What is an evangelical?

A couple of years ago, Jon Kuhrt posted a fascinating graphic on his blog site to describe his journey of discover as a Christian. Raised as an evangelical, he was nurtured in the things in the blue column as being true markers of Christian faith. But out of a personal commitment to help others, he trained in social work and discovered the things in the red column—and that they didn’t fit very well with his upbringing in the blue column.

Tribal Theology

The separation of these two sets of concerns Jon describes as ‘tribal theology’, and in a follow-up post he urges us to move beyond tribalism to a ‘dialectical’ tension between these two groups, since they both are signs of what he calls ‘orthodox’ Christianity.

I find it really interesting that Jon declines to label the blue column ‘evangelical’, and equally declines to relinquish the label for himself.

The thing is that I don’t want to reject the tradition I grew up in but I don’t want to be limited by it either. The Christianity I grew up with has given me so much – I don’t want to lose what is important from the blue side of the chart or adopt a label like ‘post evangelical’. I believe that true Christian radicalism involves holding these two sides of this chart together. The gospel of Jesus cannot be divided up: it is inherently personal and social, truth is found in both the atonement and the incarnation, faith involves beliefs and actions, we need to care about both personal morality and social justice and we need to be both tolerant and distinctive.

Notice his use of the term ‘gospel of Jesus’, in Greek the euangel. Both of these sets of concerns are ‘evangelical’ in that they can be found in the New Testament as part of what God has done for us in Jesus and the implications of that for our lives. Within the Church of England, I do in fact think there are other traditions which draw on ideas outside of these. True ‘liberalism’ will actually see reason and experience as independent sources of authority, sometimes to be set over against what we find in the Scriptures, and the ‘catholic’ (better, ‘sacramental’) perspective will look to church tradition as a similar independent source of authority.

But Jon’s characterisation here offers an important insight into the nature of evangelical identity. Some years ago David Bebbington characterised evangelicals as marked by four things:

  • Conversionism
  • Activism
  • Biblicism
  • Crucicentrism

I think this is quite a good description of the phenomenon of evangelicalism, but I am not sure it can be a definition as such, still less a theology. Evangelicals have often been activist, but it would be hard to defend activism (as opposed, for example, to a more contemplative spirituality) as a distinguishing virtue from the Scriptures taken as a whole. As Jon says, there is in fact a dialectical relation between the two; we are called in some ways to be activist, and in others to be contemplative. And I have always maintained that ‘biblicism’ (in the sense both of having a high regard theologically for the Bible, and of Bible-reading being a key part of devotional practice) can never be simply one feature among many for ‘evangelicals’; rather, all aspects of evangelical belief must be rooted in the Scriptures, if evangelicals are going to be true to their name. In fact, my understanding of being evangelical would come very close to Stephen Neill’s definition of being Anglican:

Show us anything the Bible teaches that we are not teaching, and we will teach it; show us anything we are teaching that the Bible does not teach, and we will cut it out.

That is one reason why I think there is always a potentially very positive synergy between what it means to be evangelical, and what it means to be Anglican—at least in the Church of England. (I think the situation is very different in some other parts of the Anglican Communion.) Bebbington’s description would tend to push being ‘evangelical’ to the blue side of Jon’s columns, but I agree with Jon—both sides actually are true to being evangelical, when this is rooted in the Scriptures, rather than simply being rooted in a (tribal) church tradition which merely labels itself ‘evangelical.’ As it happens, the ‘personal’ emphasis of much evangelical teaching often owes more to modernist indiviualism than it does to Scripture, which is corporate and social through and through.

In my own teaching on evangelical spirituality I have emphasised the ‘both/and’ importance of:

  • Cross and resurrection—or, better, the crucified and risen Jesus
  • Present assurance and future hope of salvation
  • Personal conversion and the redemption of creation
  • Personal holiness and life in community
  • Evangelism (proclamation) and working for social transformation

But this is also why I don’t go with the idea of different ‘kinds’ of evangelical. Graham Kings, now bishop of Sherborne in Salisbury Diocese, offered a ‘mapping’ of ‘three theological shapes within [evangelical Anglicanism]: conservative, open and charismatic’ which he likens to canal, river and rapids respectively. Whilst, like Bebbington, this is a helpful description of the phenomenon of evangelicals as they are, I don’t think it can ever do as a theology or identity. The danger is that these different descriptions become tribal loyalties, and the preferences within them derive from a tradition, or personality, or temperament, rather than being rooted in responsible reflection together on Scripture. Should I seek to ‘conserve’ the truth of the gospel message? If Scripture says so in these terms, yes. Should I be ‘open’ to other ideas and sources of understanding? To the extent the Scriptures encourage me to do so, yes. Do I need to welcome the ministry of the Spirit? To the extent that the Scriptures set out, of course.

We need to be honest about differences, and dispense with the covert manoeuvrings that too often characterise church politics. But we also need to clear about shared values and commitments. As Jon Kuhrt comments:

The dialectics set out in the diagram are rich resources for Christian thinking and engagement with the world – they are our strength – but too often they become silos of tribal entrenchment that simply mirror the conflicts in the world.



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18 thoughts on “What is an evangelical?”

  1. As someone who was taught ‘the blue’ and has increasingly embraced ‘the red’, I find this a helpful comment. Here’s to both/and…! 🙂

  2. I on my last application form described myself as ” a liberal catholic, with charismatic leanings and an evangelical heritage”, i think now i would change it to ” a post evangelical charismatic catholic”

    In truth I find the settings offered in the diagram not that accurate anymore and i wonder if the constant need for labels helps anyone, judge me by what I do and say rather than by categories.

  3. But Paul, do you think that is really true? You might appreciate some elements of a ‘sacramental’ approach, but do you really look to the tradition of the church as having theological authority? I think most ‘Catholics’ do that…

  4. As a curate i remember being told of the tripod of the bible, tradition and reason all being equall. I would add inspiration (the Holy Spirit) having then a more stable four legs. whilst not wishing to take the authorty of the church to the levels of the RC church i feel that the church can guide us in matters of theology and give us tools to minister. The RC would refer to the magistrium of the church but as i say too far. So in short in keeping with my initial answer yes and no. Maybe thats why I am the ecumenical officer

  5. The three legged stool idea is from Hooker, and he clearly treats Scripture as more authoritative than tradition or reason.

    Oh, and three legged stools are much more stable than four legged ones. They can’t wobble…

  6. sure Hooker was Anglican and i agree witth Johns comment, theology though is not static. As for the Anglican position does that not change with the churchmanship

  7. Thanks Ian. I wonder if I might be slightly provocative (moi?) and ask if an aspect of Evangelicalism is a desire to label and categorise? And if a further one is to define oneself against other Christian traditions? In respect of the former, I can’t think of another part of the Christian family quite so anxious about self-definition as Evangelicals. I wonder if that is partly to do with insecurity (“am I losing my salvation?” is a particularly Evangelical anxiety) but also about defining the boundaries of acceptable belief. In respect of the second point, I note for example no place for incarnational thinking within your definitions, which the wider Christian family would see as a theological flaw in Evangelicalism. Is there not a worry that, for example, by thinking incarnationally an Evangelical might be seen as dabbling with Liberalism, which for some Evangelicals is enough to stop them taking the doctrine of the incarnation seriously enough (which surely must be a mistake?)…

  8. One tradition that has been quite successful in integrating the two sides is the Anabaptist tradition, which in its non-separatist version regards both sides as essential. That’s why I’ve embraced it – and it’s pre-evangelical!

  9. Is it my imagination or is there always a tendency to drift from the blue column to red? Does this happen among Christians more often than going from the red column to blue?

  10. Ian – thanks for the article and the engagement with the things I have written. I thought it might be helpful to give the context in which I developed the diagram which was a working party following the C of E’s Faithful Cities report which was convened after synod debated the report and Chris Sugden strongly criticised its liberal theology.

    The working group was asked to ‘go deeper’ into the theology of urban ministry. After initial members pulled out I found myself to be the only evangelical representative on the group. I developed this diagram to articulate what was happening in our discussions where basically (as with much urban theology of this type) the blue side of the chart was simply ignored and unengaged with. So the chart is in itself a critique rather than just a mapping – this is why it is described perjoratively as tribal. I have found is that institutions operate in tribal silos more than individuals do – what Neibuhr called ‘group egoism’ and how sin is more manifest in groups rather than individuals. The group eventually published a (sadly) mediocre book ‘Crossover City’ which I contributed two chapters to.

    I agree with previous comments about the dangers of labeling and not wasting too much time dividing people up. Analysing division only takes you so far and this is why the follow-up post with an integrated diagram is more important. The only thing is that negativity is always more popular (especially online) and this piece ‘Two become one’ has received far less hits (but maybe it could be because people prefer Frankie Goes to Hollywood more than the Spice Girls!)

  11. John (Allister) do you have the reference to that? I often get into discussions with people about this. For one, from the little I know about Hooker, it seems unlikely that he thought the three were equal authorities. For another, I am unclear why I should be told by Hooker what being an Anglican is!

  12. Simon, thanks for the comment. On the particular point, i suspect the ‘danger’ would more be about being seen as ‘catholic’. Yes, this might well be perceived as a weakness, though from an evangelical view, the NT consistently focusses on cross and resurrection, rather than incarnation per se, as salvific.

    I agree with you about the anxiety thing. The question is whether this is a constant feature of evangelicalism, of whether it is a feature *at this time* when evangelicalism is larger and (so) more diverse than it has been in the past.

    Inasmuch as this arises from personality issues, I find it hard to identify with. One thing I struggle with a bit is that I just don’t have the same personal outlook as many of my fellow evangelicals. But inasmuch as the concern arises from a theological concern about truth and salvation, then I think that is no bad thing.

  13. Veronica, that’s really interesting…though my impression is that the Anabaptist movement as a whole is quite a bit more ‘liberal’ than it was originally. Is that a right impression?

  14. Jon, thanks for the extra information–and for the second diagram. Really love it! But hadn’t myself spotted if before even though I had read a number of the linked posts.

    Two thoughts. First, does this kind of relationship throw any light on how the C of E might address the same-sex issue?

    Second—the key thing is what happens at the boundary between the two!

  15. Hi Ian

    1) I think it is relevant to the same sex issue because the markers in each tribe affect people’s theology on this issue. If you passionate about inclusion and tolerance then this is the lens you view the same-sex issues through. If you are passionate about distinctiveness and personal morality then this is the lens you view through. Being able to see why people think the way they do – and the root for their thinking in scripture, reason and tradition – helps understanding and lessens the extent we simply reach for easy labels such as narrow fundamentalist or woolly liberal.

    For me, the big problem in the C of E is the lack of honesty about the same-sex issue. There have always been gay clergy – when I started working in homelessness I discovered a whole seams of the church I have not come across but which accepted same-sex relations. But the truth has not been acknowledged or talked about and the veil of lies and secrecy has helped create a nonsense situation. People are far more willing to slag others off than disagree properly. On this C of E working group I was on, it was really refreshing when people actually said ‘I disagree’ or ‘I don’t see that God works like that through what Jesus did’ but it was rare. The idol of niceness, at least to your face, reigns supreme.

    2) I worship and work on the dividing line. I attend a Baptist church which is charismatic and conservative and I think God took me there when I started working for a liberal Methodist circuit. Every day I overlap between these boundaries and there is far more to agree on than disagree on. The church I attend is good at sharing the gospel and many get baptised every month. The church I work at has developed incredible social action projects. Both have strengths in very different ways – but they definitely occupy different parts of the silo diagram!

    By the way, the chapter in the book can be read here – it is a fuller explanation of the problem of tribalism:


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