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Please Don’t Call Me An Evangelical - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

Evangelical is a term that has evolved over the last 250 years. Please, oh, please, do not call me an Evangelical! I don’t want to be known as a liberal ecumenical writer who loves broad churchism, skews denominational lines, and overthrows the authority of the local or national church.

I’d love to be called an evangelical if we lived 400 years ago. But not today…

What is an Evangelical? The answer to this will depend on whom you ask, and what time period you live in. People have all sorts of definitions for this term. That is what makes it so dangerous. Is A Puritan’s Mind Evangelical? First, before answering that question, “evangelical” needs to be defined and set in a historical context.

The term comes from the Greek word euaggelion {yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on}) which means, 1) a reward for good tidings 2) the glad tidings of the kingdom of God soon to be set up, and subsequently also of Jesus the Messiah, the founder of this kingdom. After the death of Christ, the term comprises also the preaching concerning Jesus Christ as having suffered death on the cross to procure eternal salvation for men in the kingdom of God, but as restored to life and exalted to the right hand of God in heaven, thence to return in majesty to consummate the kingdom of God. It is synonymous with the term “Gospel” which is its English equivalent. It houses the glad tidings of salvation through Christ and the proclamation of the grace of God manifested and pledged in Christ. These are the joyful tidings of the kingdom of heaven. The next question is, “Who will define these joyful tidings?” Are these joyful tidings of the bible the same joyful tidings that Evangelicals teach today? Not really.

During the Reformation, the term was used to describe the reformers who believed in “gospelling” or heralding the good news of justification by faith alone. In contrast to the Catholic Church of the day, Protestants were known as these “Evangelicals.” Those in league with Wittenberg and the Swiss cantons toward Reformation were frequently referred to as Evangelical. Reformed doctrine, then, historically, was associated with the term. However, today, this is not the case.

Evangelicalism as a contemporary term really came about after the turn of the last century. The common Christian ideology of Evangelicalism did not formally begin until about 1939 (Why was it not used for some 300 years?). At that time J. Elwin Wright of the New England Fellowship toured through the US seeking denominations to band together to press a national revival. (This would obviously obscure denominational lines and overthrow, in many ways, the proper authority of the church.) He invited representatives to meet at a National Conference for United Action among evangelicals at St. Louis in 1942. Four pastors were the primary speakers at this conference: Harold J. Okenga, pastor of Boston’s Park Street Church, William W. Ayer, pastor of New York’s Calvary Baptist Church, Robert G. Lee, pastor of Memphis’ Bellevue Baptist Church and Stephen W. Paine, president of Houghton College. The four preached on various ecumenical topics and encouraged unity and a national movement toward spiritual renewal. The conference drafted a constitution, a statement of faith, and agreed to meet again at a constitutional convention in the next year.

The constitution drawn up for these evangelicals comprised the following: 1) there would be a voluntary, democratically administered organization (i.e. a complete overthrow of church government). 2) The group would not oppose the role, right and privileges of its members (this is so vague, one wonders exactly what they mean). 3) Church membership would be limited to those in agreement with them and with the doctrinal beliefs they held (this would be an impossibility if every denomination held to their actual beliefs – ecumenicity would be impossible and self-defeating). 4) They were to be evangelical in spirit and purpose (what does “evangelical” actually mean?). This newly constructed body of “churches” would concern itself with evangelism, their relation to government, nation use of radio for the propagation of the Gospel, public relation activities, preservation of the separation of church and state, Christian education, and the freedom for home and foreign missions. This statement was approved in 1943, and the N.A.E. (National Association of Evangelicals) was born.

There were a number of fundamentalists at this time that separated themselves from these Evangelicals since they believed they were not upholding scholarly work in the area of philosophy, sociology and politics. Among these men were Carl Henry and Gordon Clark who wrote scathing critiques of this “new” movement.

In general the term “Evangelical” has developed into a more inclusivistic attitude toward liberalism, and are ecumenical in their efforts towards ecclesiastical unity. As a result of a broad churchism their theological views are akin to pleasing the masses. Evangelicals believe that there should not be any isolation from other denominations. Thus, Methodists should work with Presbyterians, and Presbyterians should work with Baptists, and Baptists should work with Pentecostals, and so on, for the cause of the Gospel. How could this happen if different theological lines delineate “what is the Gospel” and how one should “preach the Gospel?” In any case, Evangelicals are also tending to lean toward modernists and mainline ideas – mainline denominations that are akin to popularity. Such popular associations and organizations are The Billy Graham Crusade, Trans World International, Youth for Christ International, Wheaton College, and Gordon College. Even the EPC – the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – founded with a flexibility around issues or women ordination in both elder and deacon offices, and flexibility around doctrinal matters such as the baptism in the Spirit and Spiritual gifts. (Not to mention that the EPC gutted the Westminster Confession of Faith and reinstated a watered down version of Christian fundamentals.)

Doctrinally Evangelicals hold to a reinterpretation of the concept of inerrancy that agrees with much of the higher criticism theories. This presses many of them to propagate the point that the teaching of Scripture is without error, not the actual text of Scripture. They also hold to Solo Scripture (me and my bible) rather than Sola Scriptura (the regula fide and Scripture). They also seem to continually have a fresh dialogue not only with ecumenical liberalism, but also other religious traditions. For example, Billy Graham has made it no small matter that he has aligned himself with an ecumenical spirit surrounding Roman Catholicism and priests; which have accompanied him at his evangelistic crusades.

What do evangelicals hold in common doctrinally? They hold to a loose doctrine around the authority of Scripture, a very loose doctrine of God (though not all Evangelicals are unanimous in all their voices of the person and work of God) especially at the expense of His holiness, the loose doctrines surrounding the work of creation (where there is everything from day-age theorists, to theistic evolutionists), and Eschatology (ranging across the board though usually settling in a pre-millennial frame, which is their most common point of unity (Dispensationalism)).

The Evangelical sector is made up of pastors, theologians and teachers who are best described as “theologically flexible.” This is a compliment for many of them. This ecumenical and theological flexibility is a key factor (and problem) among contemporary Evangelicals. They are often non-compulsory and convicting in their preaching, and desire to keep the peace in their biblical preaching. The problem that is faced is their flagrant inability to draw solid non-negotiable doctrinal lines in the sand. They propagate, primarily, a cooperative spirit with everyone (which is not necessarily a bad thing except when it has a focus of ecumenicalism.)

A more conservative side of Evangelicalism has emerged with organizations such as The Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals. Their purpose is “to call the twenty-first century church to a reformation that recovers clarity and conviction about the great evangelical truths of the gospel and that then seeks to proclaim these truths powerfully in our contemporary context.” They emerged because, as James Montgomery Boice has said, they gathered to “talk about the weakness of the evangelical church as we see it.” This weakness, no doubt, is blaring. However, it would be much more helpful to throw away the ecumenicity of the endeavor, and instead, bring people back to a Reformed view of the church as a whole. This is what they are trying to do, mind you, and that is a wonderful thing. However, if they changed their name to the Alliance of Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinists, or something along those lines, do you think they would have as much success as they are now? So the term “Evangelical” in this name allows for a sense of ambiguity at the start. It is neither doctrinally clear nor doctrinally convicting. Do not misunderstand here. The Alliance is doing many great things in propagating some good theology. They have some great literature out there. But they would be far more “clear and convicting” with a purpose that does not revolve around what earlier scholars rejected as confusing, wooly, and hazy.

Though there are organizations trying to recapture old terms that have come to mean new things, this writer cannot subscribe to the redefined and reacclimated use of the term “Evangelical.” It is reminiscent of when Christians attempt to “reclaim Halloween for God” by handing out tracts while kids are “trick-or-treating.” Instead, Christians should use labels and terms (which is what this brief notation is about) that actually stand out and are not ambiguous. For example, this writer is a Reformed Presbyterian Calvinist who holds as diligently as humanly possible to the History of Biblical Redemption found in the Bible and expressed in the Westminster Standards. When terms like those are used, there is no clouding the issue. That is why, most of the time, when Christians who are Calvinists witness to Arminian friends, they often throw out the labels to win their friends. Why? Meaningful labels have real meaning – they are often red flags, or at the very least, misunderstood red flags about a given ideology. The term “evangelical” was made popular, or was popularized, for the sake of ecumenicity. As much as organizations would like to reclaim that term, it is not possible. Why? It is a broad churchism term used to include as many as possible, and exclude as few as possible. Those attempting to redefine the term again are fighting against the overwhelming consensus that has a flexibility to it, not a conservatism to it. Thus, the ACE will never regain that ground, much like the Founders Movement has no hope to regain the majority theological view in the Southern Baptist Convention. This is not pessimism, but reality.

Would this writer desire A Puritan’s Mind (APM) and its ministry to be known as an evangelical ministry? Not really. No, not at all. If one asks whether or not APM desires to preach the biblical Gospel to sinners, and to edify the saints of God (i.e. be evangelical in the Greek sense of the term), this writer would answer – of course. But to use the term in a sense in which allows any parallel to the Evangelical Church at large would be a tragedy and a misnomer. APM has nothing to do with the Evangelical Church. It wants nothing to do with it. Ecumenical tendencies to make the masses happy about their ignorance is not what APM is about at all. Rather, APM desires to uphold and propagate the biblical doctrines that are expressed in the Westminster Standards as a solution to Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a large part of the problem with the contemporary church. Simply opting to redefine the term to include biblical ideas is not going to change the wave that has already buried contemporary Christendom under a watery grave of ignorance to historical Christianity. Instead, continuing to define and proliferate the reformational terms of the historical confessions and creeds in a bold and unfailing light is what the church needs. Will that tend to schismatize some from the reformation and the need to reform the church? Of course it will. Christ says, about the Gospel in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” The context is the affect of the preaching of the Word of God on disciples coupled with the eschatological mission of the disciples under persecution to be lights to the world. As Christ is persecuted for preaching the Gospel, so all His disciples will be persecuted. The true Gospel divides, and its sense of community is only knit together in the power of the Holy Spirit and Kingdom principles. It is not a result of ecumenicalism.

Many pastors this writer has spoken with pride themselves in being ecumenical, or evangelical. They see “Evangelicalism” as a good thing. It is obvious they are unaware of its history, and its popularity. Maybe they are being overly optimistic. Maybe their alliances are hoping to make a greater change across the world in their attempts to be more “biblically evangelical.” But as far as labels go, that designation is about as ambiguous as an ethereal label can be, no matter how long someone takes to define it. The longer it takes to define, the more vague its actual connotations are known. As a notation then, please do not call APM, or this writer, evangelical. To say one is an Evangelical is to say they are an ecumenical Evanjellyfish; and everyone knows that jellyfish have no spine. Theologically, Evanjellyfish have no spine either.

So, it is would be far more helpful to use combined nomenclature that is truly defining. This writer does not want to be known as an Evangelical in 21st century Christendom. Instead, A Puritan’s Mind should be known using terminology that is definitive. APM is a Reformed Calvinistic Presbyterian Biblically-centered ministry following in the footsteps of the Westminster Standards both in doctrine and in practice. It rejects every form of ecumenicalism, and desires to biblically reinstate and solidify what the church has given up over the past 250 years.

And finally, a bit of satire: The oceanic bodies that cover the earth are home to the unique and prosperous Liberalius Ignoramious Christianius, or better known as the Evanjellyfish. As a result of their morphed evolution over the past 250 years, these one fierce predators have lost their thick skin, large brains, razor sharp teeth, as well as their ability to see clearly in the loss of their eyesight, and their eyes altogether. Instead, these spineless invertabreas swim carelessly and carefree around the seaweed reefs which tickle their transparent membranes as the cool currents shift by them and propel them toward sunny waters throughout each day. They mainly swim around minerally deficient waters, and like to congregate in large numbers – it seems they feel safe that way. They filter microscopic units of plankton found throughout the seawater for food. They are unable to eat the meat they once hunted since their loss of ability to spot food from miles away. Now they float helplessly around reefs that contain little if anything to eat that is of substance. Strangely, they have multiplied, and continue to multiply into millions in any one locale, but they often remain small and of no consequence individually to the great barrier reefs from which they emerged. Even in great numbers, they no longer make a ripple in the currents they once occupied. Instead, when a predator such as a humpback whale swims by, they are gobbled up for food without any form of retaliation. Hopefully, theological evolution will deal them a better hand in the future. It has been reported of late that some of the large scale theologica bookis wormis or Giant Theological Sea Worms have been seen floating around masses of Evanjellyfish. However, it seems the Evanjellyfish have been rejecting their interaction out rightly. More to come later…

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