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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

New Testament Talk: Defining “Evangelical”

Considerable discussion is occurring about the appropriate way to define an "Evangelical". John Stackhouse (Church and Faith Trends volume 1, issue 1, EFC website) proposes a definition that includes the following elements:  orthodox and orthoprax, crucicentric, biblicist, conversionist, missional, and transdenominational. There is much to commend such a definition, although personally I think it emphasizes the individual aspects of the Christian reality too much and does not express the ecclesial community that marks the Evangelical  reality. Yet, it will serve well for the purposes of historical and sociological study.It is important for us to use terms with understanding, lest we talk past one another.

But trying to define ‘Evangelical’ does raise the question as to which term we might use to most adequately describe a follower of Jesus. The term ‘Evangelical’ may well serve this purpose within intra-Christian discussion and dialogue. However, when we consider the New Testament, particularly the epistle literature, the descriptor most frequently used is "holy ones" (or "saints" as rendered in the King James Version). The focus seems to be not so much on confession of specific Gospel content (i.e. evangelical) which one affirms, but rather on a positional or relational reality (i.e. holy by virtue of position in Christ or relationship with God). In Acts the writer identifies followers of Jesus as "disciples" (e.g. Acts 6:7; 9:19). The emphasis in this term defines the learning that occurs, as a person follows a teacher or philosopher or religious savant  and is mentored in the process. Frequently the New Testament leaders will refer to fellow believers simply as "brothers" (a somewhat generic relational term). In the case of the terms disciple and brothers, again the emphasis is on position (i.e. learner) or relationship. These terms are used by Christians to describe themselves.

When followers of Jesus become sufficiently numerous to be noted, their opponents used diverse terms to describe them. These include "followers of the Way" (Acts 9:2; 24:14); "Adherents to the Christ party" (i.e. "Christianoi", Acts 11:26: 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16); and "the Nazarene sect" (Acts 24:5).

It seems to me that the term ‘Evangelical’ serves to distinguish a certain type of Christian from another kind of Christian. It’s function would be similar to terms Paul used in intra-Christian debate to describe "Judaizers", i.e. Christians who thought Gentile believers should adopt Jewish practices in order to be included within the covenant.  For this reason non-Evangelicals might find it useful to type or categorize a certain segment within Christendom. However, for those within "Evangelicalism" it cannot be a sufficient expression of who we are, because it does not identify sufficiently well our relationship to God and Christ, or our relationship with one another. Here the biblical terms in the first category, i.e. holy ones, disciples, brothers, speak more eloquently and forcefully of our identity in Christ.

Our language reveals the way we think about things. The term "Evangelical" expresses a distinctiveness from other diverse groups. It is exclusive language, in a sense. So when it is used, it separates, it makes divisions. This is sometimes necessary and in certain contexts very helpful.  Within the early church reflected in the New Testament literature,  the language chosen by those within the church to describe followers of Jesus is  positional and relational, emphasizing their oneness in Christ, loyalty to Him as Lord and Saviour, and commitment to fulfilling his mission. As followers of Jesus we may need from time to time to describe ourselves to those without as "Evangelicals" because this term defines us in certain respects. However, when talking among ourselves as followers of Jesus, we might be better served to emphasize the New Testament terms such as disciples, brothers/sisters, holy ones.  It will make us more conscious and aware of our essential relationship with one another in Christ and partnership in Kingdom progress.

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