I cannot tell if evangelicals are having an identity crisis, or if they are just victims of definitional confusion. For the longest time, I argued the latter, even recently, but I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is probably a third possibility (more on that another time). Unfortunately, a new joint study from LifeWay—a self-described evangelical research firm—and the National Association of Evangelicals works against my previous defense. For the record, and this is important, LifeWay isn’t just evangelical; they’re Southern Baptist.

Bob Smietana, one of the better religion writers working today, does an excellent job of summarizing some of the reports findings, but one issue related to the study’s reliability is appended at the bottom without commentary, and one is missing completely, which is not Bob’s fault. The italicized portion at the bottom of the story lists the four statements to which participants responded. They are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

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The key to a good taxonomy is classifying and dividing such that there is no overlap at key points in the classification system. For example, if I want to understand what an evangelical is, it’s helpful to know how it differs from its Christian cousins, most especially Mainline and fundamentalist churches or movements. If there never comes a point at which no overlap occurs, there is no division. That’s a lot of words for a simple concept: family resemblance is not the same thing as sameness.

The four statements cannot possibly separate fundamentalists from evangelicals, so the taxonomy is already broken. Key points of difference are not even included in the statements. If the two entities hoped to further confuse the public about the hazy line between evangelicals and fundamentalists, they succeeded. I can imagine a member of a Mainline church saying “disagree” to one or more of those four statements, but every fundamentalist of whom I’m aware will answer “strongly agree.” That is non-controversial, and so obviously a flaw in the study that I’m amazed no one noticed. (Perhaps they think the two tribes are one.)

Related to this problem is that three of the four statements are about beliefs, and only one is about practices, and the practice of evangelism hardly distinguishes evangelicals from other movements or religions. In short, if you hoped to create a taxonomy that does very little to help identify evangelicals, this would be a good starting point.

The methodology is flawed, too, though, in the sense that it seeks to establish two categories: evangelical by belief and evangelical by belonging. Please note that something hugely important is missing. (I typically tell students to avoid dichotomous classifications, as they usually leave out something that’s important for fleshing out the actual issue.) According to this study, aside from telling people about Jesus, I only need belong to a so-called evangelical church, or “strongly believe” all four statements to be evangelical. Can we get some love for “evangelical by practice?” No?

This is why I think it’s important to note that LifeWay is Southern Baptist. The denomination (They’re a denomination. Get over it.) is eaten up with the idea that Christianity is about belief to the point that they have no actual guidelines for behavior that aren’t sexual or criminal. In other words, no gay sex, no cheating on a spouse, no premarital sex, no misdemeanors or felonies, etc. (Certainly abortion factors in, but it’s an odd category between human sexuality and criminal behavior, according to Pro-Lifers, at least. Given that they consider it murder, it probably would go under the criminal category.) Dozens of proscribed behaviors that call identity into question can be summoned, but no prescribed behaviors that establish identity. Belief, it seems, is sufficient. To say this is barely the Christianity of the Apostles, even within the generous boundaries of family resemblance, is too kind. It’s not Christianity, and that’s what makes it so easy to exploit on the cultural and political fronts.