I am glad that Rachel Held Evans is stoking a conversation about the meaning of “evangelical.” Evans says that she herself is an evangelical, yet she defines the term in a way that can only be described as radically revisionist. I daresay that very few would recognize her definition as anything approaching what evangelicals have historically held. We all know that defining the term ‘evangelical’ can be controversial, but many observers still look to David Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a helpful outline of the defining characteristics of evangelicals.
According to Bebbington, evangelicals have four leading characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Biblicism refers to the fact that evangelicals look to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority and measure of all truth. From the 1820’s onward, a growing body of evangelicals also insisted on inerrancy, verbal inspiration, and the need for literal interpretation of the Bible (Bebbington, 13-14). Crucicentrism focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the necessity of his substitutionary atonement for sinners (Bebbington, 15). Conversionism is the conviction that sinners need to be born again through the spirit and to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Activism refers to the fact that evangelicals are doers. They believe that their faith should be worked out in good works.
Whatever its shortcomings, Bebbington’s quadrilateral has been widely received as summing up some of evangelicalism’s most important emphases. As I mentioned above, Evans’ definition of evangelical is a substantial revision of these emphases. In fact, she undermines nearly all of them.
Evans denies the inerrancy of scripture and says that “as a woman I have been nursing a secret grudge against the apostle Paul for about eight years.” As a young adult, she says that she stopped believing in the “Bible’s exclusive authority, inerrancy, perspicuity, and internal consistency.” She came to the conclusion that “the Bible wasn’t what I’d once believed it to be.” Evans has also pressed the case for inclusivism—the view that says people need not have conscious faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved—and she rejects exclusivism. In her recent post, she defines the gospel without reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus and adopts the reductionism of counterimperial interpreters who say that the “good news” is “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” She supports gay marriage, and she has served communion to practicing homosexuals. We could go on, but that is enough to make it clear that her definition of “evangelical” is strained at best. At worse, it’s not anything close to approaching evangelical.
But being out of line with an historically responsible definition of evangelicalism is not nearly so troublesome as being out of line with what the Bible defines as true. And on that score, Evans’ description falls definitively short. The gospel is more than a contrast between Jesus and Caesar. The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3-5). It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16-17). And it requires conscious faith in Christ in order for it to become effective in a person’s life (John 3:18; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:14-15). This same gospel not only saves sinners from the penalty of sin, it also progressively delivers them from the power of sin and transforms them into the image of Christ (1 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thes. 2:13). It requires sinners to confess their sins—including the sin of homosexuality—even as it promises to make them into new creatures in Christ (1 John 1:9; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:17). These are longstanding evangelical emphases, and yet they seem to be missing from Evans’ definition of “evangelical.”
My hope and prayer is that the biblical definition of the evangel might win the day, not only with the thousands of people reading Evans’ blog but also for Evans herself. These are not trivialities but the most important issues in the world. And the stakes are eternal.