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This description will not likely end the ongoing debate about what it means to be evangelical. Ask 12 evangelicals to define the word and you’ll end up with 12 definitions, which in itself is a testimony to an evangelical distinctive—cantankerousness! Evangelicals are on the more radical end of the Protestant continuum. Evangelicals have no pope, no unified teaching office, no Book of Evangelicalism. It’s a dynamic movement led, we believe, by the Holy Spirit, and that means no one is in charge. And everyone is in charge—at least those who seem to us to be led by the Spirit.

So we don’t imagine this series will end the ongoing confusion and debate, but we trust it will at least bring some clarity and insights to the discussion.

As noted above, while many of evangelicalism’s own leaders are recommending we abandon the word because it has taken on too much cultural baggage, others have argued that identifying the movement is a fool’s errand in the first place. We are so divided, the argument goes, and the word means so many different things to too many different people, there’s no way to bring all that under one roof. Yes and no (see below). Still, trying to bring many under one roof—that is, to help envision what evangelicals have in common—is one distinctive of the movement and certainly one distinctive of this magazine. We have a history of attempting to call together “all evangelicals of all stripes” and to be as large a tent as possible without sabotaging the distinctives the word evangelical suggests.

No Such Thing as “Evangelicalism”

One thing that needs to be clarified: There is no such thing as “evangelicalism” in one important sense. It’s a word to describe in abstract a spiritual and theological phenomenon, a word that points to certain traits and features of certain people and groups. As an abstract word, it is used in a confusing manner sometimes, as when some today talk about “leaving evangelicalism.” In fact, one cannot ever join “evangelicalism”: you don’t get a membership card, you don’t pay membership dues, and you don’t go to annual meetings of evangelicalism. So you can’t leave it either.

Then there is cultural evangelicalism, which is a bit more concrete. For example, we talk about white evangelicalism, black evangelicalism, Hispanic evangelicalism, Asian evangelicalism, as well as Northern and Southern evangelicalism, among other phenomena. Each has a distinct history, culture, and emphases; each brings wonderful gifts to other evangelicals and to the larger body of Christ. Of course, each is fallen and sinful in its own way, as well. It is frustrations with some traits and sins of a subculture that prompt some to say they no longer identify with one of these subcultures or another.

It’s when evangelical is used as an adjective that it begins to have concrete meaning. There are evangelical churches, evangelical parachurch organizations, and evangelical identity groups (Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, and so forth) that one can participate in or not, that one can join or leave. There are evangelical magazines one can subscribe to, and evangelical statements one can sign.

Much talk about evangelicalism is confused today because the conversation goes back and forth between these different senses. Because the people and groups who identify with evangelicalism are sinful and still growing up in Christ, subgroups of our movement can get frustrated with individuals and groups who identify with the larger movement. Thus members of the Evangelical Environmental Network can lose their patience when they visit evangelical churches and find church members resistant to their concern for creation care. Black evangelicals become angry when they talk to white evangelicals if they don’t see race issues the same way. Evangelicals are often the quickest to condemn evangelical statements of one sort or another, saying that if this is what it means to be an evangelical, I don’t know that I am one. So while one cannot really “leave evangelicalism,” one can refuse to identify with a particular subculture of evangelicalism (or all of it for that matter). But the most concrete expression of rejecting evangelicalism is to leave an evangelical institution or church, refuse to participate in evangelicals conferences, or refuse to fellowship with evangelical individuals.

Evangelical Distinctives
Christianity Today's editor in chief considers what it means to be an evangelical Christian today, drawing on the movement's history, theology, and spirituality.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous Evangelical Distinctives Columns:
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Evangelical Distinctives in the 21st Century