Understanding “Evangelical” Part Four: Where I Fit In

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, October 21, 2021

Understanding “Evangelical” Part Four: Where I Fit In

*Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part blog series. Be sure to read the first installment here, the second installment here and the third installment here.

Before we get to the fifth and final installment in this series, which speaks directly to the tumult surrounding the use of the term “Evangelical” at the present moment, it seemed appropriate to pause a bit to speak to where I fit in personally with all of this. In other words, it’s time I tell you who I am. Or at least who I have been until the term “Evangelical” has been seemingly hijacked to mean something it never has before. 

To date, I have been a card-carrying Evangelical. Actually, more than that. In my own small way, I’ve been one of those helping carry the flag. Here’s the resume in shorthand: reached for Christ through InterVarsity; summer mentored by Edmund Clowney; graduate school fellow to Carl F.H. Henry; collaborator with J.I. Packer, John Stott and Timothy George on the Amsterdam Declaration; guest of Billy and Ruth Graham at their home in Montreat; ministry partner with Charles Colson; president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working behind the desk of Harold Ockenga; and published by IVP and Baker Books.

Even my doctoral dissertation was “The Concept of Truth in Contemporary American Evangelical Theology,” pursued through the lens of Cornelius Van Til, Francis A. Schaeffer, Carl F.H. Henry, Millard Erickson and Donald Bloesch.

I’m sure you can’t wait to get a copy.

I recall a lunch in graduate school where a fellow doctoral student asked me how he could get networked with Evangelicals and the wider Evangelical world. His background was almost entirely within a denomination that was an island unto itself, but he knew that I had become a Christian through an Evangelical parachurch group in college, was familiar with various Evangelical leaders, and was writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject of Evangelical theology. In other words, the rumor on campus was that I was one.

I remember feeling somewhat flat footed in my response. My first thought reflected on how deep my sense of identity ran because what came to mind was that an Evangelical was just something you were, not an orbit you entered or collection of relationships you networked yourself into. It was akin to being raised in the South. You either are, or are not, a Southerner. You either drink your iced tea sweet, have pig-pickins instead of clam bakes, call lunch dinner and dinner supper, understand that “barbecue” is a noun, and know how to shag on the beach (and know that means a dance), or you don’t. 

I told him a few things and some people he might connect with. I doubt I was of much help. But he ended up networking quite well and now serves as a seminary president and on the board of many evangelical groups. I suppose he joined the ranks.

Of course, Evangelicalism is much more than a network. David Bebbington captured the heart of its moorings: conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Big words, but simple ideas. Conversionism is the belief that individual lives must be transformed. Activism is the conviction that we must not be passive when it comes to the Gospel, but active in our expression, proclamation and application. Biblicism captures our high regard of the Bible—we go to the Bible and then we go with the Bible. And crucicentrism is the emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. “Together,” Bebbington concluded, we have “a quadrilateral of priorities [that form] the basis of Evangelicalism.” And, many would add, the basis of the Gospel.

Yet as firmly as Evangelicalism stood on these core ideas (or tried to) it still felt as sociocultural as it did theological. As Marsden has noted, more like a patchwork quilt of like-minded institutions and movements, ministries and personalities, conferences and camps. In reality, both are true. It has the ideas Bebbington delineates and the relational dynamic Marsden points out.

I once asked Billy Graham for the founding vision of the seminary I once led – Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary – which he helped establish and where he continued to serve as a board member while I served as its president. I also asked him for the founding vision of the many other institutions that he helped shape: Christianity Today magazine, Fuller Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lausanne Movement and more. 

The vision for each, he said, was the same. 

As he began his world travels, Billy found that Christians around the world did not know one another, and he felt God impress upon his heart to try to bring them together. That, he said, was one of the principal reasons he wanted to see such institutions founded. There needed to be a place where evangelicals could get to know one another, be brought together, build relationships, and form the alliances needed to impact the world for Christ. Fragmented, there would never be the synergy and strength needed to bring the Gospel to bear on the world. 

At the peak of Billy’s influence, the great need was to coalesce a movement, networking like-minded Christians around the world for the Great Commission. In so many ways, Billy’s efforts succeeded. Christians were brought together, and the world was deeply affected as a result.

But Billy – the great, unifying personality for it all – is gone, and it has quickly fragmented and, in the minds of many, lost its way. At least large swaths of it; swaths that no longer share the theological underpinnings of its storied past, much less the sociocultural network Billy worked so hard to build.

And it is to that I turn to next in the fifth and final installment of this series.

James Emery White

Sources

D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.