What Is Evangelical?

What Is Evangelical?

Written on 02/15/2021

Department:
Author: Shiao Chong

My understanding of the “evangelical” label has changed over time. When I was a Christian in Malaysia, my pastor was a strong Calvinist. Anything that smacked of Arminianism, the theological system opposed to Calvinism, was suspect. He impressed upon me the idea that the American poster child of evangelicalism, Billy Graham, was an Arminian. Hence, I did not trust evangelicalism in my youth.

This wariness of evangelicalism followed me when I went to Canada as an international student, and it’s partly why I eventually gravitated toward the Christian Reformed Church with its beliefs tied to the Canons of Dort. At that time, I did not perceive the CRC as an evangelical denomination.

In this issue of The Banner, retired pastor Cameron Fraser asks, “Are We Evangelicals?” Fraser concludes that “to be biblically Reformed is in fact to be historically evangelical.” Fraser outlines what historic evangelicalism (as theologically defined by church historians) looks like. I think he is partly right. But the “evangelical” label in North America, especially in the United States, has over the years taken on a meaning beyond its historical roots.

Consider that the Southern Baptist Convention, the most widely identified evangelical church, with prominent members such as Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress, never was and still isn’t a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. The CRC is a member of this U.S. organization and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. But which denomination first comes to mind when people say “evangelical”?

What the media and popular culture identify these days as “evangelical” is often not the historic evangelicalism defined by its beliefs. It has become more of a sociopolitical and cultural religious brand. Let’s call this “cultural evangelicalism” to differentiate it from historic evangelicalism. (It’s more complicated than these two definitions allow, but this can help us get a handle on things.)

Cultural evangelicalism seems to have gradually hijacked the “evangelical” label from historic evangelicalism in popular imagination, especially in the United States—so much so that in 2018 the NAE felt the need to issue a statement reasserting that evangelicalism is defined by its beliefs and is not tied to various “subgroups identified by where we live (or) how we vote.”

This might explain the CRC’s ambiguous relationship with the “evangelical” label. Even though our Reformed theology roots us in historic evangelicalism’s beliefs, as Fraser notes, some CRC folks reject cultural evangelicalism and hence the label. But many CRC folks, as noted by Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes DuMez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, in the January edition of The Banner, are “functionally evangelical.” And many others fall somewhere in between these two poles.

Whether we identify with the “evangelical” label or not, what’s more important is that we are aware of the theological and cultural influences that shape us and our faith traditions. As our Reformed Christian tradition is connected to evangelicalism, we need to have an honest look in the mirror to discern the strengths and weaknesses of historic and cultural evangelicalism and how much either has influenced us, for good or for ill. Then we can follow up with what is perhaps a more important question: have we been more faithful to Christ or to traditions and brands?

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