In the past, I’ve shared what I love about Evangelicalism.
And those still remain true about evangelicalism at its best. In this post, I want to explain what I don’t like about Protestant evangelical culture at its worst.
1. Evangelicalism likes to cozy up to political power. This is the obvious one. For decades in the United States, evangelicals have been trying to claim America for Christ, and have even run for presidential office. The 2016 election further betrayed the desire, that despite all our Christian talk of sacrifice, kindness, and love, what we really want is power. Evangelicals can’t simultaneously condemn sexual immorality and dishonesty and then cheer for men who are atrociously known for committing both. All you have to do is read your Bible to know putting your trust in kings and princes is a bad idea. All you have to do is read your Bible to know how the kingdoms of the world are portrayed again and again, and that faithful Christian witness needs to look starkly different than the political powers of this world. As someone close to me once said, the fact that most evangelicals know the pledge of allegiance, but have no clue what the Nicene Creed is, is a problem. We wonder why Christians have lost our witness, and it’s because we’ve become the salt that has lost our saltiness. If we are given the choice between being faithful witnesses for the kingdom of God or having political power here and now, evangelicals want the latter.
2. Evangelicalism is suspicious and even hostile to the life of the mind. Mark Noll’s notable work published in 1994 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind begins by observing that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. This book was written twenty five years ago, and unfortunately evangelicals are still not known for being robustly thoughtful Christians. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. How many stories have we all heard about some young person growing up in the evangelical church who had sincere questions and confusions about the Christian faith only to receive empty platitudes or be rebuked for wanting to critically examine their Christian faith. I regularly encounter students who are in their twenties, and grew up their entire lives in the evangelical church who say to me, “I’ve never gotten satisfactory answers to my questions from the church.” This is understandable given evangelicalism’s attitude to Christian intellectuals. I remember as an undergraduate in college, one of my Bible professors warning me that being an academic in evangelicalism is like walking around with a target on your back. Sadly, I’ve seen his warning proven true again and again. (See what happened to Bruce Waltke.) There are many Christians, including myself, who have a passion for Scripture and theology and earnestly want to serve the Church, and spent years of their lives studying biblical languages, philosophy of religion, church history, systematic theology at the best institutions but then are received as enemies of the church. Somehow pursuing the life of the mind means little to nothing or even worse; it makes one less trustworthy. The fact that I regularly have to convince my Christian college students that philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit demonstrates that evangelicals are still deeply hostile to critical thinking. Besides C.S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias, how many Christian thinkers can the average evangelical name?
3. Evangelicalism is ignorant and even apathetic towards the history of the church. This is deeply concerning to me, because it ungratefully disregards the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Protestant Evangelicals subconsciously possess this false notion that all their beliefs and practices dropped out of heaven from God as though there were no prior Christian church before them. Or as Stanley Hauerwas says, Protestant evangelicals are tempted to think that all there is is the New Testament, and now, with nothing in between. Sola Scriptura does not mean all I need is me and my Bible. This is incredibly self-centered. If anyone knows who Justin Martyr or Cyril of Alexandria, or Thomas Aquinas are in 500 years, it won’t be because of Protestant evangelicals. Evangelicals affirm beliefs in the Trinity and incarnation, but they have no idea where their dogmas and doctrines come from or how they were formed. Evangelicals are orthodox but only by coincidence, and so as we’ve seen time and again are often a hair away from heresy. The truth is that tradition matters. Knowing where you came from allows you to reflect on and appreciate knowing where you are. For evangelicals to ignore the past two thousand years of the church is to ignore the past two thousands years that made them even possible.
4. Evangelicalism is hyper-individualistic and so is a breeding ground for sub-biblical doctrines. Evangelicals claim to be Bible people, but so often have no idea what the Bible actually says. How many popular slogans have we heard like, “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Evangelical’s lack of concern for anything that is not here and now demonstrates itself in how they read the Bible. So Bible studies are led by people who don’t know how to properly read the Scriptural text and its meaning becomes a free for all: “What does this mean to you?” “What do you feel like this is teaching you?” We can each make up our own Christian principles. The idea that the books of the Bible were written by authors to a specific audience, at a specific time, in a specific location, over two thousand years ago, unconcerned about you and me, offends evangelical sensibilities.
5. Evangelicalism has flattened goodness and badness and has no framework for virtue. Evangelicals have this tendency to collapse all evils. This is a mistake which I’ve written about before. Not all evils have the same gravity. The “nobody is perfect”or “he who is without sin” line gets recklessly thrown around, and this echoes back to the point about sub-biblical teaching, because all you have to do is read the Bible (or particularly the rest of the story in John 8) to know that Jesus takes sin very seriously as he says, “Go and sin no more.” Unfortunately, Protestant evangelicals are suspicious of working towards betterment because of their allergy to anything that sounds like works righteousness. We have lost virtue. The only virtue we teach our young people is make sure to obey God. Is it any wonder then we see the abuse of the phrase, “I just feel God’s not calling me to this…” or “I prayed about it, and I think God wants me to do this…” If the Christian life is nothing more than me and my subjective personal relationship with Jesus, then this makes sense, because the moral life is an isolated subjective unmediated line between me and God which is not accessible to anyone else. Of course this is wrong. But additionally, there is this false notion in Protestant evangelicalism that says all you have to do is believe that Jesus died for you, and that’s it. That’s your ticket into heaven. The rest of life is just waiting it out until God gets you into heaven, wherever that is. Not only is this false, it is anti-Christian. Intellectual assent to a list of propositional doctrinal statements is not sufficient for being a disciple of Christ. We have to recover the tradition of virtue. Moral character matters in the Christian life. As Ben Witherington points out, the greatest commandment is not believe with all your might and God will be satisfied. Look at the gospels and see Christ commands us to do something. The church understood this for over a thousand years. It’s time we recaptured it.
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