In order to properly address the topic at hand, I believe a fuller definition of some of these key words (especially “evangelical” and “ecumenical”) is needed. Although “evangelical” has already been predefined as the so-called “Bebbington quadrilateral,” the word’s definition is as manifold as the word “liberal.”

One way of defining evangelical is the basic root meaning, coming from the Greek euangelion, or “good news.” By this definition, all that is required to be an evangelical is that one believes in the Gospel, or the Good News. However, it goes without saying that this is contingent on what one means by “Gospel.” Even liberation theologians call themselves “evangelical” by this definition.

Another way is to define “evangelical” according to geography. In Europe, historically “Evangelical” was a follower of Luther, as opposed to “Reformed” which implied following after Calvin.[1] In Latin America, “evangélico” means Protestant, as opposed to the majority Catholic population (i.e. all Protestants, whether liberal or conservative, are evangélicos[2]). An even more expansive definition includes Pentecostals into this equation.[3]

Thirdly, “evangelical” was coined as a moderate counter-term to fundamentalism. In the first half of the twentieth century, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy erupted, polarizing opposing camps. Moderates such as Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, in an attempt to distance themselves from fundamentalist extremism, used the term “evangelical” instead.[4] Out of this came some of America’s most prominent seminaries, such as Fuller and Gordon-Conwell.[5]

A fourth way to define “evangelical” is in opposition to the word “ecumenical.” Ironically, although “evangelical” was supposed to differentiate itself from fundamentalism, often in the media today “evangelical” is taken to mean “fundamentalist” (or at least “conservative”) while “ecumenical” has come to mean “liberal.”

However, this begs the question of what “ecumenical” really means. At its root meaning, the oikumene is the whole household or community of God. If we take the media definition of “ecumenical,” i.e. liberal Christians, that is no more “ecumenical” (taking in the whole community of God) than Lausanne is (consisting of “conservative” Christians). However, if we take “ecumenical” to mean spanning across denominations, then certainly Lausanne fulfills that quite well—Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, though admittedly Catholics and Orthodox were missing from the group. Thus Lausanne is an “ecumenical Protestant” gathering, if that can be a legitimate label, but not an “ecumenical Christian” gathering.

This brings me to the next point—regarding the vision of “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world,” I agree with the second and third points but not the first. As has been noted, without Catholics and Orthodox, it is impossible to have “the whole church,” unless of course one regards Catholics and Orthodox as not truly Christians. (I would not hold with that sentiment). I think that not only would the “whole church” not be possible, but given the sheer number of Catholics in this world (about twice as many as there are Protestants), I don’t even know if it is desirable (i.e. I would prefer a spread of evangelical theology to Roman Catholic doctrine. Even though I see Catholics as Christian, I believe they are misled in some respects, and I would not want some of that theology propagated).

So, in the final analysis, do I want to be evangelical? It depends on the definition. If that means being a Bible person, committed to the Gospel, then the answer would be definitely yes. If it means being “conservative” as opposed to “liberal,” I would have much more of a problem with it. A left-right social or political spectrum does not sit well with me, because too much baggage is implied in these terms—e.g. does being “right” imply voting Republican, supporting the war in Iraq, and not caring about the poor or the environment? Does being “left” necessarily mean being pro-choice, pro-homosexual marriage, and anti-religious?[6] Is it not reasonable to think that a Christian could be anti-war, pro-life, pro-social justice, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-environmental sustainability?[7] Finally, coming back to the starting definition, does being evangelical mean that I subscribe to the Bebbington Quadrilateral? Those traits are admirable and a good foundation, but one can believe in those four trademark characteristics and still not be an evangelical, by virtue of adding the wrong things rather than subtracting the right things (a problem of heterodoxical commission rather than omission). This is one of the reasons the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) has encountered some problems, because they define “evangelical” too sparingly,[8] thus allowing Clark Pinnock and others who subscribe to “Open theism” claim to be “evangelical” and remain in the ETS.

Many people, churches, and organizations now take the Lausanne Covenant as a more sophisticated definition of “evangelical” than the Bebbington Quadrilateral. Some missions organizations and church staffs even require a candidate to sign the Lausanne Covenant before they are taken on board with their particular ministry. I think the Lausanne Covenant articulates more fully what David Bebbington was getting at. It holds to Bibliocentrism but defines it. Anyone can say they subscribe to the Bible, and then twist Scripture to suit their agenda. However, the Lausanne Covenant starts with the Bible and shows how social justice, evangelism, and doxology all spring from its pages. It is a holistic theology, it is right theology (orthodoxy) and I think that it is as good a definition of “evangelical” as we have today.

After seeing people of many nations, many Protestant denominations, and many languages worshipping together at the Lausanne YLG in Malaysia, I’d like to believe that evangelicalism is alive and well. It is a wonderful thing to behold, but only if it maintains these multiple facets in balance, so that its inward health matches its outward exuberance.

Yes, I would want to be an “evangelical” if, practically and theologically, this is what it implies—great doctrine, great fellowship, great outreach, and great worship (encompassing the inward, outward, and upward aspects of our congregational life). Sadly, however, we too often see an imbalanced theology, and even people who call themselves “evangelical” can twist Scripture to their own agendas. We ought not to be content with being “Reformed,” but like Luther said, we should be semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Like an airplane, our course needs constant correction or we will stray. Perhaps evangelicalism is a path, a trajectory, with a goal in mind, that goal being Christ.[9] To be evangelical is to have God’s agenda in mind, not our own. If we have a theocentric vision, rather than an anthropocentric one, and are sincerely seeking God’s heart, we may well be on our way to truly being evangelical.


[1] Derek J. Tidball, Who Are the Evangelicals?: Tracing the Roots of Today’s Movements(London: Marshall Pickering, 1994), pp. 11-12: “Martin Luther, horrified that his followers were being called by his name but realizing that they needed to be called something more specific than Christians, made use of the term ‘evangelical’. He wrote, in 1522, of ‘this common evangelical cause’… This usage of the word is still current. Churches of the European Continent still call themselves Evangelical in the sense in which elsewhere we would speak of them as Protestant, or, to be more precise, that branch of Protestantism associated with Luther rather than with the Reformed emphasis of Calvin.”
[2] José Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. vii-viii: “I have been variously tagged a conservative, a revolutionary, a Barthian, a liberal, a catholic, a ‘moderate,’ and a liberationist. Probably there is truth in all of these. It is not for me to decide. However, when I do attempt to define myself in my innermost being, what ‘comes from within’ is that I am evangélico. It seems that it is in this soil that my religious life and ecclesiastical activity have been rooted throughout more than seventy years… [but] What does it mean to be evangélico? Moreover, what does it mean to be a contemporary Latin American evangélico?… In Latin America the word evangélico (or ‘evangelista,’ as ‘evangélicos’ are sometimes called) cover both ‘Protestant’ and ‘evangelical.’”
[3] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 63: “Across Latin America, the term evangélico refers indiscriminately to both Protestants and Pentecostals.”
[4] Tidball, pp. 67-72. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous (or infamous) 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” characterized the bitterness of this controversy.
[5] Both were headed by Harold J. Ockenga, the pastor of Park Street Church in Boston. See Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000).
[6] For a fuller elaboration of this, see Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004).
[7] Frankly, if someone held to all of these, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party would fit the bill!
[8] All that the ETS requires for its members is that they believe in the Trinity, and that the Bible is inerrant. According to the ETS website ( “The following doctrinal basis must be subscribed to by all members annually with the renewal of their membership in the Society. ‘The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.’”
[9] Orlando E. Costas, Predicación evangélica y teología hispana (San Diego, CA: Publicaciones de las Américas, 1982), p. 12: “The faith in this sense is not credo (a body of doctrine) but fiducia (full confidence) in Jesus Christ as the only and sufficient savior.” (my translation from the original Spanish: “La fe en este sentido no es credo (un cuerpo de doctrina) sino fiducia (confianza plena) en Jesucristo como el único y suficiente salvador.”)