[This post comes from occasional guest blogger, Kevin Regal. Kevin is a friend of mine with a disenchanted past in Evangelicalism. In this series of posts, he explains his past in Evangelicalism, why he left, and where he is going.]
Nearly four years ago now, John published a post titled “Why I Became a Lutheran“. In that post John gave seven positive characteristics of Lutheranism as justification for his decision. My response at the time was that I mostly agreed with—and even applauded—every one of them with the exception of sacramental theology. I reasoned that the good things which he attributed to Lutheranism (with the one exception) were not excluded by Baptist theology, so a person would not necessarily have to turn to Lutheranism to find them. Sacramental theology was (and probably always will be) the issue of substantive disagreement between the two camps. I felt that John should state his rejection of the Baptist denomination in terms of things about Baptist theology with which he had bona fide disagreement.
Though I believe I was right about the central theological differences between Baptist and Lutheran theology, I have come, in the past four years to see that it was naive of me to insist that the discussion of differences be restricted to overtly stated theological principles. Looking back on it, I think that part of John’s point was that, however compatible the things he mentioned are with Baptist theology per se, they were—for all he could tell—completely absent from those churches, etc. which hold to Baptist doctrine (this would include the vast majority of Evangelical churches in this country). I think it would be fair to say that, for John, becoming convinced of sacramental theology sealed the deal; but he had already largely given up on Baptists/Evangelicals. That is where we differed; though I similarly lamented many of the problems in Evangelicalism, I was not then prepared to give up on it. Perhaps loyalty is a good thing in many ways, but I have a tendency to take it too far. Sometimes when wisdom would tell us to cut our losses, loyalty can make us refuse to listen. That, I believe, is often the case for me. I’ll very briefly describe what I mean.
After over a decade of schooling in preparation for a career as an Evangelical pastor/scholar, I decided (for reasons not entirely related to this discussion) that I should not continue on the path toward ministry as a profession. I still had a strong commitment to the gospel (and to my Baptist theology), so I went about the business of trying to find my place as a layman in a Baptist church. So began another seven years of painful, discouraging, heart-breaking, searching. I started in Southern Baptist churches because that is the denomination of which I had been a part for some years. They were shallow as ever. I moved on to trying other Baptist churches—ranging from the mid-left to the right of the Baptist wing of Evangelicalism. In utter loneliness and frustration, I started broadening the scope of my search a bit. I tried a Sovereign Grace church (Calvinist Charismatic), an Evangelical Free church, a Bible ‘Chapel,’ a PCA church, a MacArthurite (What else can you call them?) church, and some others. These churches varied a bit regarding which issue (or issues) they considered the most important; they also varied with regard to the egregiousness of their overall silliness (some mildly irreverent, others downright blasphemous). But the commitment to an authoritarian yet populist, silly yet aggressive, and thoroughly popularity-minded sort of Christianity (that is a vague description. Don’t take it too seriously for the moment; I’ll explain a little more later) was always there.
Forthright critique of problems (my default personality) failed abysmally (it turns out people don’t like to be told they are missing the mark), so I tried to fade into the background. This is not an easy thing for me to do, but I tried very hard—and succeeded in many respects. I was willing to stop proclaiming that I would not sell my soul, and I was even willing to refrain from critiquing their calls to do so. But I found that Evangelicals are not satisfied even with that. Silent dissent from them is not an option; they will tolerate nothing less than enthusiastic capitulation to their every fancy.
Of course I know that I have only scratched the surface of Evangelicalism. I could continue to cast my net farther and wider–clinging to the hope that there must be a church out there which is more concerned with the gospel than the impressiveness of the building, the pastor’s popularity factor, the number in attendance, the size of the take (i.e.offering), etc. AND which would put up with imperfect and even annoying people (like me).
The problem is that I have been searching for the better part of a decade for such a place, and I have yet to find a church that ranks well in either category (seriousness about the gospel or willingness to tolerate someone like me—whose ineptitude in social politics is legendary). During that time, my son has gone from being an infant to being 10 without ever having a solid church background because I have been continually searching, always clinging to the hope that somewhere out there in the Evangelical circus was a church that I could stomach and that would be willing to tolerate me.
My loyalty is officially broken. I have decided that it is time to give up on that utterly fruitless search. Way too much of my kids’ childhood has been consumed by this search, and I cannot any longer justify my insane refusal to give up hope. I felt that, though I might never find the right answer, I couldn’t do much worse for my kids than Evangelicalism. Perhaps the teachings of wherever I ended up would turn out to be wrong, but I doubted that it could get much worse than Evangelicalism. I wanted my kids to have the gospel and to know Christ. I had thought that Evangelicalism was the only place to find what I was looking for, but I have since been driven to conclude that Evangelicalism is a lousy place to pursue that goal.
Don’t misunderstand me; there is true gospel in Evangelicalism, but it is so often so mangled, muddled, mixed up, and overwhelmed by other junk that it’s a wonder that anyone ever finds the true gospel among all the false (that is, I think, also the condition of Roman Catholicism–the arch-enemy of much of Evangelicalism).
I could not write the kind of post that John did (i.e.”Why I Became a Lutheran”) in which he lists various doctrinal points for which he became more satisfied with the Lutheran answers than the Baptist answers. Truthfully, I was never really dissatisfied with Baptist doctrine (at least as I held it—I suppose I was a little atypical). But I was forced, by my heart-breaking effort to find a church home, to reconsider some things that I felt I had a really solid handle on. I could not see why baptism and the Lord’s supper should not be among them.
It was time for me to stop investing my life in Evangelicalism; to lay aside that insane hope that I had been clinging to for so long. Really, I was not leaving to go to something, rather I was just getting out. I was also not leaving because of a particular theological problem which I found insurmountable (there were some that were close—but, as we are all wont to do, I had convinced myself that those were petty peripheral issues); theoretically, at least, my theological positions were quite common within the group that goes by the name Evangelicalism. I was leaving because it seemed Evangelicalism had no room for me. I’m not saying that it should–perhaps it shouldn’t. But I came to the conclusion that I should not spend any more of my life and the lives of my family searching for a—perhaps mythical—Evangelical church out there which both takes real Christianity really seriously and also accepts people like me.
I am, of course, aware that my inability to find a Baptist church cannot properly be construed as as evidence against the veracity of Baptist theology. It would have been much easier for me to give up if I, like John, had been gripped by serious theological issues which put me clearly outside the group; I was not. But I had long been without any viable church options, and I could not continue to ignore that forever. There were, of course, problems not related to my defective personality. None of them by themselves—or even together—could make a conclusive case against the veracity of Baptist theology. But I think a predominance of these problems in a movement does give people good reason to question the theology promulgated by the movement. Even if I were a perfect person, the ubiquity of these problems should cause me to reconsider my loyalty to the group and the teachings on which the group is based. Note that I am not saying that every church I visited was rife with every one of these problems, but—in the entirety of my search—I never found one that was not clearly engulfed by some of them. I think it is fair to assume that any church will have every one of these problems to some degree, but certainly none of these things should dominate a church. In the next segment, I’ll try to describe them in a general way and finish the story I started here.