Must Evangelicals be Divided? Well, yes and no…

In this post, we will (1) aim to establish a definition of the term “evangelical,” (2) expose what appears to be a critical faultline within evangelicalism, and (3) recommend a solution.

In his book, Evangelicalism Divided, Iain Murray traces some major events and leaders of the evangelical movement from 1950 to 2000. Murray does a masterful job of telling the story of evangelistic fervor and ecumenical ambition, which both seem endemic among evangelicals. Because “evangelical” is not a denomination or ecclesiastical body, and because of the meagerness of evangelical doctrine, the people who claim this label (e.g., evangelicals) can be found in virtually every Christian denomination and tradition. The tie that seems to bind them all is a zeal to see the number of evangelicals grow.

In this post, we will (1) aim to establish a definition of the term “evangelical,” (2) expose what appears to be a critical faultline within evangelicalism, and (3) recommend a solution.

What is an Evangelical?

According to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), there are “four primary characteristics” of evangelicalism, cited below.[1]  

(1) conversionism, the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus

(2) activism, the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts

(3) biblicism, a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority

(4) crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

Therefore, an evangelical is someone who displays these characteristics, at least to some degree. We might say, in summary, that an evangelical is someone who believes the Bible, emphasizes Christ as savior, affirms a personal conversion, and has an active interest in others doing the same. As a matter of fact, we might also say that the activity of gathering more people under the banner “evangelical” is the most definitive characteristic of all. We shall see that the other features are defined so loosely that they become rather meaningless in many cases.

The NAE boasts of evangelicals being a “vibrant and diverse” group, including believers from “Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.”[2] According to the National Evangelical Anglican Congresses I[3] and II[4] and the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together[5], both Anglicans and Roman Catholics (as well as Anglo-Catholics) should be included among those “other” traditions mentioned. Simply put, evangelicalism is intentionally indistinct regarding doctrine, with the aim of joining forces with other Christians for the sake of evangelism.

A Critical Evangelical Faultline

In the previous section, we employed and cited words which would benefit from specific definitions. Just think about the varying ways in which the following words might be defined among evangelicals today: “Christian,” “gospel,” “evangelism,” “Bible,” “born-again,” “Jesus,” the “sacrifice” of Jesus on the cross, and the “redemption” of humanity. These words are all common to the evangelical vocabulary, but there is much confusion over their meaning. This is no coincidence since doctrine (i.e., defining our terms with precision and exclusivity) is undesirable among evangelicals. Murray quoted Alistair McGrath, a noted evangelical academic who verbalized this sentiment well when he argued, “we must not identify truth with ‘the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine.’”[6] With this assertion, McGrath represents the evangelical slogan doctrine divides, love unites. This, from a critical perspective, is a major faultline in the foundation of evangelicalism.

Evangelicals, in their desire to gather as many Christians as they may under the same banner, seem unable to meaningfully establish or lastingly maintain unity. Rather, evangelicalism seems inescapably tormented by a deep and “irreconcilable” rupture.[7] Evangelicals seem to want to gather Christians around a uniting mission – “Let’s do something for Christ!” – but they do not agree on what a Christian is, who Christ is, or what Christ would have Christians do in His name. Murray points out, on a number of occasions, “the question of who is a Christian lies at the very centre [sic] of [evangelical] disagreement” (emphasis added).[8] But this question, according to prevailing evangelical sensibilities, is unanswerable. Or if one does answer the question, he must make the answer so vague and so broad as to include anyone who may embrace the label evangelical. Therefore, this faultline is apparently inherent to evangelicalism itself.

Evangelicalism, as it is, cannot help but construct a superficial unity atop colliding tectonic plates of contradictory doctrine. Evangelicals may have majored on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith (i.e., those truths which are essential to the gospel and orthodox Christianity) early on, but evangelicalism has since widened its tent to include those who denied those same essential doctrines. In the name of unity, evangelicals have either forgotten what brought them together in the first place or they have revealed that orthodox Christianity was never their bond in the first place. Today, because of this antipathy for any precise or exclusive doctrine, evangelicals appear interested in uniting around nothing more than a label – namely evangelical.

Before we move on toward any solution to this critical problem, let us lament the shameful failure of evangelicalism. Murray says, “the greatest failure of professing Christianity in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century has been the way in which this division [who is and is not a Christian?] has been confused.”[9] If evangelicals are Christians, and yet are incapable of defining what a Christian is and is not, then who in the world is to answer this question? Furthermore, the gospel itself becomes obscured by the evangelical proclivity to reject doctrinal conviction. This not only undermines a basic characteristic of evangelicals (an interest in active evangelism), but it also damns people’s souls! 

Christians must be able and willing to answer the critical questions of life. What does God require of us? What is sin? Who is Jesus? What must one do to be saved? How shall we now live? The answers to these questions will either be doctrinally precise or utterly vacuous, either soul-nourishing or eternally devastating. It is a crying shame when anyone who claims the name of Christ offers condemned souls nothing more than empty platitudes. The shame worsens when we see that our reluctance to speak with certainty often stems from our desire to be liked or even admired. May God forgive us for seeking the world’s favor rather than the world’s salvation. 

An Ecclesiological Proposal

Because of the evangelical failure to define our terms, many professing Christians do not know what a Christian is. And when unregenerate people are allowed to call themselves Christians, they will reject any claims to the contrary. They will overturn biblical teaching on every matter of faith and practice that does not allow them to continue in sin. They will also war against any group or individual who seeks to regain a biblical standard of faith and practice. Murray was right when he wrote, “sometimes the true church of Christ hath no greater enemies than those of their own profession and company.”[10] And this is of our own doing.[11]

We have welcomed unregenerate persons into the membership of our churches and into leadership roles in our parachurch institutions. We have chased after numerical growth without considering the effects of false Christianity. And though we have failed to fulfill our duty, to guard against false doctrine and to promulgate the true, we must resolve now to stop this abdication of our responsibilities. We must take our place once more as heralds of God’s own words, not relying upon worldly organizations or instruments. Instead, we must embrace God’s wisdom in the formation and structure of local churches, and we must simply call sinners to repent and believe as we proclaim the gospel. In summary, we must take up the old ways, reestablish our boundaries, and give ourselves away in loving service to the world around us. We ought to plead with the unregenerate to come in, under the covering of Christ’s person and work, but we had better not tell him he is safe while he remains outside.

We are arguing here for the reestablishment of faithful local churches, defined by those essential marks of a true church – the right preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the ordinances. When the gospel is clearly preached, sinners feel the precarious nature of their condemned position and God opens the eyes of some to see His beauty and salvation. When the gospel is clearly preached, Christians learn what promises God has made and they learn how to persistently rely upon Him. When the ordinances are rightly practiced, Christians are distinguished from non-Christians and the bond of genuine believers grows increasingly resilient. When the ordinances are administered among covenanted Christians, while being withheld from those without a credible profession of faith in Christ, the thunderclap of heaven’s own pronouncement echoes throughout our world.

To state it bluntly, evangelicals must give up the foolish pursuit of worldly acclaim and public influence. We propose that evangelicals think hard about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a church. We propose that evangelicals make the gospel clear and prominent in the world today. We propose that evangelicals invest much effort and resources in the work of reforming and revitalizing disordered and dying churches. And we propose that evangelicals act like they believe the local church is God’s master plan for evangelizing and discipling the world.

May God help His people to be bold and loving, courageous and kind. And may He help us all to honor Christ through our own efforts in and through the local church.


[1] “What Is an Evangelical?,” National Association of Evangelicals (blog), accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

[2] “What Is an Evangelical?,” National Association of Evangelicals (blog), accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

[3] Andrew Atherstone, “The Keele Congress of 1967: A Paradigm Shift in Anglican Evangelical Attitudes,” Journal of Anglican Studies 9, no. 2 (November 2011): 175–97, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740355311000039.

[4] Church of England, Church Society, and Church Pastoral Aid Society, eds., The Nottingham Statement: The Official Statement of the Second National Evangelical Anglican Congress Held in April 1977, A Falcon Booklet (National Evangelical Anglican Congress, London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1977).

[5] Iain Hamish Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000).

[6] Murray, 197.

[7] Murray, 295.

[8] Murray, 294.

[9] Murray, 295.

[10] Murray, 275.

[11] The present author is a conscious evangelical, at least in the historical sense, even if not the current social or political one. The critiques in this post do not originate from a hostile outside camp, but rather from a sympathetic co-laborer.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atherstone, Andrew. “The Keele Congress of 1967: A Paradigm Shift in Anglican Evangelical Attitudes.” Journal of Anglican Studies 9, no. 2 (November 2011): 175–97. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740355311000039.

Church of England, Church Society, and Church Pastoral Aid Society, eds. The Nottingham Statement: The Official Statement of the Second National Evangelical Anglican Congress Held in April 1977. A Falcon Booklet. London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1977.

Murray, Iain Hamish. Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.

National Association of Evangelicals. “What Is an Evangelical?” Accessed April 4, 2022. https://www.nae.org/what-is-an-evangelical/.

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