The wheels are coming off on what passes for evangelicalism in America. (By the way, the term is so squishy any more that it no longer retains any consistent [or coherent] definition.)
As alarming as it is, I am not sure that is all bad. After all, if the wagon is going the wrong direction, maybe that is a mercy of God. Better to stop the wagon before the whole load is lost.
Wheels coming off? Like what?
First, as I noted back in the 80s, with the efforts of the Religious Right to save America through political armament (Saul’s armor), evangelicals betrayed a waning confidence in the gospel as God’s mightiest weapon (David’s sling) to overthrow ‘worldly philistines’ and to transform men and nations. That was my first wakeup call that the wagon was on a bad track.
Secondly, right on its heels has emerged a crisis of confidence in the Scriptures themselves as the final authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice. Let me elaborate. Whereas old-line theological liberals just flatly trashed the Bible as a divinely inspired source, dubious evangelicals, though still claiming to own its authority, have adopted a subtler and less obvious approach to get around it.
Rather than outright rejecting biblical teachings they find uncomfortable or embarrassing (or too convicting or too much scorned by contemporary society), these neurotic ‘evangelicals’ resort to devious manipulation of the text rather than blatant repudiation. While still piously mouthing their allegiance to the inspiration (and therefore divine authority) of the Bible, they skirt what it teaches by clever Scripture-twisting. These interpretive shenanigans allow them (at least in their own minds) to undercut the compelling force of threatening truth and make peace with political correctness on the sticky issues.
One Example of An Unfortunate Trend
A classic example is a newly released book by Matthew Vines, who introduces himself as one accepting the inspiration and final authority of the Scripture. Yet Mr. Vines by forced exegesis manages to discover that 21 centuries of Christian consensus about the sinfulness of homosexual practice is all wrong. (That consensus includes the pantheon of the greatest minds, scholars and exegetes the Christian church has produced). With a wave of his peculiar interpretive wand (and he is just one of the type), those biblical passages that so obviously condemn or ban homosexual practice (among other degrading or deviant sexual excesses) magically dissolve.
Any reasonable person, one would think, would readily admit, given that long historical consensus about the issue, that it is highly improbable, to say the least, that Mr. Vines, is correct. Mr. Vines (a gay man) is driven, you see, by a blinding bias. Naturally he must find a way to justify his homosexual behavior. And to do that he must salve his tortured conscience. To achieve that, he must find a way to get the Scriptures off his back.
Of course that spells AGENDA. An agenda has never at any time been a friend of honest scholarship in any field and certainly no friend of sound biblical interpretation. Disciplined hermeneutics (interpretive procedures and principles) are crucial for sound biblical exegesis (extracting the author’s intended meaning of the text).
Intellectual dishonesty like that is fatal in the process. Good results run off the rails in the hands of persons determined to read into the Bible what they are pre-determined to see (i.e. an agenda) rather than to just honestly read out of the text what the Spirit of God has put there through holy men of old.
Nobody (in the know at least) will be impressed by Mr. Vines’s work; the informed reaction will be more like ‘flabbergasted’ at the violence he has done to God’s word.
But not to belabor him, his is just one recent example of that erosion of confidence in the final authority of the Scriptures in all matters of Christian faith and practice. And as in this instance, that slippage is often manifested in a guilt-need to formally own the faith conflicted with an emotional need to do so by specious re-interpretations of its content or by (arbitrarily) re-defining theological concepts (like sexual excess) in evasive terms. It is truly laughable when Mr. Vines in adopting his own definition of ‘sexual excess’ plays to the feminist gallery by including under its umbrella ‘hierarchialism’ (the notion of male headship in the family). That indeed is quite a reach!
Emerging Confusion from the Emergent Church
On this same score Brian McClaren [Generous Orthodoxy], that great high priest of the emergent church movement and his acolytes (e.g. the now exposed universalist, Rob Bell [Love Wins] ) leap to mind. Not that they are by any means the first, nor will they be the last, smooth talking deceivers on the evangelical fringe. But they are just more recent examples of the insidious influences who have loosened lug nuts on the cart wheels. Unfortunately they and their camp have a following, especially among the shallow, young and theologically naïve, not least here in our Portland area.
To be fair, some (emergents) retain more loyalty to the truth than others. But knowing what I know, you can expect, as the secular counter-pressure, social ridicule, venom and hateful invective mounts against faithful witnesses (in the tradition of apostolic orthodoxy), to see a domino effect as pandering Christian leaders, churches and para-church institutions jump ship like rats off the Titanic. Right and left, expect to see them lamely capitulating on various issues like pluralism (i.e. any way to God works) and same sex marriage. In fact the phenomenon is already in play. In the process you can expect to hear (or read) disingenuously-framed rationalizations for their accommodating whatever viewpoint the world wants them to agree to.
If I am wrong, wonderful! Praise God! If my instincts are right, you are going to see a wave of people and organizations flipping like jail birds angling for a better deal from a public prosecutor. Somehow they have managed to convince themselves that if they just don’t make people mad in the stances they take and the things they say, they are exhibiting Christ’s love. I think they don’t understand Jesus (or His apostles) very well. (Read the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 23 and the Apostle Paul’s buzzing the conscience of the libertine Roman procurator, Festus, and frightening him at the prospect of judgment to come. Acts 24:24-25)
Following the “Prom King” Jesus
In fact one pastor of this ilk (no longer in the ministry) told his congregation several years ago that “if people out there [in the streets] don’t like you, you are doing something wrong.” In other words, we are not being like Jesus, because Him everybody loved! It makes one wonder why He said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, remember it hated Me first” and why He told His own (natural) brothers that the world “hates Me, because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.” (John 15:18 and 7:7) (It seems like we should follow suit.)
With all that ‘popularity’ going for Him in Jewish society, one wonders how our Lord wound up getting crucified and why His disciples are so persecuted the world over to this day. That silly statement would have surprised the Apostle Paul who took more punishment for the faith than a punching bag in a boxing gym. He told us that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
Bottom line, there are tons of evangelical poseurs out there who, in the felicitous words of the great Benjamin Warfield, possess “the voice of Jacob, but the hands of Esau” when it comes to the testimony and teachings of the Scriptures. Their hands are not as tight with the Bible as their mouths.
Not surprisingly (but quite naturally) we are now seeing a third wave of crisis—a decaying confidence in biblical morality.
It is no coincidence when, from their perches on secular Sinai, the elites (those who have the cultural clout to ‘decree’ for the rest of us what styles, fashions, and thoughts are appropriate in our society) hand down ‘progressive’ new moral canons, that many ingratiating ‘evangelicals’ run for social cover and start ‘re-thinking’ biblical morality. ‘Is there a path of pacification?’ they ponder (and invariably find one).
What you need to understand is what drives these folks. I have watched and studied and listened to them for decades. My 21 years on the academic side were pretty instructive. So I think I have a pretty good sense of what makes the insecure tick, for they often give themselves away.
As I read them, these kowtowing personalities can’t abide being outsiders. By analogy, they remind me of high school girls terrorized by the prospect of not being invited to the prom. The idea of being viewed as one of the unpopular kids at school and not be invited to play with the other kids on their playground drives them to boot-licker measures to fit in. Lacking that confidence and courage that comes with the full assurance of the truth, with this ploy and that tact, they always are trying to toady their way to the world’s acceptance, maybe even applause. Winning that battle for them is tantamount to salvation. Marginalization is a fate worse than death. To find a way “in” and “a voice” at the table is a life achievement award! Oh, how badly they want to fancy themselves ‘players’.
Trading An Incorruptible Crown For a People’s Choice Award
Oh, the silly games deluded Christians sometimes play! How we fool ourselves in all this social nonsense. Can’t we lead and not follow? Can’t we find the confidence of our convictions and just tell the world, “Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear,” and move on in the serene security that we know where the truth lies? Love is kind, love is respectful, but love “abhors what is evil; cleaves to what is good.” So, let this (Christian) love we talk about be “without hypocrisy,” (Romans 12:9) not piously pretending that our truce with evildoing and evildoers is not because we love the world, but in fact because we are bending over backwards to get the world to love us.
Under the grip of that ‘suck up’ mentality, one can easily see how, when what the Bible teaches is so counter-cultural that it scandalizes us Christians in the eyes of the world, that queasy evangelicals look in panic, in the words of R. Albert Mohler, Jr, for “an exit ramp.” Frantically they cast about for an escape hatch to shield themselves from cultural backlash.
I have noticed over the years that these folk will shake and bake, shuffle and shift their ‘positions’ as necessary to find a way to ‘square’ the Bible (which they cannot quite bring themselves to abandon) with ever-evolving secular values (which they cannot quite muster the spiritual courage to disregard). In my years in the academia (when feminist agitation was all the rage), it was disconcerting to watch teachers bend the biblical text to please or appease those women in their classes or audiences with a feminist chip on their shoulders. Long settled interpretations suddenly became ‘unsettled’ as insecure professors with an eye on their own status “adjusted” to allow room for the Scriptures to speak in cadences more palatable to feminist tastes.
Can’t we learn just to let God’s word speak for itself and others deal with it? That is the way the prophets did it.
Very recently (late April, 2014) on the Internet news broke that the lead singer of the supposed Christian music group, Jars of Clay, in a series of tweets, had broken ranks and embraced gay marriage. According to his tweets, the Bible did not clearly condemn it and besides, he himself (the gold standard, I guess) saw no big problem with it. In fact, he blared, in the Bible he could not discover much moral certainty about anything! There you have it. If you ever needed any evidence that this Christian entertainment scene is not a healthy one, there is Exhibit A.
No, it is not OK. It never was. It never will be. Despite centuries of well-documented homosexual practice (among upper class Greeks and Romans, e.g.) even the literature of the ancients is full of scorn of the habit. (See the Roman satirist, Juvenal, for example). Just as today the world is full of other forms of immorality (adultery, fornication, prostitution, pedophilia and so on), with those widespread evils also (thankfully) comes widespread condemnation. So it has always been with homosexual conduct. The historical testimony of humanity’s conscience, not just the Scriptures, speaks against it. And even if it didn’t, the rather glaring complementary structure of male/female anatomy offers its own eloquent, if mute, witness about what is natural!
Boldly Proclaiming What Everyone Wants To Hear
Only by extending a specious evolutionary (and therefore relative) logic to matters of morality can one arrive at the notion that what was so very wrong the world over for so very long can now be judged right today. On that evolutionary principle, the reigning theory is, as a society, we supposedly have evolved socially to the point where we, unlike our forebears, are more morally enlightened. Nowadays, the mantra goes, intelligent people know it’s OK. (Since everybody wants to be considered intelligent, especially the younger people, this intimidating ‘axiom’ is often just enough to force them in line lest they be written off.)
So, intimidated by the flood of propaganda and social pressure to get on board, many people, fearing scorn and hate if they do not compliantly accept the new norms, cower and cave and give the world’s point of view (whatever the flavor of the day happens to be) their blessing, dismissing in the process the absolute and infinitely superior moral authority of God’s word in favor of modern man’s jerry-built ‘new’ morality. Some may not actually give it their blessing, but stop with just giving political correctness a pass in the form of, “We just won’t make an issue of it anymore.”
Just recently World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, shocked everyone by up and announcing (before hastily recanting) same sex marriage good to go. (Do you suppose their abrupt reversal possibly had more to do with the frightening specter of lost donations than the sudden recovery of Christian convictions? Pardon my cynicism.)
Unfortunately that seems also to be the tact adopted by some evangelicals here in Portland, as revealed in the March 26 (2014) issue of the Willamette Week. Here’s an example:
“We don’t want to be known for what we’re against, but what we’re for.”
If that meant we shouldn’t spend all our time damning the darkness, but also spreading the light, I’m all for it. Unfortunately I am afraid that is not quite what it means if one reads the article, including an occasional hint of an almost ‘celebratory’ tone (“Good! Now we don’t have to waste any more time on that [gay] issue and get pasted for it”).
No, in this case it appears to mean: ‘We are now putting the moral issues in our tail lights and focusing our energies on ‘safer’ things like community service (you know, what I call Rotarian and Lion’s Club-type projects and liberal church stuff). What comes through to me (check it for yourself) in that piece is this: “OK, we’re done with playing the prophet role. They won; it’s over. Let’s move on to things that perhaps will get us plaudits in the local news.” (I’m just sure that is exactly what Jesus would do!)
Look, political issues per se have a short shelf life. Indeed there is a time to say just that: OK, we lost that one, move on. But let’s not go around, as did one local leader (in said article), reductionistically framing out-and-out moral issues as mere ‘political battles.’ That is subterfuge. That is evading Christian responsibility by conveniently trivializing the matter.
In fact one pastor cited explained:
“We are trying to create a space where followers can wrestle with this [gay] issue.”
What on earth does that mean, pastor? What is there to wrestle with here? God has spoken. But evidently conviction about biblical morality is running a little thin in that church (which I already knew). Do we go around “creating space” in our churches for our members to “wrestle with,” say, the deity, the bodily resurrection, the second coming of Christ, the infallibility of God’s word, etc.? No! On the authority of God’s revelation, we proclaim the truth. We don’t “wrestle with it” in the sense that the matter is up in the air for believers to pick their colors.
It is no different with matters of biblical morality. Fornication is wrong. Adultery is wrong. Pedophilia is wrong. Pornography is bad stuff. Abortion is evil. Homosexuality is deviant.
What is there to “wrestle with?” It is not cook’s choice here. But in this post-modern society, many evangelicals are sipping the Kool Aid because they don’t want the world to run off and leave them. So they start trying to make their peace with a little relativism (i.e. “create space where followers can wrestle with this”).
The Consequences of Compromising on God’s Word
As I say, the moral “slip” of many evangelicals is showing. Our moral convictions are degrading. So we pull in our horns and just try to tell people what they want to hear—or at least refuse to say what we know they don’t want to hear (lest they eat us alive). One of our members not too long ago visited a mega-church in our area and came away with an observation that I have heard about these kind of churches:
“It wasn’t what was said that concerned me; it was what wasn’t said.”
Ah, yes. Very discerning. “Be safe.” That is the program many are following.
This won’t work. Some evangelicals appear to think there is a way to preach the good news of a loving God while avoiding the bad news, i.e. the bad news about human sin and rebellion and horrible guilt before a holy God.
At his most powerful and effective public ministry, Billy Graham did not hum and hedge on these matters, as I recall. But somewhere along the line he started to tip his hat more to political correctness. I first really noticed it in his early 90s campaign right here in Portland. Graham seemed to soften his prophetic voice and, in my opinion, lost his familiar edge. To my perception, he never regained it. And quite unlike most of his evangelistic endeavors that I was familiar with over his many years, to this day I have never discovered as a result of that particular venture in our city, a single person won to Christ.
All that just to say again, you can’t effectively preach the good news in a vacuum of moral neutrality. Between our message and the masses there is a formidable wall of evil and rebellion against God to which we must lay siege with the counterweight of the whole counsel of God. We must not be arrogant and consider ourselves wiser than God in attempting to bring the lost to Christ by trimming our evangelistic sails in such a way as to make proclamation safer for us as well as more comfortable for the world.
In boxing there are light jabs and heavy punches. ‘Community service’ might be a jab, but it is no substitute for a hard right punch to the jaw of the unbelieving conscience. We cannot be dancing in the ring around the moral and spiritual issues that stand between men and God. We must engage at a fundamental level, go eye to eye and toe to toe against human rebellion with the plain truth of the Gospel (the bad news and the good news).
In my opinion (strategically) what is most needed is less drumming up of feeble, safe community service projects (like painting public schools) that frankly just don’t dependably carry the mail and lot more drumming up of communal courage that will, in love, risk telling the unsafe truth to a culture that is bent on avoiding it and intimidates with visceral vituperation and hatefulness those with the holy guts to speak up.
You tell me which approach is most reminiscent of Jesus and his apostles and prophets.
Courage To Speak Even When It May Cost Us
Repentance is the first motion of honest faith. But how are moderns going to repent of their sins if we don’t expose the root (sin) problem between God and man and the calamity that awaits those who find out too late? How?
Several months back in a Wall Street Journal piece, one local pastor in this mainly community-service mode actually boasted about his evangelism-less (or word-less) approach to ministry. Participants, as I recall, were forbidden to mention Jesus! The guy was so proud of that tact you would have thought he had found the Holy Grail. Frankly I was appalled.
If we take the moral authority of the Scriptures as the voice of God, then that is the last word. We cannot allow ourselves to play it safe, to play not to lose. God has not given us the comfortable luxury of declining to tell the lost what they absolutely do not want to hear. Does anyone remember how more than once God warned the prophet Ezekiel, His appointed watchman, that he would be held accountable for the blood of those he took the liberty of failing to warn? (See Ezekiel 3:16-21)
The moral authority of the Scriptures compels us to overcome our reluctance to take hostile fire from those who are determined that we bow to their hand-made moral program (i.e. canons of political correctness). We may get hammered by the world, but better to get slammed by men than shunned by God. Morally He has the last word and by our stances we should reflect that secure confidence.
My youngest brother, once US president of the Navigators, told me years ago the story of an arrogant, dirty-minded university student to whom Alan was attempting to speak about Christ. The guy was mocking and dismissive to the max. Finally Alan decided the ground was too hard to plow and availed himself of an exit opportunity. As my brother began to take his leave, suddenly a moment of prophetic inspiration came over him. Noting that the young man’s dorm room was a veritable ‘adult store’ with every wall liberally decorated with pornographic images, Alan abruptly whipped around in classic Columbo-style and with his accusing finger pointed to all that filth:
“Just one more thing. For all that, young man, I warn you, a holy God is going to bring you into judgment.”
All of a sudden, the student’s whole demeanor dramatically changed from supercilious to sober.
“After that,” Alan said, “we had a very serious talk.”
The church today could learn something from that.
My late father-in-law, after a very rough life (to say the least), came to Christ at age 47(8). Guess what was one of the most memorable precursors the Spirit of God used to get his attention? One day he (a notorious sinner) was passing by his neighbor’s house and noted the lady of the house tending her flower garden. As she looked up at Roy passing by, he commented, “Mrs. (Smith), those are beautiful flowers you have there.” “Well, Roy, there won’t be any of those where you’re headed.”
Bam! That blunt, but caring message hit his conscience like a jack hammer. He walked away, but by his own testimony, those words haunted him until the Hound of Heaven finally chased Roy down.
Would I have said that that way? Not likely. But she told that to a man who needed badly to hear the plain truth in the firmest way, and did everything in his power to avoid any mention of it. Mrs. (Smith) was not thinking (or caring) about couching her response in language that would allow her to escape being bullied by a retort like, “Who are you to judge!?” Her only thought was to tell a lost man on the run from a holy, but gracious God the truth that she hoped somehow the Spirit might use at last to get his attention (and it surely did).
Recently one of our pastors showed me an article in which a prominent atheist mocked “pussy- willow” Christians for not warning unbelievers like himself about the peril of Hell. If we really believe, he chided, that unbelieving people are headed to such an awful destination, it is unaccountable that we don’t stand up and say so.
Actually, the atheist was mocking our apparent lack of real conviction about what the Bible teaches. He was logical enough to see that if we Christians actually believed the Scriptures, the need to publish the fact was too compelling for us to ignore while we went about telling people about the love of Jesus. We can’t possibly love people whom we refuse to warn about their rendezvous with the judgment of God, shying away because we fear they will assault us, calling us ‘hateful’ and ‘judgmental’. That is thinking about ourselves, not them. That’s self-protectiveness, not really the love of Christ at work.
I repeat, today many evangelicals are not giving the moral authority of the Scriptures the right of way it deserves. And it shows up in wieny stances like these.
Are the wheels really coming off? I think so. I’m mad, but I am also glad. It’s high time to shift the load in the wagon so that we can see the dubious cargo that has been hiding under the truth tarp. I say, out with it. Then we can deal with it.
If we are the real deal, we need to re-discover our evangelical convictions—about the transforming power of the gospel, about the final authority of Scriptures and about the fixity of biblical morality. If we recover those convictions, we will again find our courage to speak up and to stand up and let the chips fall where they will.
Until then, much of what poses as evangelicalism and those who posture as evangelical leaders are, for my money, not worth the powder it would take to blow them up with. It’s just a big charade and that, I am convinced, will soon be over. The darkness is descending on this country like never before. This is no time for timid, flickering candles. They will be snuffed (and should be). What we need are bold, bright flames that scatter the darkness.
An important footnote: Though it is paramount that evangelicalism recovers its base of convictions, which is the foundation of its manly courage in a hostile culture, let us never forget to speak the truth in love. God has sent us to bless the world, not blast it. Yet we can’t bless it unless we tell the truth. The truth, however, will suffer in the transmission unless in our boldness, we are measured and respectful, sensitive to proper time and place, and match our Christian message up with Christian manners at all times.
Our timeless and indiscriminate mission is to bring to all a redemptive knowledge of Jesus Christ (whoever they may be) for all humans are lost sinners, whether red, yellow, black or white; male or female; rich or poor; educated or uneducated; heterosexuals or homosexuals; right wing or left wing, you name it. For any and all we covet the same pardon, the same peace and the same abundant life that we ourselves enjoy in Jesus Christ.
That result however has no more chance than a snowball in a hot furnace unless we revive our convictions and courage and tell the world in love the gospel truth and quit trying to appease the hostiles by giving away the farm.