Why Being "An Evangelical" Today is Complicated

Clair MacMillan, National Director of the Church of the Nazarene in Canada recently published a characterization of what it is to be “evangelical” in Canada (HT: Bill Jones):

Evangelical Christianity begins with the biblical assumption that God loves all people equally and throughout history has been advocating for their well being. It asserts that God hates violence, oppression, manipulation and dishonesty and seeks human co-operation in improving his creation. It is deeply and radically optimistic regarding God’s purposes and human potential. Not all people who profess to be evangelical act as if they believe this; nevertheless…

You should read the rest of the brief editorial/essay for yourself but this paragraph captures well the lens through which MacMillan reads redemptive history. It is part liberation theology and part 19th-century liberalism. According to MacMillan, the “evangel is that God wants to liberate the oppressed. Now, that’s true if “oppressed” is taken metaphorically to represent those who oppressed by sin and divine judgment but that’s not quite the picture of the evangelical message that MacMillan is offering. His account has next to nothing to do with law, sin, judgment, salvation from the righteous wrath of God, or justification before God on the basis of the obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ imputed to believing sinners.

His main aim seems to be to assure the ruling elite in Canada that the real “evangelicals” are no threat to the existing socio-political order. He appears to be trying to offer a counter-weight to the “Christian Right” in Canada. His definition of “evangelical” then is in service to a social agenda.

One fears that this way of defining “evangelical” and the evangel itself is not a minority view any longer. This is just what one finds in the leading emergent writers (e.g., Brian McLaren). The remarkable thing is, as suggested above, that it is virtually indistinguishable from the account of Christianity given by liberals since before the turn of the 20th century. This rhetorical and theological coalescence says much about the nature of North American evangelicalism since the late 18th century.  The short story is that pietism virtually always leads to liberalism. If Christianity is reduced to a certain kind of religious experience it is a short and easy step to divorce Christianity from the teaching of Scripture and objective redemptive history. Many of the great German liberals had pietist parents. Today’s emergent leaders are simply 19th-century pietists with pony tails and coffee tables.

Yes, Christians must engage the culture and the civil realm and they must do so as Christians and yes, she’s correct that the early, pre-Constantinian Christians weren’t transformationalists. They were largely outside the corridors of power but they also preached a message of sin, redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the glory of the Triune God, the two-natures of Christ, and the bodily return of Christ to make right the cosmic disorder created by sin, which is rebellion against a holy God.

If “evangelical” = what evangelicals have said since 1973, then confessional Reformed folk aren’t “evangelicals.” If “evangelical”= the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (the immediate encounter with God or the risen Christ), then no, we aren’t “evangelicals.” If, however, “evangelical” = those who proclaim the glorious message of the free salvation and justification through the obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ, received by grace alone, through faith alone, then yes, we are most certainly evangelical. The use of the adjective, however, is much more complicated that it was just 40 years ago and we need to pay attention to that fact as we seek to define our identity against the backdrop of the broad evangelical canvass in North America.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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9 comments

  1. I just don’t use the term. Haven’t for quite some time; it’s repelling.

    I just say “I’m a Confessional Anglican.”

    If I were Reformed (noun), I’d say “Confessional Reformed.” This distinquishes them from liberals as well as churches claiming the term “Reformed” but are not–in fact– confessional by way of subscription or catechetical instruction.

    I always say “Confessional Lutherans” to distinquish them from the liberal Lutherans (E?CA).

    But “Evangelical” as a noun? Never. In fact, I run the other way. It’s a matter of health. Most of them have sectarian roots; most are Re-baptizers.

    As a Confessional Churchman, the message is indubitably “evangelical,” but not in the non-Confessional sense of this “American alphabet soup.” (A Nazarene? They’re Arminians and Wesleyans.)

  2. “Today’s emergent leaders are simply 19th-century pietists with pony tails and coffee tables.”

    If there is one thing your critics cannot knock you for Dr. Clark, it is your sharp wit. Really enjoyed this 🙂

  3. I thought I had reached the age when I could no longer be shocked. Boy, was I wrong!

    NOW may be the time to drop the term “evangelical” entirely. When someone uses the warmed-over language of liberation theology to describe what it means to be an”evangelical,” we may already be beyond any meaningful use of the term.

    Personally, I’ll continue to default to “orthodox, confessional, Reformed Protestant” to describe myself. It’s not the fault of others that they don’t understand what it means; it’s my responsibility to explain it to them.

  4. I don’t know, Frank. The word “catholic” has at least as much baggage, but I’m not wild about dropping either of the terms entirely. I mean, to be Reformed, amongst other things, means to be evangelical and catholic. It’s likely a matter of nouns and adjectives.

  5. What a gracious response from D P Veitch! I am one of these ‘sectarian rebaptizers.’ Three times in Acts the church is referred to as a sect by the Jews -a title being used pejoratively of believers by those opposed to the gospel and who belonged to the religious establishment. I trust Dr Veitch doesn’t align himself with such.

    I agree with the concerns about ‘Evangelical’. It is a great pity for in its day ‘evangelical’ was a noble word reflecting a noble effort to encompass all true believers. In this sense it was properly non-sectarian.However, I find titles like ‘Confessional Anglican’ or ‘Confessional Reformed’ sectarian in the worst sense – they divide real Christian from real Christian along denominational lines. Moreover, they smell of a divisive ‘I am of Paul’ mentality.

    Of course, the sooner the church recognises that in terms of the world the church is a sect the better. Christendom is gone. The church is on the periphery of civil life, where it started out. Arguably ‘sectarian rebaptizers’ are nearer to the infant church than those who have as head of the church the head of a civil State.

    Besides, there is something richly ironic in an Anglican describing non-confessional evangelicals as an ‘alphabet soup’.

    • 1. Thank you. Rarely am I commended for my graciousness, as you’ve done. Although, I think Dr. Clark far exceeds my graciousness. Thank you for your gracious commendation.
      2. I am not a Dr.
      3. I shall continue to maintain that Anabaptists and Baptists were and remain sectarian. You’ll have to either (1) adjust your theology to avoid the charge by me or (2) adjust to being called that.
      4. Further, Baptists would be welcome to attend were I a Rector, but upon impenitence in counselling, the Lord’s Cup would be withheld.
      5. You judge Confessional Anglicanism by its Western, chaotic (and they are), liberal expressions. That would be like judging Dr. Clark’s and Westminster’s theology by liberal Presbyterians. That dawg ain’t gonna hunt. I would suggest you learn alot more about Anglicanism before making further assertions.

      • “Baptists would be welcome to attend were I a Rector, but upon impenitence in counselling, the Lord’s Cup would be withheld.”

        Interesting, as this is one of the most common complaints leveled against Baptists in accusing them of being sectarians…

      • Mr. Veitch,

        I suggest you look at Scott’s post above on the “Why I became a Catholic.” His terse response is that the author of the video has a Catholic theology of glory in the here and now, and not a theology of the cross in the here and now. I couldn’t agree more.

        Your statement to John Thomson smacks of a practical and ecclesiastical theology of glory realized now: “You’ll have to either (1) adjust your theology to avoid the charge by me or (2) adjust to being called that.” Of course, we could simply say you are being direct and realistic. But the history of the Anglicans, and the posture of an ecclesial superiority over John is redolent of a more intolerant and narcissistic love of one’s confessional glory in the here and now.

        You have also dismissed his comments as those borne out of ignorance, thus avoiding their substance. Yet your Lord has said, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

  6. Just keep piling on the terms. For example:

    “I am a Presbyterian Evangelical Calvinist of the old Covenanter Reformed Church of Scotland.” (John G. Paton)

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