Thursday, 10 December 2015

Evangelicals and Evangelists

Every so often I become aware of the ongoing confusion about these and related words. It is one thing when the BBC, a Prime Minister or a quality newspaper gets it wrong, another when members of a Christian church or even a theological college mix them up. So here goes:

Evangel - the original lovely Greek word at the heart of it all. Good news - gospel - the happy message.  

Evangelism - the act of spreading this good news.  

Evangelist - a person who spreads this good news, and perhaps (as in Ephesians 4:11,12) someone who trains other Christians in spreading it.  Also used of the writers of the four New Testament books known as Gospels.   

Evangelistic - of or related to the spreading of the good news. Can be used by extension to humorously describe enthusiastic advocacy for other things: "He's very evangelistic about kale/UKIP/the films of Kaurismäki."

Evangelical - adjective - in its broadest sense, of or relating to the gospel. But as a technical/historical term in theology, evangelical has come to describe a particular stream of thought and practice which emphasises: the divine author behind the human authors of the Bible, and therefore the authority of Scripture; the atoning death of Jesus Christ as the unique, sufficient and complete sacrifice for sin; the universal debilitating effect of sin in humanity which necessitates an immediate transforming work of God by the Holy Spirit; the importance of the active spreading of the gospel and the living out of its values in home, workplace and wider society; and a steady and vivid consciousness of and looking for the return of Christ. Although this use of the term has its roots in the 18th century revivals, the theological emphases described go back further, being at the heart (for instance) of Puritan, Huguenot, Moravian and Reformation life. 

Evangelical - noun - a person who sees themselves as part of the theological stream described above. Evangelicals see those theological points as of critical importance and as being essential to "normal Christianity".

Note also:

Evangelisation - as evangelism, the spreading of the good news.  Less used these days, I think, but when it is used by evangelicals it tends to have a more strategic, large-scale or geographical connotation. "Through low-key, home-based evangelism, the church saw the effective evangelisation of the whole region." This word is also used more by Roman Catholics to describe the teaching of the gospel within the community of the church. 

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