Every religious group--perhaps, indeed, every group--defines itself bywho's in and who's out. Who gets included is as important as who getsexcluded. This is as true of the Spongers, a new cult whose sacred texts are theworks of former Newark, N.J., archbishop John Shelby Spong as it is of the Crucified Jesus People, the fundamentalist Christian sect sprung wholefrom the imagination of novelist William Gibson. (They carry chrome nailsin leather neck-pouches and every once in a while crucify someone.) Hencethe ongoing debates here and in Israel about who is and isn't a Jew andthe sharp disagreement between "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics inthe United States over what it means to be Catholic.

A similar struggle has been going on among U.S. evangelicals since the mid-1970s--though historically minded observers might say that thedebate began with the birth of evangelicalism in the early 18th century,that it's simply endemic to the movement, which has always been a loosecoalition of wildly different groups. Most Americans are familiar with thepolitical dimension of the contemporary debate--the failed attempt by theso-called religious right to link evangelical identity with a particularpolitical agenda. The more enduring theological side of the debate, though, hasbeen little heard outside evangelical circles.

For those of us who call ourselves evangelicals, this business of self-definition is obviously of crucial importance. You can't be born evangelical, the way you can be born Catholic or Orthodox; conversionis necessary. But who decides exactly what that means? Who defines whatit means to be evangelical?

A handy entry-point to this debate is "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration" (more simply, "the Gospel Statement"), a"clear, definitive statement of the essentials of the Gospel," drafted lastyear by a committee of evangelical dignitaries. First published in June 1999in Christianity Today magazine, it is now being promoted in "This WeBelieve: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World," a book launched withmuch pomp and ceremony in July at the Christian Booksellers Association convention in New Orleans. While the book consists largely of acollection of essays drawing out the statement's implications, it also lists the members of the drafting committee and other signatories.

This list is not an incidental feature. Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell,Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright,Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, "Left Behind" author Tim LaHaye, Promise Keepersfounder Bill McCartney, Luis Palau, and theologian John Stott are all there,with the presidents of a number of evangelical colleges and seminaries, and various others. The list is followed by a "personal affirmation"(name and date to be filled in by the book's owner) by which the reader isencouraged to "embrace this declaration and affirm my commitment to the task of proclaiming this Gospel, and with it my allegiance to Christ himself,to the Gospel itself, and to my fellow cosigners as evangelicalbelievers."

The implication is quite clear: If you're an evangelical, you'll haveno problem endorsing the Gospel Statement. And if you won't sign, we'regoing to need a urine sample, for starters.

Are you in, in other words, or are you out? I, for one, am out. Let me explain why.

American evangelicals are bewilderingly diverse. They may be KoreanAmerican Presbyterians with a strong sense of denominational loyalty. They may worship at a "Fire Baptized" urban storefront church. They may bemembers of one of the nondenominational megachurches that have sprung up inthe last 25 years, where you won't see a cross on the building, let alone asteeple.

Within this teeming variety there are some broad categories, such asthe distinction between evangelicals in the Reformed tradition(Presbyterians and others who trace their origins to John Calvin) and those who,whatever their other differences, join in rejecting classic Reformed doctrines such as predestination (the idea that God has already "predestined" some of usfor salvation and some for damnation). The Reformed wing makes up only a very small percentage ofAmerican evangelicals, but historically they have exercised an influence fargreater than their numbers would suggest.

In recent years, two leading Reformed thinkers, J.I. Packer andTimothy George, have participated in the unofficial ecumenical initiativeknown as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." In response, Packer in particularwas viciously attacked by R.C. Sproul, the bully-boy of thehyper-Calvinist Reformed crowd. (Sproul's followers refer to him as a theologian. If heis a theologian, I am the shortstop of the New York Yankees.

He is askilled polemicist--not anything to be ashamed of, if your polemics are in agood cause.)

Packer, Sproul said, had sold the Reformation down the river in hisdialogue with Catholics, compromising the doctrine of justification byfaith.