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Defining the Evangelical

September 8, 2020
4 min read
Defining the Evangelical by Dr. John Neufeld | Back to the Bible Canada

I recently became aware of a 2017 survey done by Newsmax, listing what they considered to be the 100 most influential evangelical leaders in America. They included such political figures, such as Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. They included the anti-Trinitarian T.D. Jakes.  They included word faith teachers such as Paula White and Joel Osteen. They included some very good Bible teachers such as Tim Keller and Ravi Zacharias. The list included Tim Tebow, the American football player. Indeed, the list even included Roma Downey and Robert George, well known Roman Catholic’s. Glennon Doyle Melton, who made the list is an outspoken supporter of LBTQ and writes books for Oprah Winfrey.

I have been contemplating that list. As I was considering it, I found a response to it, written by Tim Challies. Challies thinks the criteria that Newsmax used for the list was how much influence these figures wield over American Christianity. Furthermore, Challies claims they chose people who shared a belief in the holiness of the Bible and the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ for their lives. Perhaps. But I think these people made the list primarily because they are well known. They are famous people, with influence, who also claim to be Christian. And in the mind of the public, this is the definition of an evangelical.

Here are my musings about this list.

  1. Consider the matter of evangelical leaders and politicians. Abraham Kuyper was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. It is right to think of Kuyper as a great evangelical leader because he was also a great theologian. He is still read in a great many circles today. But the list of modern political evangelical leaders presented in this list have left us with no theological writings. They are not Christian leaders in the sense that they are teaching people the faith. Challies is right. The conflation of evangelicalism with right-wing politics clearly betrays what many today think when they think of the evangelical movement. They think of a religio-political movement.
  2. I noticed that Jerry Falwell Jr. made the list. Again, that was in 2017. Now, in 2020, the sexual scandals that removed Falwell from his position as president of Liberty University are well known. And so, Falwell has become an easy target. But as the Falwell scandal deepens, the press is continuing to call him a major evangelical leader. But Falwell inherited his position from his father. Furthermore, Falwell Jr., as I understand it, had considerable administrative skills, launching the university to national prominence. Falwell Jr. was also noted for his outspoken political views. But, I have never read any theological article written by Falwell, nor have I ever seen him cited in any biblical study. In short, he gave no leadership in furthering the gospel. Again, we are left to ponder what we mean when we speak of evangelical leaders.
  3. Given that there are a number of false teachers on the list, I conclude that in the minds of the public, evangelicalism is not a theological movement. Indeed, it is fair to say, that many of the people on that list could not have made a list of evangelicals from a previous era. What is meant by evangelicalism today, and what was meant by evangelicalism in the time of the reformation, or during the time of the great revivals in the 1700s is simply not the same. When General Motors was attempting to revive the Oldsmobile, they put out an advertisement that said, “This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say, “This is not your Father or Mother’s Evangelicalism.” What does Creflo Dollar have in Common with Charles Haddon Spurgeon?  Nothing!

It seems to me, there is a crying need to rediscover what is meant by the term “Evangelical”. And we need to distinguish the difference between the new evangelical (the neo-evangelical), and the historical evangelical.

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