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Uniters, Not Dividers

Why evangelicals need to redefine themselves and reform the whole church.

by Charles Colson and Timothy George


Just what is an evangelical, anyway? The picture painted by the media—especially now that it's election time again—is confused and often unflattering. From the infamous "poor, uneducated, and easy to command" label hung on us by The Washington Post years ago, to the perception that we are gay-hating political maniacs in the hip pocket of the Republican Party today, it's not hard to understand that we have an image problem—and that we've let others define us.

Of course, we ourselves are part of the problem. Like those well-intentioned activists who met at a Texas ranch to anoint one of the presidential candidates in the Republican primaries. Or the pair of evangelical professors who wrote an article in The New York Times, criticizing evangelical leaders for their "rejection of knowledge" and for embracing "discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas"—such as believing that homosexual behavior is sinful and that Darwin was wrong.

Perhaps it is time to step back and ask once again what an evangelical is.

It may seem that the word evangelical has been defined nearly to death, but a few answers bear repeating. First is Scottish historian David Bebbington's oft-quoted quadrilateral. Evangelicals, he says, can be recognized by these four traits: they are biblical Christians who proclaim the centrality of the Cross, emphasize the necessity of personal conversion, and do all of this with zealous activism.

Then there was Carl F. H. Henry's helpful use of the term "the evangelical church," by which he meant that coalition of Bible-believing, gospel-centered Christians that stood against Roman Catholicism (which seemed monolithic in the 1950s) and liberal Protestantism (which in those days was "mainline" in more than name only).

There have been other concerted attempts, such as the Evangelical Manifesto, to define evangelicalism (its theology, its positive, transdenominational nature) and to declare what it is not (a political movement, neither theologically liberal nor fundamentalist). Although these efforts contributed to the discussion, in the end they had little impact on the public and are relegated to search engines on the Internet.

One thing is clear: Serious evangelicals acknowledge certain "moments" that have decisively shaped our identity. First, we stand in continuity with the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church. Billy Graham once said that the teachings of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds were central to being an evangelical. We agree. (Chuck made this point in his book The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, and Timothy in his Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness.)

We best understand evangelicalism as a reform movement that seeks to strengthen and renew orthodox faith.Evangelicals also accept the formal and material principles of the Protestant Reformation. The authority and sufficiency of the Bible on one hand and justification by faith alone on the other are core evangelical beliefs. But we also joyfully recognize that the Spirit continued to breathe life into the church long after Luther and Calvin were gone. Puritanism, Pietism, and Pentecostalism are all historic expressions of the spiritual awakenings that decisively shaped and continue to direct the future of the worldwide evangelical movement. A movement, by the way, which truly is worldwide, given the dramatic rise of evangelical believers in the Global South. This demographic shift makes the global evangelical movement, along with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, one of three vital, resilient forces of 21st-century Christianity. 

As published in Christianity Today (April 2012).



Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship and Breakpoint. He wrote numerous books, and with Timothy George and Robert George, was one of the authors of the Manhattan Declaration. Mr. Colson passed away on April 21, 2012


Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today. He also serves as the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, a 28-volume series of sixteenth-century biblical comment forthcoming from InterVarsity Press.