Many people are mystified by “evangelicals.” It’s a word the average nonreligious person doesn’t often hear in the U.S. — except for when it is time to nominate another GOP presidential candidate. Then we hear about who those millions of “evangelicals” are supporting, always under the assumption that all evangelicals are into politics and all will support a Republican.
As an evangelical myself, this is just one of the many misunderstandings of evangelicals that drive me up the wall. It’s a problem I’ve tried to address in several of my books, most recently Evangelical Ethics (Westminster John Knox Press).
Let me take another brief crack at it here. I want to propose that there are four different kinds of evangelicals, or evangelicalism, yielding four very different results.
1. Doctrinal. Let’s call doctrinal evangelicals those who focus on believing, protecting, and proclaiming some version of traditional, orthodox Protestant Christianity. They tend to be most concerned about theological truth as they understand it. The great enemies of doctrinal evangelicals are those who compromise traditional Christian beliefs, such as belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the Virgin Birth, and the bodily resurrection. The main product of doctrinal evangelicals is theological declarations and the defense of evangelical theological boundaries.
2. Missionary. Let’s call missionary evangelicals those who focus on spreading the Christian message by word and deed. Some go around the world preaching and serving, but a broader missionary spirit is visible among many evangelicals who never leave their home country. They want people to know about Jesus Christ and to believe in him. They want to serve the world in Jesus’ name. The main worry of missionary evangelicals is that people might die never having heard or experienced the good news of Jesus. The main product of missionary evangelicals is preaching and serving, leading sometimes to conversions and social uplift.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. But they do represent very different flavors, or tendencies, among evangelicals.
Their core commitments take them in very different directions. If you meet an evangelical, never assume what they most care about or what their faith means to them. And never assume that the political activists gathering under the evangelical label represent all evangelicals. That is simply not true.