What Does Evangelical Mean Today?

Since beginning my blog in January, I notice that many people use the terms evangelical and fundamentalist interchangeably. Often people familiar with my beliefs about Jesus and the Bible are puzzled when I call myself a progressive evangelical. This is somewhat understandable for two reasons.

Evangelical Harold J. Ockenga

Evangelical Harold J. Ockenga

How Can One be a Theologically Progressive Evangelical?

First, though many evangelicals have become more theologically progressive over the past few decades, other evangelicals have become more fundamentalist in outlook; and the more fundamentalist evangelicals are most visible. Secondly, ‘progressive evangelical’ sometimes refers to those who focus on social issues and hold socially liberal political views.

Therefore, I will describe myself henceforth as a theologically progressive evangelical; I am NOT a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalism grew from the 19th century evangelical movement and later produced the current evangelical movement. I would characterize both 19th and 20th century evangelicals as follows:

An evangelical is one who is enthusiastic about the good news of Jesus and wishes to share it with others.

The Self-Isolation of Fundamentalism

During the fundamentalist-modernistic controversies, many fundamentalists developed caustic, militant attitudes. In defending their views, they became ‘fighting fundamentalists’, and many of them refused to remain in denominations and associations that tolerated modernism.

As they lost control of the theological battles, they closed ranks to form a new fundamentalist culture characterized by rigid doctrinal positions, legalism, and a dismissive posture toward non-fundamentalists. They often related to others with judgmental castigation and separation.

Separation involved being separate from the ‘world’, so there was a strong legalistic element. But separation also meant non-cooperation with other Christians, which developed, in some cases, into the observance of three degrees of separation. The first degree is separation from modernists (anyone who is not fundamentalist). The second is separation from anyone who associates with modernists, and the third degree is separation from anyone who associates with anyone who associates with modernists.

The 20th Century Neo-Evangelical Movement

In the 1940s, some fundamentalist began to disavow the tendency toward separatism and isolation. They agreed with the fundamental doctrines but wanted interaction and dialog with those outside the movement, and they repudiated the harsh, angry, combative attitude associated with fundamentalism. Leaders of this movement away from fundamentalist isolation included Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham.


Harold Ockenga was right in the middle of the fundamentalist controversy. He was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and followed J. Gresham Machen when he and other professors left Princeton in protest to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. But he didn’t like the negative, anti-intellectual turn fundamentalism took.

Ockenga was very much involved in all three major institutions of the new evangelical movement: The National Association of Evangelicals—NAE (1942), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), and Christianity Today Magazine (1956).


Billy Graham was a young fundamentalist Baptist preacher who attended Bob Jones University, Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College. Graham served in several capacities among fundamentalists, including as President of William B. Riley’s Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis.

In 1949 Graham, then 29, scheduled a tent revival in Los Angeles that exceeded all expectations and made him a nationally known figure. Though fundamentalist leaders were at first proud of their successful preacher boy, they began to back away when Graham insisted on cooperating with Christians of all stripes in his evangelistic crusades. Some fundamentalists supported Graham, but Bob Jones invoked the third degree of separation against prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice because Rice maintained fellowship with Graham who associated with modernists.

Graham participated in the transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism and became the public face of evangelicalism much as Dwight Moody did in the 19th century. Perhaps his most significant act was founding Christianity Today Magazine to help bring the evangelical community together.

Drifting Trends in Evangelicalism

Evangelicals wished to shed the attitudes of fundamentalism but agreed with the fundamental doctrines. However, in the new spirit of dialog and openness even fundamental doctrines began to be questioned.

In the 1970s inerrancy of the Bible became a hot issue, with evangelicals weighing in on all sides; it was reminiscent of the old fundamentalist controversy. Some evangelicals began to abandon other doctrines such as hell, creationism, and substitutionary atonement. Today, evangelicals embrace a range of views foreign to the old fundamentalist consensus.

On the other hand, there has been a re-fundamentalism of some evangelicals. Moderates were vanquished from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. The Moral Majority politicized many evangelicals around social and cultural issues. Creationism resurged as a hotly divisive issue. Many evangelicals are now as harsh, angry, and combative as their fundamentalist forebears.

I view this negative trend with great sadness; but, at the same time, theologically progressive evangelicalism continues to grow. In this I see great hope. Next time I will discuss the hope of theologically progressive evangelicalism.

I invite your comments and observations below.
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Also consider sharing this post using the buttons below. Have a great day! ~Tim
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20 Responses to What Does Evangelical Mean Today?

  1. michaeleeast says:

    Hell, creationism, and substitutionary atonement are at the heart of the conflict.
    It is yet to be seen whether the Churches will allow people who reject these doctrines to remain in the Christian Churches.
    At present in the Uniting Church in Australia we are allowed to hold more progressive views.
    I’m not sure about other denominations.
    The early Christians were expelled from Jewish places of worship.
    It is to be hoped that a similar fate does not await Progressive Christians.


    • Yes hell, creationism, and substitutionary atonement are serious baggage issues. I think some churches will never accept those who do not subscribe to these doctrines, but other churches will.


      • michaeleeast says:

        It was not the intention of the followers of the Way of Jesus to start a new religion.
        Neither do Progressive Christians wish to start a new religion.
        It is the hope of Progressives that a more universal approach can unify Christian Churches and world religions in a rainbow coalition.


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  3. Tim, hat’s off to an outstanding contribution to the field of theology over your last few posts. Very well done. It fills a void within societies understandings about the differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and then a theologically progressive variation on evangelicalism… which now has me very much look forward to the climax about your “hope” in “theolgoically progressive evangelicalism.”


  4. scraffiti says:

    Fundamentalism was never really a UK thing. Because the Queen is head of the Church of England many believers and non-believers alike still regard themselves as C of E. The Pentecostal denomination is the nearest we would have to Fundamentalism. It is against this backdrop that Billy Graham was a breath of fresh air when he visited the UK in the fifties, sixties and seventies. His message was simple – Jesus! Your ‘three degrees’ analogy is a good one Tim. New ideas (and Billy Graham was a new idea) present a terrible threat to well established theological ideas and insecurity is a terrible thing in church matters. Actually, it’s the same in the arts and sciences. As the saying goes,’birds of a feather flock together’. It ain’t easy changing your feathers!


    • I think you are right Scraffiti; the UK has produced many influential evangelicals, but not fundamentalists so much. Darby, who developed dispensationalism, made a big impact on fundamentalists, but I think he was much more successful in the USA than in his home country.

      There is a blogger that I follow from the UK that considered himself a fundamentalist in the past, but his understanding of fundamentalism was Pentecostal–just as you indicate.

      I agree with you about Graham’s simple appeal–follow Jesus! He really got down to the important things.


  5. Rocio says:

    Tim, I read your blog on a daily basis, and it has somehow helped me to build a new perspective on what it means to be a Christian. I just want to know what does substitutionary atonement means.

    Thank you


    • Hi Rocio, I am glad you find my blog helpful!

      Substitutionary atonement means that because of our sinfulness Jesus had to die to pay for our sins in order for God to find us acceptable; Jesus was punished as a substitute for our punishment.

      This was not the belief of the earliest Christians, and many Christians no longer believe this today. Other Christians, such as fundamentalists, continue to think it is essential that Christians believe this.


      • Frank Turner says:

        Please elaborate on the position that the earliest Christians did not believe in the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s atonement. How else did they understand Paul saying Jesus was crucified because of our transgressions, or that He became sin, or John saying Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, or the Hebrews writer saying that by His one offering He (Christ) has perfected forever those who are being sanctified by Him.

        Do you reject these statements and others as not being authentic and credible, or simply as being misinterpreted?

        Also, even if you and others personally reject the substitutionary atonement of Christ, are you also saying that those who believe in it are unreasonable in the interpretations of the plethora of doctrine used to support this position of which I’m sure you are aware but is too much to quote here?

        I find your position fascinating for two reasons: one, I’ve never before heard anyone refer to believing in Christ’s atonement as “baggage”; and two, I’ve never heard previously of accepting Christ’s death and resurrection as historical but not substitutionary and propitiatory.

        By the way, as long as you are willing to love me, forgive me, extend grace, mercy and charity to me without judgment and/or condemnation, and cry and laugh with me respectively when appropriate, then it doesn’t matter to me which ‘banner” you choose to walk under. Call yourself whatever you like, but you don’t have to wear any label for my benefit.

        Blessings and peace.


        • Thanks Frank! I am willing to accept you as you describe without judgment or condemnation, and I am not much interested in choosing banners. However, other people often ask for one.

          The earliest Christians do not seem to have an understanding of Jesus’ death that is common today: that we are all damned to eternal hell because of our sinful rebellion against a holy and infinite God; that God cannot overlook our sinfulness and *must* punish us for it; that we can do nothing to repair our relationship with God; that Jesus took our punishment on himself at the crucifixion; and that God can now bear to look at us through the shed blood of Jesus if we personally appropriate his sacrifice.

          I believe this falsely portrays the Father into an angry, harsh, vengeful God. Jesus describes him otherwise–as a loving Father seeking our good. The alienation we feel from God is only from our side, and Jesus brings reconciliation (atonement). He also offers us eternal life, which is validated in his own death and resurrection.

          I do not think the atonement is baggage, but rather this understanding of the atonement.


          • michaeleeast says:

            Peace on earth and goodwill to all.
            This declaration is a kind of amnesty between God and humankind.
            It is not a ransom or an atonement
            but a correction of misunderstandings about God’s attitude to humankind.
            This is revealed in Jesus’ teachings.
            God is not angry or vengeful but our loving Father.
            Jesus’ death is a tragedy for humankind
            because the light went out of the world.
            I don’t believe that it had any cosmic significance
            except that there is life after death.


          • Well said Michael. You mention that there is cosmic significance regarding life after death. I agree; there could be no resurrection of Jesus without his death.


  6. Thank you for your post. I’m looking forward to the next one. I myself face issues with Evangelism. I am a Finnish Evangelical Christian and I find many things about US Evangelical movement, especially the loud, popular, fundamentalist crew that is most known around the world, very different from the Evangelical Church where I grew up.
    I have learned to trust God and understand that nobody does undertand God and all that He is. He will always remain mystery to us. It is not easy to trust but trust I must 🙂


    • Hi Joanna, the term Evangelical is used in different ways. Before it was adopted to describe the 19th century movement in the USA, it referred to Lutheranism. Since Scandinavia has a lot of Lutheran influence, I wonder if your evangelicalism is Lutheran. Do you know?

      I agree with you that nobody understands God and all that he is!


      • Hi! Free Evangelical Church was a branch of Finnish Lutheran Church that gained independance after Finland accepted the law of religious freedom in the beginning of last century. Before that you could only belong to Lutheran or Orthodox Church.
        Simplifying things a lot (as always ir life, everything is complex) the main difference between Lutheran and Finnish Free Evangelical Church is the baptism of believers (FFEC) and child baptism (Lutheran Church).


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