What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian?

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We often hear fellow believers referred to as evangelicals. What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian?    

Because of the recent popularity and disparity-diversity of the term evangelical, we’ll explore it from biblical, popular or political, and ecclesiastical perspectives.    

Evangelical is one of a family of words (evangel, evangelism, evangelistic, etc.) that are all linked with the word gospel, as in gospel of Christ or gospel of the kingdom. It is a close transliteration of the Greek noun euangelion, found dozens of times in the New Testament. It is mostly translated as “gospel” in older English Bibles and “glad tidings” or “good news” in modern English. Mark 1:14; Romans 1:1; and Galatians 1:11 provide familiar examples.    

By extension, then, the term evangelical has been applied to persons whose faith and practice rest mostly on the powerful core truths of the Christian gospel: that Christ died for our sins (according to the gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:1ff), rose again, and ascended to glory, and that He will eventually return to put all enemies under His feet. This is the gospel that Paul says is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).  

As commonly used for the last century, the term evangelical Christian does not refer to all Catholics or orthodox Christians, to the cults, to ultra-fundamentalist groups, nor to large swaths of mainline Protestant churches. These were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and corrosive philosophies of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries (evolution, modernism, etc.).

With that in mind, evangelical Christian properly applies to most conservative churches like Baptist, Pentecostal, and charismatic; to many independents, and to the conservative wings of mainline churches, like Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian. (Conservative, here, refers less to political issues of state than to religious matters of faith and practice, and to one’s view of Scripture, etc.)  

These evangelical Christians and churches sponsor a lion’s share of the educational institutions, radio and TV networks, evangelistic crusades and other world mission efforts, pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family, Bible-based ministries.

Second, the term evangelical Christianity is linked today with a strong politically conservative segment of voters in recent elections in the US and in other countries. In this vein, fierce patriotism to any nation under the guise of God and country is biblically deficient and not really evangelical at all! A healthy patriotism and political participation are secondary to a firm biblical faith in, and full-fledged obedience to, Jesus Christ.   

The God of the Bible is no respecter of persons or nations, but loves His faithful children of all lands and languages equally (Acts 10:34, 35). The truest evangelical Christians may choose to distance themselves from those who curry our political support to build their own kingdom more than Christ’s. Let’s withhold our absolute loyalty from, and rather speak truth to, those political leaders whose evangelical support is mostly linked to their political prowess, and not to their personal loyalty to the biblical truths of the everlasting gospel.     

Finally, the term evangelical Christian also carries an ecclesiastical component that applies to any congregation or denomination that lives out full-hearted faith in Jesus Christ, and willingly joins in His Great Commission. Based on our ten-point vision of a Vibrant 21st Century Church, the Church of God (Seventh Day), too, is evangelical in our faith. That vision expresses our commitment to be Christ centered, Spirit formed, Bible based, engaging in witness, and distinct yet inclusive. As evangelical, we are not defined so much by national politics but are Christians committed to preaching the gospel of the kingdom and supporting others in world evangelization by lifting King Jesus high!  

— Elder Calvin Burrell   

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    Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and former director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.