Are You an Evangelical?

A term that is common in the religious world but unfound in the Scriptures is the word "evangelical.”  Christians may be confused by this word because it sounds like a Bible word, but it doesn’t have a Biblical use or definition.  Especially during a political season, the news media will often refer to evangelicals as an important voting bloc for conservative politicians who are seeking elected office.  Because of its frequent use, it is good for us to know what is meant by the word "evangelical” so that we can understand and communicate effectively with those who use this term.

The first known use of the English word "evangelical” in print was in 1531 by the Protestant Reformer William Tyndale.  Initially, the concept of the evangelical church was used by Martin Luther and the other Reformers to distinguish the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church.  The Protestants coined the word "evangelical” to be closely related to the New Testament words "gospel” and "evangelism.”  The word "gospel” (Greek euaggelion) means the "good message,” and "evangelism” (Greek euaggelizō) means "to tell the good message.”  Clearly, the Protestants were attempting to identify their churches with the gospel message of the New Testament in contrast to the Catholic Church, which was characterized by papal authority and tradition.

Today, the word "evangelical” is used to describe a certain category of people who claim to practice and profess Christianity.  In general, an evangelical is considered to be a person who professes to be born again spiritually through Christ, emphasizes the sacrifice of Christ as the only source for forgiveness of sins, stresses the importance and infallibility of the Bible as God’s word, and actively shares and promotes his faith to others.  This category evolved as men sought to draw a contrast to two early twentieth century movements.  One was theological liberalism, which strayed away from the authority of Scripture and dominated the mainstream denominations and sects.  The other was fundamentalism, which was considered to be an extremist and separatist view of Christianity.  Evangelicalism emerged as a middle category between the opposing views of liberalism and fundamentalism.

As stated before, "evangelical” is not a Biblical word, but is it a Biblical concept?  Judging strictly by the modern usage just described, evangelicalism is indeed a Biblical concept, but the Bible uses a different word to describe this concept.  Rather than an evangelical, the Bible calls such a person simply a Christian.  The first time the word "Christian” was used to describe a disciple of Christ was at Antioch of Syria in Acts 11:26 (see vv. 19-26 for full context).  The Christians at Antioch were people who had believed and turned to the Lord (v. 21; they were "born again” – see John 3:3-6; 1Pet. 1:23), trusted in Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation (Heb. 9:27-28), believed in the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures (Acts 17:11; 2Tim. 3:16-17), and preached the gospel to others (vv. 20, 26; they carried out the Great Commission – see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16).  It appears that these disciples were called Christians by God Himself in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 62:2 – "And you will be called by a new name which the mouth of the LORD will designate.”  The word translated as "called” in Acts 11:26 is the Greek word chrēmatizō, which is used in the New Testament mostly to designate words given by God (Matt. 2:22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Rom. 7:3; Heb. 8:5; 11:7; 12:25).  Therefore, the word to use for such a believer is the one God used to describe His disciples, which is Christian.

Why then is the word "evangelical” used at all?  Why not simply say "Christian”?  The reason the unbiblical word "evangelical” is used now is because the Biblical word "Christian” has been redefined in the modern culture.  The word "Christian” is commonly used to designate anyone or anything that has even the slightest claim or connection to the concept of Christianity.  The world uses the word "Christian” to describe members of all churches, denominations, and even cults regardless of whether their beliefs and practices are Biblical.  Moreover, many people who are completely inactive, ignorant, and unbelieving of Biblical Christianity are even called Christians only because they make a claim to believe Jesus, however slight and passive their claim may be.  They are not considered atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, etc., so they are called Christians by default.  Therefore, to differentiate born-again, Christ-trusting, Bible-believing, actively-preaching persons from all others who are called Christians, the word "evangelical” is used.

Too often, Christians have allowed the world rob them of the blessings of God’s pure word and color their understanding of the Bible.  The use of the word "evangelical” is an example of this unfaithful concession.  Rather than fighting to preserve the pure, Biblical meaning of Christianity, many have surrendered the word "Christian” and allowed the world to redefine it.  The result is that the claim "I am a Christian” is too ambiguous for the world to understand.  Instead, Christians are expected to define themselves according to some manmade subset of Christianity, which may not really be Christianity at all.  This should not be, so may every Christian unashamedly take back ownership of the God-given, Biblically designated name.  Remember, the Scripture says, "but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1Pet. 4:16).  Therefore, let us glorify God with the name of Christian, and let us abandon all other names to the world.

Stacey E. Durham


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