Christian terminology can be confusing even to Christians. We have a tendency to use words that aren’t part of the everyday vernacular of most people and sometimes we don’t even agree on what they mean!
When the word evangelical entered the conversation at our dinner table recently, a non-Christian guest asked what it meant. I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t readily come up with a clear and concise definition off the top of my head.
Then came the media reports of unprecedented flooding when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast of Texas forcing more than 30 000 people from their homes and leaving the area in a devastating state of emergency. When it came to light that Lakewood Church, one of the largest churches in the United States, pastored by televangelist Joel Osteen, allegedly refused to open their doors to hurricane victims seeking shelter, the media had a heyday. Mainstream and social media immediately began to paint all evangelical Christians with the same brush. Ignoring the fact that hundreds of them were, in fact, slogging through the mud and water striving to bring help and hope where it was so badly needed, evangelicals everywhere were suddenly uncaring hypocrites.
Please don’t get me wrong! If Lakewood Church did, in fact, turn a blind eye to those in dire need, they acted in a most unChristlike manner and deserve no one’s sympathy. Personally, due to conflicting news reports, I have no idea what really happened at Lakewood or why. I do know that I have problems with Joel Osteen’s theology as he preaches what is often referred to as the “prosperity gospel” or “health and wellness gospel” which teaches that that financial blessing and physical well-being will always come to those who have enough faith. This could not be further from the message of the Bible. Rather than guaranteeing them a life of ease, Christ told his followers that “In this life you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) If wealth was a legitimate goal for the Christian, Jesus would have pursued it himself. Instead, he was a poor itinerant teacher with “no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) In fact, the only disciple who concerned himself with financial wealth was Judas Iscariot.
I am not here, however, to defend or attack Lakewood Church or their pastor. I simply want to correct my own shortcoming and ensure that from now on when I use a term like evangelical, I know for sure what I’m talking about and can clearly communicate it to someone else!
So what exactly is an evangelical Christian?
Christian is the easy part. The term, first used in Acts 11:26, simply means a follower of Jesus Christ. But what makes us evangelicals?
That term comes from the Greek “euangelion” which means good news. An evangelical Christian, then, is simply a follower of Christ who believes that it is important to tell others the good news that through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins and that by his resurrection, he conquered death and provides everlasting life to all who follow him. It is a message of divine intervention; a message of hope for mankind who, no matter how hard we try, cannot save ourselves.
In the public arena, however, the phrase evangelical Christian is used in different ways, some of them derogatory. For some, it is simply a title used to differentiate between Christian denominations. Generally speaking, evangelical denominations are those that believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that individual believers must accept Christ’s gift of salvation for themselves and enter into a personal relationship with God. For others, the term is equivalent to “wing nut”, “intolerant extremist”, or “right-wing, fundamentalist Republican”. There is no doubt that holding to the fundamentals of the Bible will result in a certain worldview, but being an evangelical Christian most definitely does not demand allegiance to a specific political party!
In reality, all Christians should be evangelical Christians; tellers of good news! The Bible very clearly instructs us “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)