.wordreference.com/
  5. "Evangelical Christians," Barna Research Online, at: http://www.barna.org/
  6. "Frequently Asked Questions," California-Nevada Annual Conference, Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, at: http://www.newpathways.com/
  7. "An Evangelical Manifesto: A declaration of evangelical identity and public commitment," Evangelical Manifesto Steering Committee, 2008-MAY-07, at: http://www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com/ **
  8. "America’s Definition:  What Is an Evangelical?" Ellison Research, 2008-SEP-03. at: http://www.ellisonresearch.com/
  9. "Application for CHURCH membership," National Association of Evangelicals, http://images.mychurchesimages.com/
  10. "Mollie," "Define 'evangelical'," GetReligion, 2007-JAN-16, at: http://www.getreligion.org/
  11. Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Evangelical: Can the 'E-word- be saved?," USA Today, 2007-JAN023, at: http://www.usatoday.com/
  12. Cal Thomas, "God, Satan, and the media," 2003-MAR-5, at: http://www.townhall.com/
  13. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of cults, sects, religions and the occult," Zondervan, (1993), Page 101.
  14. Jim Packer, "Fundamentalism and the Word of God"
  15. Dr. Leon Morris, "What do we mean by 'evangelical'?" at: http://www.worldevangelicalalliance.com/
  16. Kevin Reed, "What is an Evangelical?" at: http://www.swrb.com/
  17. Mentioned in Larry Eskridge, "Defining Evangelicalism," Wheaton College, at: http://www.wheaton.edu/
  18. Tim & Sandy Kruse, "What is an evangelical Catholic?" at: http://www.evangelicalcatholic.org/
  19. Sydney Ahlstrom, "From Puritanism to evangelicalism: A Critical Perspective," in "The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing," Abingdon, (1975), Pages 269 - 270, 288, Note 1.
  20. Michael Davenport, "An insider's view of evangelicals," at: http://www.trinityhills.org.au/ **
  21. Robert Wuthnow, "Study on Religion and Politics Finds Widespread Interest in Progressive Issues: Survey Suggests Political Potential of Mainline Protestants," at: http://www.princeton.edu/
  22. Dave Stewart, review of Donald Lewis, "Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1730-1860, 2 V," Blackwell Pub, (1995).

** These are PDF files. You may require software to read them. Software can be obtained free from: 

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Copyright © 2003 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-APR-8
Latest update: 2009-NOV-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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