What Does It Mean to Be an Evangelical? (Rauser)

In the interest of understanding ecumenism, I thought Randal Rauser’s review of the evangelical pillars (which I was familiar with as a child, too) may be helpful. Sometimes, those of us from other traditions mean the same thing. For example, my grandma, a Reformed girl, was never formally “saved” with a prayer, but is a wonderful Christian inspiration to me even now, at 93. On the other hand, this review gives good insight to me, as well, about my own beliefs.

"What does it mean to be evangelical? And is it worth defending?

 September 18, 2018 / /  The Tentative Apologist /  3 Comments

"I grew up viewing the term “evangelical” as a guarantee of quality. I believed that evangelicals were the most faithful and orthodox followers of Christ and that they offered the closest approximation of the New Testament church. But while I regularly used the term “evangelical” to identify “good” Christianity, I would have been hard pressed to give a concise definition of the term. So what, exactly, does it mean to be an evangelical?

"Bebbington’s Four Hallmarks

"One of the most influential definitions of evangelical comes from the church historian David Bebbington. He proposed four historic hallmarks of evangelical identity:

"Conversionism: an emphasis on the importance of personal conversion.

"Biblicism: a high regard for the Bible and its unique authority in conveying spiritual truth.

"Crucicentrism: an emphasis on the centrality of the atoning work of Christ.

"Activism: a conviction that the Gospel should be lived out through visible and socially transformative actions.

"By these criteria, I was definitely raised in an evangelical church. We had it all!

"Conversionism? Check. I converted at the age of five after my mom confronted me with the bald choice to follow God or the devil.

"Biblicism? Check. Growing up, I proudly carried my children’s KJV Bible and later my NIV Student Bible and I studied hard to win the Sunday school Bible drills.

"Crucicentrism? Check. The cross was everything, the Good News, our only hope of salvation.

"Activism? Check. And I had the battle scars from street evangelism and outreach dramas performed in city park to prove it.

"So that was how Bebbington defined evangelical, and by that definition, I definitely qualified!


"However, over the last couple of decades, I have begun to reconsider these four evangelical hallmarks. Take conversionism, for example. Twenty years ago I assumed you needed to know the day you were saved in order to be saved. I remember having an earnest conversation with my university dorm-mate about this question. Though he was raised in a Christian home, went to church, and read his Bible, Pete didn’t know the day he was saved. So I spent the better part of half an hour attempting to convince him that he needed to pray the sinner’s prayer just to be sure. Pete politely declined the invitation.

"These days, I’m inclined to agree with Pete: I no longer assume that you must be able to identify the moment when you were saved. Consider this illustration: if I ask Ramon the mechanic, “When is the day you became a mechanic?” he might answer: “On the day I got my first job at the local garage! I remember it well!” Fair enough. But now imagine that I ask Steve the same question, and he replies like this:

“"I don’t know how to answer that. My parents say I grew up with a wrench in my hand. By the time I was eight I was fixing my brother’s bike. When I was twelve I built a go-cart with a lawnmower engine. I got my first job in a garage when I turned eighteen. So I can’t point to any single moment when I became a mechanic. I mean, I could choose a moment if you really want me to. But it seems to me that picking out any single day would be hopelessly arbitrary.’

"Now imagine insisting that Steve must choose one specific day or he isn’t really a mechanic. That wouldn’t make much sense, would it? The important thing is that you know you are a mechanic, not when you became one. The same goes for Christianity. What matters is not that you know when you became a Christian but rather that you are one.


"Eventually, I found myself reconsidering Bebbington’s other criteria as well. Evangelicals pride themselves on their view of the Bible: one of their most favored descriptions is to declare it inerrant. Indeed, for many evangelicals, the defense of biblical inerrancy has become a hill on which to die. But just what does it mean to declare the Bible inerrant?

"For starters, it doesn’t mean our translations are inerrant. Not only are translations always imperfect but the moment you complete a translation, it begins growing more imperfect because language is always changing. So this much is clear: inerrancy does not reside in the compromise-ridden English translations sitting on your bookshelf.

"What about the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic manuscripts from which our Bibles are translated? Are they without error? That’s a good question, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, for we don’t have access to the originals (or what scholars call the autographs). All we have are copies of copies (of copies) of the originals. And we know that these copies have some errors because they differ at various points with each other. To be sure, textual critics can still reassemble the original forms of the texts of the New Testament with a high degree of confidence. (The Old Testament is a different, and far more complicated, story.) Nonetheless, the fact remains that we don’t have the original copies.

"You might reply, “Okay, the copies we have may possess errors, but at least the original copies were without error.” However, it should be pointed out that it isn’t always clear what the “original copy” would’ve been. While a short epistle like Jude or 2 John was probably written up in a single afternoon, Bible scholars believe that many books in the Bible (e.g. Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah) were composed over a long period of time–decades if not centuries–by multiple authors and editors. If that is correct, then at what point in the long compositional history of these texts did they acquire the status of being inerrant? Was there ever a single original copy of Genesis or Isaiah?

"The concept of inerrancy becomes even more complex when we consider it in the context of biblical accommodation. The term accommodation refers to the fact that God meets people in their limited and imperfect understanding. For example, biblical writers regularly describe God as having very human characteristics such as becoming angry or changing his mind. Theologians today typically interpret such descriptions as anthropomorphic accommodations: in other words, God is described as being like a human being so that we can better understand him and relate to him.

"These same theologians add that God does not literally become angry or change his mind because God is understood to be impassible (not subject to emotional change) and omniscient (all-knowing). Nonetheless, God allows himself to be described in these terms in order to communicate with and relate to his human audience.

"If that’s true, we need to ask: did the original human authors understand that their descriptions were divine accommodations to limited human understanding? Did they always understand that God was employing anthropomorphic language to reach his human audience? If they did not realize this, then it would seem to that degree the human author was in error even while the divine author clearly was not.

"It should be emphasized that these comments are not intended to constitute a rejection of biblical inerrancy. Rather, they raise the point that we need to clarify just what the doctrine means in the first place. It turns out that inerrancy is a complicated doctrine, and complicated doctrines do not typically function well as rallying cries and boundary markers. Yet, inerrancy has often been pressed into service for both those tasks, tasks for which it is not well suited.

"To sum up, while I believe the doctrine of inerrancy is an important concept well worth discussing, I don’t think it serves effectively as a quick and easy way to identify real evangelicals. Nor, for that matter, is the denial of inerrancy a good way to smoke out liberals (if smoking out liberals is your thing).


"What about crucicentrism? I used to think the cross was about Christ dying in our place to satisfy the divine wrath against sin. In my opinion, that’s just what atonement was: Christ dying to satisfy God’s wrath. But when I studied theology I came to recognize that this picture of satisfying divine wrath was, in fact, but one theory of atonement, a view that is typically called the “penal substitution atonement.”

"It turns out that there are several views of atonement in the history of Christian theology and each view can claim its own list of biblical texts, theological and philosophical reasoning, and traditional support. It is also important to note that while the early church issued formal creedal statements at church councils to ensure agreement on doctrines like the Trinity and incarnation, they never endorsed any specific account of atonement. In short, while Christians are expected to confess that God reconciled the world in Christ, there has always been debate on how God did so.

"The lesson to draw here is that being crucicentric is not the same thing as accepting the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. The Church has always encompassed various different accounts of atonement, and no single view gets exclusive rights to the claim of being crucicentric.


"Finally, what about activism? As I said above, when I teenager, activism meant street evangelism and evangelistic outreaches in the park.

"While evangelism is important, I blush to admit that our understanding of activism completely lacked a focus on social justice. Did I have any concern for the poor and the systems of injustice that oppress people in North America and around the world? No, not really. How about environmental stewardship? While I remember learning in high school about acid rain, ozone depletion, and deforestation, these issues were never mentioned at church. Race reconciliation? I didn’t have a clue about such matters in my ethnically homogeneous church.

"And had you asked me why our church isn’t concerned with social justice, the environment, and race reconciliation, I probably would’ve answered, “that’s what liberals care about!” As if the Gospel is irrelevant for society, race, and the environment!


"I still value the evangelical tradition greatly and I think that Bebbington’s four hallmarks represent important values worth defending. But I am no longer persuaded that evangelicals have a uniquely authoritative understanding of these hallmarks or what it means to follow Jesus. And so I am no longer convinced that seeking out the evangelical stamp is a guaranteed mark of church quality. To sum up, while I used to be very concerned with labels like evangelical and liberal, these days the label I find most important is simply this: a follower of Jesus. (emphasis added --Randy

“This article is based on a chapter from my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?”


I sort of dispute this characterization. Evangelicals have historically and are still currently involved in many activist endeavors even if they don’t frame them in terms of what is currently considered “social justice.” My church is pretty typical Evangelical and I wouldn’t agree with half of my congregation on politics, but almost everyone I know there is involved in some kind of need-meeting ministry: food bank, ESL classes, refugee welcoming and resettlement, tutoring at-risk kids in the City, building homes across the border in Mexico, helping community widows and shut-ins with house and yard work, hospice care, teen mother mentoring, international student partnership, nursing home visitation, prison visitation, volunteering at the homeless mission, making meals for sick people, going on disaster relief trips. It would be wrong to characterize those ministries as primarily evangelistic. They are primarily to be kind and help people in Jesus name.

And as someone who is out of the country, the vast majority of people I run into out here where tourists don’t visit, the ones providing medical care, education, legal aid, refugee services, disaster relief, homes for abandoned/orphaned kids, and food for the hungry, often with no “evangelistic” strings attached are Evangelicals.


Great point–I believe Dr John Dickson points out that the vast majority of non governmental charities is by far and away managed and instigated by Christians. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvpDzOxuFvo. I’m going to post that on his website. Dickson’s list of things that Christians have done to make the world better is long…

Mark Noll, in “Scandal,” wrote that in the early 1900s, Christians felt that being saved alone would change social evils. it turns out that both social action and faith are needed–take Rwanda and the vast numbers of Christians in the Civil Warm on the Southern side, for example.

My grandfather gave his life to work for World Vision and International Aid–I was very proud of him, and my parents’ self giving attitudes (and those of the mission station) strongly influenced me. I hope that my kids have the opportunity to watch missionaries in action more often (as you and your mission do).

The Evangelicals have a history and thus the question of what does it mean to be an evangelical can be divided into what it meant in the beginning and what it has come to mean now.

But what is the beginning? I disagree with claims that the evangelicals began with the first great awakening. That is methodist not evangelical.

The second great awakening is different however, and that is the real beginning of the evangelical movement. This began with a preacher named Charles Grandison Finney. And the point of it was to get away the obsession of many denominations with doctrinal details and to focus more on the Christian experience – not arguing over details of theology but realizing the power of Jesus to changes lives. Quite predictably, the preachers of denominational Christianity complained that Finney’s doctrinal teachings were unclear. LOL

Meanwhile this experiential approach to Christianity spread like wildfire among not only those disenchanted with denominational Christianity but also among the Quakers – so much so, the Quakers very nearly disappeared altogether.

But then I think what happened is that the Southern Baptists saw the success and growth of the evangelicals and decided to jump on the bandwagon and hijack the movement for themselves. But of course, they were more interested in pushing their very extreme fundamentalist doctrines on people than in the experiential approach of the original evangelical movement.

Perhaps it is because of this that some evangelicals reacted by going to the other extreme, where it was all about things like speaking in tongues and healing people by faith alone. So now we have this rather broad spectrum of evangelicals from the insanely charismatic to the insanely fundamentalist – and the rest of us wondering what it means anymore to be evangelical – and maybe even willing to let the Southern Baptists dictate the terms.


Surprisingly I found myself agreeing with all of the four points. However, I also believe that to be an evangelical (or even a protestant) requires a belief in Sola Fide. I however, believe the Bible is clear when it says that faith needs to act through love in order to be of avail (Galatians 5:6).


Perhaps you missed this gem from the John MacArthur camp of evangelicals: The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

“Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.” If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.”

Of course, they manage to work in the key word in all evangelical intramural disputes: “compromise.”

Reactions to the statement from Michael Gerson of the Washington Post:
The purpose of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” is clear enough. It is, as one prominent evangelical leader put it to me, “to stop any kind of real repentance for past social injustice, to make space for those who are indeed ethnonationalists, and to give excuse for those who feel Christians need only ‘preach the gospel’ to save souls and not love their neighbors sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not.”

And from Dennis R. Edwards of Northern Seminary and Missio Alliance:
“The ‘Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel’ fails to take into account that, at times, the primary mission of the church—to love God and love others—requires social activism.”


Biblicism or inerrancy is the fatal flaw of Evangelicalism. It is based on bad theology and has led to YEC and separation from science and the rest of Christianity. Evangelicalism needs to stop believing that the Bible is the Word of God.

Please note that the “evangelical statement” quoted above bases itself on the doctrines of the Bible and not on Jesus Christ.

1 Like

Of course I did, because he is on my list of people never to pay attention to because I have enough things in my life that raise my blood pressure and cause me to store tension in my shoulders.

Interestingly enough, they won’t join the National Association of Evangelicals and have a history of considering themselves distinct from Evangelicals. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/are-southern-baptists-evangelicals/

I have pretty much given up using the term Evangelical to describe myself in the US because I believe the semantics have shifted to mean “conservative voter” in most people’s minds. I would say I go to an Evangelical church, I guess. It’s still a useful term in the global missions community, where it has a much more positive connotation. Sometimes when I read Roger Olson’s blog I think maybe there is hope for the label, but it usually doesn’t last long.


Same here. He is right that the neo-Fundamentalists have hijacked the evangelical label, but I don’t think turning back the clock is ever a feasible strategy.

1 Like

Here is Roger Olsen’s take on it in case any here are not familiar with his blog. He does a good job with the history, and has addressed the subject in other articles also.

1 Like

Olson has also put forth the term “post-conservative evangelicalism” to try to describe his position, but it has not seemed to catch on in the popular press. Probably a few too many syllables.

1 Like

I was a little afraid that I might get a very negative reaction to my post. I couldn’t be 100% sure where Biologos was in the spectrum and how much fundamentalist influence there was. It goes a long way toward reassuring me that this is a good place for me when the reaction was positive so far.

It can be complained that I am a bandwagon jumper myself because I wasn’t raised Christian let alone evangelical, also because of my very strong advocacy of science first, and my liberal leanings in other areas. On the other hand, I can give my history of involvement to show that there is no deception involved when I call myself evangelical.

It began when I was in high school and I responded to a tv evangelist by asking Jesus into my life. But that was more to do with my desperate dissatisfaction with myself than any alteration of my thinking which would make me identifiable as a Christian. I didn’t have any contact with evangelicals at that time and the religions I explored next were the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses and moonies. I did start reading the Bible for the first time. But when a mormon missionary asked me what I thought, I said it was as good as the other science fiction and fantasy books I was reading. This is even before I really had a solid handle on what the word “God” could possibly be about. Some years later I was making a list of what the word apparently meant in the various religions I had looked at, trying to figure out what made sense.

It was in this ten year period between asking Jesus into my life and really becoming a Christian in my thinking, that I visited a group/church meeting in the gymnasium of a senior citizen center. I was too involved in other things to get more involved at the time but the experience was unforgettable and so I ended up searching for them years later after my thinking had changed. It was a Calvary Chapel group.

The change happened when I was reading Paul’s desperate cry in Romans 7: 21-24… “Wretched man that I am who will save me from this body of death?” His struggle closely echoed my own. All my life since I was 12 had been focused on understanding everything, but just because you understand what is right does mean you will do it. Thus I realized that understanding, as valuable as it may be for many things, wasn’t the answer – it had no power to save me from myself.

When I found that Calvary chapel group they had broken up and what was left was only a group of about ten people. I stayed with them for a while then I found a bigger Calvary Chapel church and stayed with them even longer, even through a move to a bigger building. I was a graduate physics student at that time and working as a TA at the University of Utah.

Eventually I wasn’t terribly happy with the conservative leanings/commentary at the Calvary Chapel and looking around I found a smaller new church in the Vineyard group which greatly fascinated me. It was called the Emerging Vineyard church of Salt Lake. I went there thinking it might be connected with the Emerging church movement but although I quickly realized this was an evangelical church, it had just enough of the sparkle of new vision that I was intrigued and hooked. I was very soon involved in the workings of the church and even giving a couple of sermons – though I was pretty certain a calling to the ministry really wasn’t there for me. I remained with them up to the point when they closed down. I searched for a new church for a while but was never satisfied and my attempts to find a new church became increasingly more lax.

But the whole time my education in Christian theology continued on the internet in various forums and that is where my position on a lot of different theological issues solidified including finding out how much I agreed with the theological positions of the Eastern orthodox on key issues like original sin and the atonement. The above post came from a combination of an earlier study of the history of the Quakers and my own research on the history of the evangelical movement.

1 Like

BioLogos is an Evangelical organization. Their target demographic is Evangelicals. Their main spokespeople identify as Evangelicals and many teach at Evangelical colleges. But again, Evangelical means different things to different people.

I went to a Vineyard church for a while when I was first married (It was the compromise since I grew up Baptist and my husband grew up Assembly of God and assorted health and wealth charismatic non-denoms, and he wouldn’t go Anglican like I wanted to and I wouldn’t go Assembly of God like he wanted to.) It was fun until it imploded and we gave up and went to an SBC mega-church until he was out of the Army and we could move back up north.


The Emerging Vineyard church went through a video series produced by the Anglicans and that is why I am considering them for a church, though there isn’t much of an Anglican presence here so Episcopal might be as close as I can get. The Anglican church downtown is too far to drive and I don’t even want to think about the parking.

1 Like

Good point. However, the flagship magazine of the evangelical movement, Christianity Today (which I really respect–Mark Galli, an Anglican, edits it) critiqued that quite well with Thabiti Anyabwile on their Quick to Listen podcast. I would agree that Jesus’ command to make things better with our brother before sacrificing on the altar implies social justice to be paramount.

To be fair, I understand why Macarthur said this; and Voddie Baucham, a co signatory, is Black. However, I think Anyabwile does a good job of graciously pointing out justice and avoiding namecalling.

The Episcopal church is the Anglican church in the USA.

Yes, but there are breakoffs that style themselves “Anglican” and sometimes are under the African bishops http://www.theanglicanchurch.net/ACUSAPageOne.html. In Detroit, I sometimes attended an Anglican church-- The Mariners Church, whose rector was Fr Ingalls–a relative of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with an Indian classmate (whose church it was); and also Christ Church, which was a big Episcopal one, where this Baptist got his first taste of Communion wine. Kind of fun to experience all that.

And that is where I started really enjoying the Book of Common Prayer, I think; I bought a copy for myself.

The red wine didn’t stick though. Not because of religious belief, but I wasn’t really interested. :slight_smile:

1 Like

It gets a little more complicated though, doesn’t it?

There are “high” Episcopal churches, whose worship and theology are conservative and traditional, and “low” Episcopal churches, which are usually liberal in theology and dispense with much of the incense and kneeling. I attended a very traditional Episcopal church for a short time many years ago, and I enjoyed the traditionalist aspect of the worship (I feel the same whenever I attend a Catholic service) much more than the “rock-n-roll” contemporary services that predominated in the non-denominational churches that I previously attended. Honestly, I probably would be fine in either a “high” or “low” Episcopal church, because my decision would depend as much on fellowship as on theology these days. I cannot say that for my younger self.

Dr. Edwards is less charitable in the response that I linked above. His first paragraph:

“We’re witnessing the death rattle of white Protestant fundamentalism in America. And as it dies, the empire has been striking back. Some aging white men fear the loss of their power, prestige, and heretofore unquestioned authority to tell others what to believe. Consequently, we receive from them edicts, often in the form of theological statements, designed to build a fence around their traditions, constructing walls of separation from others—even those who also take the Bible seriously.”


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.