Who is an "evangelical"?
Evangelicals holding inclusive views on human sexuality and relationships are often told they are not/are no longer/ never actually were, 'evangelicals' by those who disagree with them. So who, or what, is an evangelical? The question is surfacing strongly since the publication of the signed Open Letter by Inclusive Evangelicals. Mark Vasey-Saunders has made an extensive study of this varied and often conflicted tradition. In this timely article he explores the various ways the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’ have been understood within the Church of England, and what the terms might mean today.
Mark teaches Doctrine, Advanced Christian Ethics and Mission Entrepreneurship at St Hild, Sheffield. His doctorate was on ‘Evangelical responses to homosexuality’. He is the author of Defusing the Sexuality Debate: The Anglican Evangelical Culture War (SCM 2023). It is required reading for any wishing to understand better the background to the presents tensions in this tradition.
The terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’ are highly contested in today’s debates over sexuality, and this is partly because in the late 20th and early 21st centuries evangelicalism in the Church of England (and more broadly in pan-Atlantic evangelicalism) has been locked in a cultural crisis part of which revolves around the question of what constitutes genuine evangelical identity. In a context of church decline, where church and society were visibly moving further apart from each other, evangelicals have sought to maintain unity whilst simultaneously developing different (and ultimately opposed) strategies for responding to modernity. Those seeking to maintain unity within an increasingly diverse evangelical constituency have fiercely contested the right to define what an evangelical identity is.
Much of this has a historical root. In the first half of the twentieth century there was an acrimonious split between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ evangelicals. The last echoes of this are still audible in university settings in the form of the opposition between the older SCM (Student Christian movement) and the now more dominant UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). UCCF had its origins as a conservative splinter group from SCM - an evangelical student ministry that was perceived to have lost its gospel focus and ‘gone liberal.’ SCM (and early 20th century ‘liberal evangelicals’ in general) have long since dropped the label ‘evangelical’, thus confirming the conservative evangelical suspicion that they were never really true evangelicals in the first place. The (on the face of it rather bizarre) fear that evangelical ministries and institutions might be somehow infiltrated by liberals pretending to be evangelicals (necessitating such groups deploying a carefully worded doctrinal basis in order to filter out any bogus evangelicals) derives from this deep-seated cultural memory.
The fact that definitions of evangelicalism (in the form of doctrinal bases of faith) are explicitly used as means of imposing certain forms of unity on a diverse constituency means that any attempt to define what evangelicalism is becomes highly political. Most conservative evangelicals prefer to define evangelicalism primarily in relation to a set of doctrinal convictions. Most charismatic evangelicals and progressive evangelicals feel uncomfortable with this to varying degrees – charismatics because doctrinal bases generally make no reference to the spiritual experience and practice that they instinctively understand to be central to their identity, and progressive evangelicals because conservatives instinctively tend to draw up their doctrinal definitions in a way that seems constrictively narrow, exclude others, and are often focused around largely irrelevant theological debates of the past.
The Polemical Use of Definitions of Evangelicalism
Examples of the polemical use of definitions of evangelicalism by late 20th century evangelicals are not difficult to find. One would be Reform leader David Holloway’s ‘What is an Anglican Evangelical?’ Holloway, drawing on the work of George Marsden, the American religious historian, argues that evangelical identity has three distinct senses: assent to a set of doctrines, association with a historical tradition, and membership of evangelical parachurch organisations. Difficulties arise when people are not evangelical in all three senses. Clearly Holloway has in mind here open or progressive evangelicals who are members of evangelical organisations, associate themselves with an evangelical tradition, and yet would not hold to tightly defined sets of evangelical doctrinal beliefs such as those in the Church Society Statement of Faith. This is typical of attempts by conservative evangelicals to establish definitions that make open evangelicals into non-evangelical liberals. Although the relative doctrinal conservatism of charismatic evangelicals makes it harder to ‘disinherit’ them in this fashion, conservative evangelical definitions tend not to emphasise spiritual experience, spiritual gifts, or the expectation of revival, all key components of a charismatic identity. This gives the impression that charismatics are therefore a variant of evangelical who hold to some unusual beliefs in addition to standard evangelical doctrine. Given the strong emphasis on spiritual experience in early Methodism and the birth of modern evangelicalism, this understanding is at the least misleading.
Open evangelical definitions tend, by contrast, to be wide enough to include any who choose to describe themselves as evangelical, creating the impression that conservative evangelicals are artificially imposing restrictions on a term whose objective content is broad (or perhaps so negotiable as to be effectively non-existent). An example of the polemical use of a wide definition would be Graham Kings’ watercourses analogy in the early 2000s, in which he sets out three groups – the river (open evangelicals), canal (conservative evangelicals), and rapids (charismatic evangelicals).  The incidental aspects of his analogy betray the polemical intent – the rapids are powerful but perhaps dangerous, and certainly not for all, the canal is direct but narrow and unyielding, whereas the river is broad and natural, following the contours of the world around it. Open evangelicals, far from an aberration, are therefore presented as the ‘natural’ form of evangelicalism, with conservatives implicitly seen as an innovatory development from it.
Bases of faith, such as that of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) or UCCF, are the best-known forms of evangelical self-definition . As mentioned above, these have their origins in the conflict between conservative and liberal evangelicals at the beginning of the twentieth century. The intention of such doctrinal definitions has always been to define evangelicalism (or a particular strand of it) in contradistinction to other traditions of Christianity. Some of these definitions are therefore made deliberately narrow for polemical reasons, and effectively ‘disinherit’ many who would describe themselves as evangelical. It is notable that there has been an observable move towards tightening the boundaries of such doctrinal definitions of evangelical identity under the pressure of the sexuality debate. The Church of England Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) decision to change its basis of faith to include an affirmation of marriage as between a man and a woman (never before seen as a marker of evangelical identity) is an example of this. Rob Warner’s extensive study of bases of faith throughout the late 20th century makes it clear how doctrinal definitions are battlefields of internal warfare in evangelicalism between liberal and conservative:
in the post-liberal context of the late twentieth century, progressive and neo-conservative evangelicalism increasingly defined themselves over against one another... Each to the other has become the enemy within, to be disputed if not disowned.
Caution must be exercised here, then, in turning to such evangelical self-definitions as a tool of analysis, as they are clearly expressions of political positioning, deliberately designed to exclude and disinherit those who before the statement was adopted would have unproblematically been recognised as evangelical.
One simple way of attempting to avoid polemical definitions is to deploy the definitions used by historians, using a more general categorisation to trace a historical movement that can be fairly non-controversially described as evangelical. (So in terms of English evangelicalism the tradition of Wesley, Wilberforce and Stott). Evangelicals would therefore be those who can trace their inheritance to this tradition. Unsurprisingly, this approach has characterised much academic study of evangelicalism, which tries to steer clear of contemporary political struggles. The most widely-used of these definitions is that developed by David Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, typically referred to as the quadrilateral: activism (principally in evangelism), biblicism (the Bible as the source of authority), conversionism (the need for a personal conversion), and crucicentrism (a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross). On this basis Bebbington identifies evangelicalism with a network of Protestant Christian movements arising from the eighteenth century in Great Britain and its colonies.
Clearly a historical definition like this is very congenial to more open evangelicals, who can identify their heritage within a historical tradition, but less so to conservative evangelicals like Holloway, for whom this satisfies only one of his three linked identifiers of evangelicalism. Unsurprisingly, then, Bebbington’s historical definition has been challenged explicitly and implicitly for polemical reasons. Others wish to stress the continuities between evangelicalism and earlier Protestantism for less clearly polemical reasons. J.I. Packer represents a conservative strand in evangelicalism that has always emphasised the Puritan heritage of evangelicalism, largely in an attempt to encourage a degree of spiritual depth in evangelicals, though without seeking to efface the distinction Bebbington has established between the two. John Stott tended to downplay any sense of evangelical distinctiveness whatsoever, making the bold claim that evangelicalism is essentially New Testament apostolic Christianity, an argument made largely for ecumenical reasons – highlighting that other Christian traditions share many of the same emphases, and that evangelicalism contains no truths as its own exclusive possession. This sense that evangelicals are just ‘normal Christians’ is actually fairly widespread within evangelicalism, but often has the paradoxically anti-ecumenical effect of making evangelicals see themselves as representing ‘default Christianity’. This results in a perception that other Christian traditions are somehow departures from a pure gospel faith.
The quadrilateral has also been criticised in academic circles for omitting or misrepresenting certain evangelical distinctives. The comparative lack of emphasis on the work of the Spirit has been particularly highlighted as evangelicalism as a whole has become more charismaticised. Mark Noll offers a rather more fluid statement of the quadrilateral in his essay ‘Revolution and the Rise of Evangelical Social Influence in North Atlantic Society’, where he gives a more dynamic description of evangelicalism as a form of biblical experientialism expressed in a bias against inherited institutions, an extraordinary flexibility in regard to ideas concerning intellectual, social, political and economic life, and a practice of discipline, leading to a conviction that the gospel requires social healing and personal holiness. He notes that there has been considerable diversity within evangelicalism, making precise doctrinal formulations suspect, but that it has always been characterised by a looking to scripture as the bedrock of authority and a conviction that true religion required active experience of God. This description of evangelicalism primarily as a spirituality - a way of being Christian - (rather than as a historical doctrinal movement that has certain emphases) includes much that Bebbington would seek to capture with his quadrilateral, whilst downplaying the significance of particular doctrinal formulations. It is a key part of Bebbington’s analysis of evangelicalism in modern Britain that evangelical distinctives, whilst remaining constant if viewed in more abstract terms, have been expressed in different and sometimes contradictory patterns of behaviour in different periods as evangelicalism has transformed itself to express its distinctive tradition in different cultural modes. Noll’s statement that evangelicalism expresses itself in ‘extraordinary flexibility’ in regard to intellectual, social, political and economic life gives this aspect of evangelicalism considerable prominence. Such an approach is very helpful in interpreting periods of cultural upheaval such as the present, where different evangelical groupings may be guided by the same sociological distinctives to act in very different (sometimes contradictory) ways, a phenomenon that can easily be misinterpreted as one grouping ceasing to be evangelical.
I would suggest, following Noll, that evangelicalism is best understood as a spiritual tradition of biblical experientialism expressed in a multitude of different intellectual, social and political ideas, but which is always characterised by a practice of discipline and a conviction that the gospel requires transformation of self and society. In a period of cultural change like the present it is to be expected that different forms of evangelicalism, suggesting different theologies, different evaluations of the current age, and different patterns of life, would coexist. It is very likely that in due course some of these will be revealed to be false starts, or pathways leading out of evangelicalism into something else. The fact is that this is what has occurred within evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century. Evangelicalism in England experienced a renaissance in the sixties and seventies that was in part expressed in a diversification of evangelical identity - something not entirely acknowledged at the time. In many ways we are still coming to terms with the legacy of this extraordinarily creative period. In retrospect it is clear that:
a) J.I. Packer, with his vision of a non-charismatic evangelicalism that sought to rediscover its Puritan heritage,
b) John Stott, with his vision of a broad church evangelicalism that would in time come to embrace charismaticism and held social activism and evangelism together, and
c) David Watson, with his vision of a charismatic evangelicalism that embraced the creative arts,
all represented slightly different visions of what it meant to be a modern evangelical. As the twentieth and twenty first centuries have unfolded these different visions have continued to develop and cross-fertilise, though at times without much explicit acknowledgement. This process of proliferation in evangelical identities has been traced by Rob Warner.
Warner and the tribes of evangelicalism
Warner advances a significant critique of Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a way of understanding the current state of evangelicalism. He notes that Bebbington’s definition, in common with most of the forms of definition we have so far examined, acts as a static statement of values, not a theological matrix. By setting out to define evangelicalism over-against other groupings, it de-emphasises distinctions and conflicts within evangelicalism itself. Drawing on Marsden, Warner argues that the core values of evangelicalism as identified by Bebbington and others act in practice as competing priorities, being elaborated and combined in different ways by different groupings, creating internecine rivalry. Evangelicals will tend to emphasise some aspects of their tradition and de-emphasise others, forming distinct tribal identities. He therefore proposes what might be described as a cartographical definition – mapping out the internal landscape of evangelicalism around these competing priorities in belief and practice, highlighting tensions and diversity and allowing interaction, alliances, splits, mergers and conflicts between various ‘tribes’ to be discussed with ease.
Warner follows in the tradition of the sociologist Max Weber in speaking of distinct historical traditions within evangelicalism that have created the contemporary map, and in particular in the footsteps of James Davison Hunter who used Weber’s categorisation of traditions of Protestantism in his study of evangelicalism. Warner argues that historically the emergence of particular movements and reaction to them both has merged and drawn apart these traditions, creating a varied and fragmented situation by the end of the twentieth century. For ease of analysis, Warner then groups the seven most mainstream of these into three ‘meso paradigms’: progressives, cautiously open conservatives, and exclusivists, which should be understood as a continuum, moving from liberal to conservative in regard to doctrine. J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson would be good representatives of the exclusivists. John Stott or Nicky Gumbel would be good representatives of the cautiously open conservatives (notably in the way both their ministries are more focused on activism than matters of doctrine, though both were ultimately conservative on sexuality). Although there is no single dominant voice, figures such as Steve Chalke, Graham Cray or N.T. Wright (in some respects – notably Wright is conservative on sexuality) might be representatives of the progressives.
Having made this primarily historical/cartographical classification, Warner then gives it depth by uniting it with his ‘competing emphases’ approach to Bebbington’s quadrilateral. This allows the distinct emphases of each tradition to become clear, making the tensions between them more apparent. He identifies two competing axes: the first is a conversionist-activist axis, which has become focused on organisations, programmes, and developing an entrepreneurial approach aimed at securing measurable success. This grouping, which he describes as ‘charismatic entrepreneurialism’, is marked by pragmatism and a pan-evangelical vision and has been the primary force behind the growth of the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest, and Alpha. Its origins lie in anabaptist, holiness and conversionist traditions. The second is a biblicist-crucicentric axis, which has become focused on doctrine and engaging with theological challenges and is suspicious of the pragmatism and fixation on success that marks the other axis. Following Keele this axis has split between progressive and exclusivist groupings. Its origins lie in the Reformed tradition. Warner argues that the biblicist-crucicentric axis dominates the extremes of his liberal-conservative continuum, characterising both progressives and exclusivists, whereas the conversionist-activist axis dominates the centre to centre-left, characterising the cautiously open conservatives.
Although the axes dominate these sections of the continuum, they are not identical to them – there are conversionist-activists at both ends of the spectrum and Biblicist-crucicentrics in the centre. My own research confirms this. In fact I would argue that the situation has become even more polarised and fractured than it was in Warner’s analysis. There is increasingly little acknowledged space for those in the centre ground, (who might, for example, be personally conservative on sexuality yet willing to accept those taking inclusive positions as being validly evangelical.) The pressure of the sexuality debate has forced those who might previously have been centrist figures who avoided making potentially divisive statements into declaring for one side or another. CEEC’s move into being the coordinating group for campaigning against moves towards inclusion within the Church of England is symptomatic of this.
In the light of all this, it is important to recognise the inherent fragility in contemporary evangelical groupings and alliances. Despite the strength of rhetoric from groups such as CEEC around definitions of evangelicalism, evangelicalism has rarely been more fractured and multi-faceted than it is today. Within any evangelical congregation there are likely to be a mixture of neo-calvinist exclusivists driven to hold the church to correct doctrine, charismatic activists who ultimately focus more on the leading of the Spirit than splitting doctrinal hairs, progressive evangelical social activists campaigning on issues ranging from climate change to homelessness, missionally-minded radicals who are willing to rethink their faith to relate to modern culture, and socially-conservative political activists. The fact that within this breadth of expression of evangelical identity there are also those committed to an inclusive position on sexuality should be no surprise to anyone.
 David Holloway, ‘What is an Anglican Evangelical?’ in Melvyn Tinker (ed.), Restoring the Vision: Anglican Evangelicals speak out (Eastbourne: Monarch, 1990), 15-37. Reform was a conservative evangelical group that formed in 1992 in opposition to the ordination of women. It has since merged with the Church Society.  https://www.churchsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Church-Society-Declaration-2022.pdf  Graham Kings, ‘Canal, River and Rapids: Contemporary Evangelicalism in the Church of England’, in Anvil 20:3 (2003), 167-184.  For an example see the UCCF basis of faith: www.uccf.org.uk/about/doctrinal-basis  Rob Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007) 149-233, 228.  Mark Noll et al. (eds.), Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 6; David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain(London: Routledge, 2003), 2-19.  See for example Gary J. Williams, ‘Was Evangelicalism created by the Enlightenment?’ Tyndale Bulletin 53:2 (2002), 283-312.  J.I. Packer, The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem: An analysis (Oxford: Latimer House, 1978), 5-6.  John Stott, Evangelical Truth – A personal plea for unity, integrity and faithfulness (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 10-11, 16-18. See also Davie, ‘Evangelicals and their heritage’, in Iain Taylor, (ed.), Not Evangelical Enough! – The Gospel in the Centre (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003), 1-28.  George M Marsden, Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), ix-x; John G. Stackhouse (ed.), Evangelical Futures: A conversation on theological method (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 42; Ian Randall and David Hilborn, One Body in Christ: The history and significance of the Evangelical Alliance (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001).  Mark A. Noll ‘Revolution and the Rise of Evangelical Social Influence’, in Noll et al (eds.), Evangelicalism, 113-136.  Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain.  As in James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).  Warner, Reinventing, 19-20.  George Marsden, Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).  Max Weber, trans. Talcott Parsons, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 95-154; Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 7-9; Warner, Reinventing, 239-243.  Warner argues that there are now seven distinct ‘micro-paradigms’ sharing a pan-evangelical identity. Warner, Reinventing, 240.  Warner, Reinventing, 229-30.  Warner, Reinventing, 234-243.  Here Warner is adapting the classification of evangelical traditions advocated by Hunter in American Evangelicalism to a UK context.  The National Evangelical at Keele in 1967, chaired by John Stott, was the decisive moment Evangelicals in the Church of England repented of isolationist behaviour and committed themselves to full involvement in the life of the church. Stott created the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) to coordinate evangelical agencies and organisations to that end.  Warner, Reimagining, 229. See my research on this in Mark Vasey-Saunders The Scandal of Evangelicals and Homosexuality (London: Routledge, 2015). In recent years this centre ground that sees a place for both progressives and exclusivists within evangelicalism has become increasingly untenable.