Posted by: Steve | April 15, 2008

Liberal, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist?

On or about May 7, a group of evangelical leaders will publish a document to be called “An Evangelical Manifesto: The Washington Declaration of Identity and Public Commitment.”  Here are my thoughts on the material posted at the following address:  You can then choose to return here to read my thoughts or just read them in the comment section of that post.

It seems to me that the “Manifesto” may prove to be more of a watershed than it was intended to be.  Rather than advancing the idea that only a certain individual or group of individuals are entitled to speak for the evangelical community, it may reveal who is and is not really an evangelical.  Since the final document and its signatories are still somewhat enigmatic, it would be unfair to say which group is or is not evangelical. 


However, whatever definition of the term “evangelical” one uses, few would deny that it has historically identified a group unwilling to be labeled either “liberal” or “fundamentalist.”  The pejorative use of these two terms from the poles of the Christian community spectrum necessitated the “middle ground.” 


But, as is the case in many such definitions, the “middle ground” is shifting, or more accurately, widening. What we once called liberal now qualifies as evangelical, and “fundamentalists” have become increasingly marginalized as the Amish and more conservative Mennonite groups were in a previous century.  We have attached the word “legalism” to efforts mounted to stay the influence of the world on the church.  It reminds me of the little old lady who prayed, “Lord, forgive me.  I do so many things I used to call sin.”


I fear that rather than allowing the church to teach doctrine and inform lifestyle with Scripture, we have chosen to pressure the church into accepting both doctrines and lifestyle practices as normative that were soundly rejected by the previous generation.  In the interest of “personal freedom” we have torn down fences before we learned exactly why they were built.  Perhaps we have released an unthinkable beast on the church.  Personal choice has become the watchword, and hence the continual widening of what we call “evangelical.”


Nowhere is this better confirmed than in the findings of a recent survey among Roman Catholics in the USA pursuant to the Pope’s visit. The survey found that a high percentage of Catholics in our country feel that the Catholic Church is out of touch with their views.  This is to say that in the minds of those surveyed, the church’s value to their culture is diminished to the degree that it fails to capitulate to the shifting sands of their adjusted spiritual standards. 


Maybe it’s time we rethink the term “evangelical” and seek to find consensus on a practical definition of its boundaries. Only then will we know who can speak for that segment of the community.




  1. Good points, Steve!

    I am wondering if the term “evangelical” should just be done away with altogether. Right now, it seems to have no meaning; or rather, it seems to be used so loosely that it means little.

    It seems the word “Christian” has become loose in meaning, and now it’s happening to “evangelical,” so maybe we should just stick to “Christian” and try to keep that defined.

    With the influence of the culture and of the Emerging Church (or as they prefer, “Conversation”) on “evangelicals” today, I am not surprised we are seeing a more liberal wind in the so-called evangelical churches today, and among the leaders. This influence is tremendous, to the point that some of these Emerging leaders are universalists, inclusivists, or even panentheists. It’s just a matter of time before we see more and more “evangelical” leaders fall into this, imo.

    I don’t want to sound pessimistic but I think I am being realistic. I am not sure how to deflect these liberal blows except to stick to God’s word and to sound doctrine and to preach the gospel, an increasingly rare call to hear these days. In fact, “doctrine” is almost a dirty word now, usually linked to words like “rigid” or “dogmatic” so that there is no way to see it as a good thing.

  2. So true, thanks Steve!

    How about, ” Followers of Jesus”?!

    Fides Quaerens Intellectum

  3. good thoughts, good comments. i’m enjoying reading the various opinions here and there around the web. i had some hesitations and misgivings before reading the document, but i’m actually quite impressed and invigorated after taking in the whole of what it addresses.

    one of the things i like is that the authors have chosen not to list creationism and inerrancy as non-negotiables. for the first, there’s very little biblical justification anymore behind whatever the latest flavor of anti-natural-selection dessert is being served up; for the latter, somehow we can admit that we can’t prove the existence of God, but goshdarnit we have a golden egg this unprovable God laid right here. still, some people hold to these positions; so be it. there’s simply too much of a tendency to add items to the ever-increasing laundry list of ideas and doctrines to which we have to pledge allegiance before we’re allowed into the room marked “Christian.”

    nothing’s going to please everybody, and there are a few things i object to. for instance, i don’t agree with this statement: We Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally. Jesus’ message uses “action” verbs: teach them to DO as I have commanded you, LOVE God and LOVE your neighbor, by this will all men know … if you LOVE one another. any theology that defines us must have feet.

    i did, however, like these words: We are also troubled by the fact that the advance of globalization and the emergence of a global public square finds no matching vision of how we are to live freely, justly, and peacefully with our deepest differences on the global stage. somehow, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to peacefully share the same bathroom over the next few decades in our ever-shrinking world.

    one interesting thing: maybe i missed it, but there doesn’t seem to be a great emphasis on evangelism in this Evangelical Manifesto. do you think that was intentional? i didn’t see a single chick tract referenced in the bibliography…

    more than anything, i find myself motivated and energized by the very positive nature of the piece – that it isn’t yet another “here’s everything we’re against” rant but an effort to make the gospel again a message of good news. imagine that – the gospel being good news. American Christianity has lost this defining characteristic that once served it well.

    perhaps one unintended benefit of the proposal is a clear opportunity to take this EM (Evangelical Manifesto) and align it with the other EM (Emergent Manifesto) and finally have all our EM & EMs in a row without demonizing the other side.

    one can only hope…

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

  4. An insightful article:

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