Unlike his predecessor once removed, Tony Blair, David Cameron has decided that he does indeed ‘do God.’ One of the big news stories this week has been the reporting of his piece in the Church Times where he writes about the need for greater confidence in Britain’s status as a Christian nation.
I’ll let the political pundits opine in detail about the political implications of the content and timing of the Prime Minister’s comments, while I zone in on one word he used: evangelical.
I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.
British Christians, at least the Anglican ones who read the Church Times, ought to be more evangelical about their faith.
What does it mean to be evangelical? And, to use the word as a noun rather than an adjective, what is an Evangelical?
A short answer ought to take us back to the biblical concept of gospel, or good news. For that is our English translation of the Greek from which the word evangelical is derived. It has to do with the euangellion – the good news.
To be evangelical is to be someone with good news to tell. So when Mr Cameron talks about Christians being more evangelical about their faith, I guess he means they should not be afraid to put it out there in the public square.
But to take the issue a bit further, what is an Evangelical? What is Evangelicalism? How might it relate to other non-evangelical forms of Christianity?
It can be tricky to nail these questions down. Evangelicalism is more a movement than a monolithic organisation. It is not a single denomination of Christianity, say like Baptist or Methodist; instead it transcends denominational boundaries. There is no universally recognised (human) central authority, either in terms of organisational structure or in terms of a widely recognised and appropriately appointed leader. True, there are organisations – such as the Evangelical Alliance in the UK that seek to operate as rallying points, but neither you nor your church needs to be part of EA to be an evangelical.
Nor is there a single style or variety of Evangelical. They may be charismatic or reformed (sometimes both), conservative or progressive; which means that there will be a variety of views and positions on certain issues of doctrine and practice, for example on the role of women in the church.
Then there are issues such as the socio/political phenomenon of ‘the Evangelical Right’ in America; and when you go beyond the borders of the English language, you find in certain parts of Europe that the word has been used practically as a synonym for Protestant.
To get an idea of the worldwide reach and vision of the movement, you could do worse than explore the Lausanne movement (it’s 40 years ago this summer since the first Lausanne Congress which resulted in the Lausanne Covenant).
About 25 years ago, Alistair McGrath (one of Britian’s best known evangelical theologians) listed half a dozen ‘evangelical fundamentals’:
- The supreme authority of Scripture
- The majesty of Jesus Christ
- The lordship of the Holy Spirit
- The need for personal conversion
- The priority of evangelism
- The importance of the Christian community
Meantime, the late John Stott wrote, in Trinitarian style, about
- The revelation of God
- The cross of Christ, and
- the ministry of the Holy Spirit
Let’s pick up again on the link between evangelical and good news.
To understand evangelicalism we have to return to the centrality of the good news: which means an emphasis on who Jesus Christ is and what God has done through him, in particular through the events of his death and resurrection. While this is core, the hub of the matter, it does not stand alone. Without an authoritative voice of revelation of God and his plan in Scripture, we are left to ourselves to make sense of some mysterious (and debated) events from 2000 years ago; and without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, inspiring and leading into all truth, we have no Scripture (or understanding of it). And once the significance of the good news dawns on us, it carries with it an incentive and a responsibility to tell others.
As it happens, today is Good Friday and this is Easter weekend. The events marked this weekend are at the heart of the Christian faith. Which I guess makes it a good weekend to reflect on what it means to be evangelical.