Who Is an “Evangelical” and Who Gets to Decide?

Roger E. Olson | 11/18/2018 | Staff
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Who Is an “Evangelical” and Who Gets to Decide?

This question (or two) has been discussed almost to death over my adult lifetime among evangelicals. Many years ago I began to attend a then relatively new “society” of evangelical scholars that met annually. I remember three annual meetings during which panelists and members of the audience talked about who is an evangelical and who gets to decide. No consensus emerged. It was frustrating. In the last moment of the third (and last) session (the society was going to move on to other topics the next year) there was a definite feeling of failure in the room. Then a non-evangelical Lutheran theologian who has studied evangelicals a lot and even published one major book about evangelicalism stood up at the back of the room and said “I suggest that an evangelical is anyone who loves Billy Graham.” The whole room broke out in applause. Of course, I don’t believe everyone in the room necessarily agreed, but finally someone had said something meaningful TOWARD some kind of possible consensus. I think what he meant was that fundamentalists (then) didn’t like Billy Graham and liberal Christians didn’t like Billy Graham and the vast majority of people who called themselves “evangelical Christians” then (1980s) loved Billy Graham.

Symposium - Birthday - Billy - Graham - Agreement

I recently participated in a symposium celebrating the 100th birthday of Billy Graham. There was at least a general agreement that he was a towering and influential figure in world evangelicalism in the second half of the 20th century.

Also recently I attended a symposium where several scholars (both on a panel and in the audience during the Q&A time after the panelists delivered their presentations) discussed “Who Is an Evangelical and Who Gets to Decide?” Another round of a conversation that has been going on for many, many years.

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