[This is the second part of guest-blogger Kevin Regal’s explanation of why he left Evangelicalism and what he found to be a better alternative.]
In part one of this post, I described how my loyalty to Evangelicalism led me on a long and difficult search for a church which both takes real Christianity seriously and would also accept people who are (as I am, I’m ashamed to say) flawed even to the point of being rather dislikeable. In this part, I will try to explain a few of the problems that I find so troublesome and which have forced me to reconsider my loyalty to Evangelicalism. I will then finish the story.
I want to be clear that I am not accusing any church when I describe these problems. I do think that these problems are widespread, but I am sure that, for any given problem I describe, there exist some Evangelical churches which are exemplary. I am not at all saying that every Evangelical church (or person) suffers from every problem I mention. I am saying that, in my long search, I did not find a single church which was not dismally overcome by some of them. I am also not saying that Christians should absolutely avoid any church which struggles with any of these problems. As I said before, I think every church will struggle with them to some degree. I only want to describe some of the problems which I, in my search, found to be epidemic among Evangelical churches.
Self Promotion by/Hero Worship of Leaders & the Tendency toward Personality Cults—This is one of the most troubling things for me, and I sometimes feel like a broken record because I am so often critiquing this tendency. It is a great grief to me, for it applies to a number of leaders whom I very much respect (e.g. Piper, MacArthur, Mohler, Dever, Sproul, and others). I’m aware that self-promotion is an unquestionable norm in our society—most people use twitter and facebook just for the opportunity to promote themselves. Sure, I know the thinking…“I must promote myself to get further opportunity to promote Christ.” The rationale is understandable, but it is also unscriptural. Should not our attitude be “He must increase, but I must decrease”(Jn 3:30) rather than “I must increase that he might increase”? Blame for this doesn’t belong only upon the leaders who promote themselves. Like ancient Israel was with statues of cows and other strange things, Evangelicals seem hell-bent upon worshiping some personality or other.
Propensity for (Even Delight in) Abuse of Others—especially other believers. The pecking order system (and all the cruel politics of establishing/maintaining such a system–like the struggle of individuals to increase their rank by decreasing the ranks of others) was rarely a minor issue in my experience. Many Evangelicals seem to think that the command to “love one another” requires nothing more than that they maintain plausible deniability of motive in their treatment of others (i.e. “Any action is acceptable so long as I can plausibly deny that I intended harm by it”). But the command is from Christ, before whom our hearts are not hidden, and his command obviously requires that our motive actually be love. Sadly, I am not alone in finding that many of the unbelievers I come into contact with at work and other places tend to be kinder to each other and to me than the members of my church. I know, I know…People often do take offense over actions which are not ill-intended; sometimes people even take offense at things that are genuinely and wholly motivated by love. Certainly, loving one another does require that we grant the benefit of the doubt when we feel that someone has wronged us. But doubt concerning apparently evil motive erodes unless it is offset by at least some indicators of good intent. Yes, of course, we must forgive those who trespass against us, even when we have no doubt that their motive is evil. Nevertheless, I felt it would be foolish of me not to conclude that there is something wrong in a group which is so overwhelmingly characterized by cruel politics and piously-cloaked maliciousness.
Lack of Love—though I generally refused doggedly to believe that the Evangelicals in my circle were of the abusive sort, I could never quite deny the very pronounced lack of love among believers. Though I spent countless hours trying to convince myself that it was all in my imagination, I kept being driven back to the conclusion that the people in my church did not care about me and my family. I have long wondered if the appeal that heretical groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to have is that they present themselves as so loving and caring. Though I have never been tempted toward such heresies (“There but for the grace of God…”), I can certainly understand how powerfully drawn people are if they believe that a person or a group of people really does care for them.
Shallow, Silly Theology—There are so many problems which fit under this heading; I don’t know where to start. I’ll just make a sort of list—not in any particular order.
The Dogma of Mega-Church: Mega-mania has, for all I can tell, completely consumed Evangelicalism. Even those churches which never have been, are not, and never will be ‘mega’ in head-count are still eager to follow virtually any silly, stupid, irreverent, vulgar, or even heretical trend set by the ‘megas’ in their utterly unreflective attempts to round up as many people as possible once a week.
Touchy-Feely Teaching: This is, of course, related to Mega-mania. The gurus of the mega-church movement are very clear in their assertions that any Christian teaching which is thoughtful, complicated, or—by all means—condemning must go. Many Christians seem to believe that scripture really has nothing of it’s own to say; they seem to think of it rather as a list of topics for their teachers to consult when deciding what warm and fuzzy nonsense to spout in their next sermon or lesson.
Unconcern Regarding Genuine Discipleship: Discipleship, training, spiritual growth, etc. are prevalent buzzwords among Evangelicals, but it seems to me that the interest is not really in helping Christians grow spiritually. I sometimes suspect that many pastors and other leaders think of discipleship as some sort of machine or process to which they can direct all those over-zealous folks in the congregation who keep pestering them for help in understanding the Bible.
Tendency to Trust in Government Rather Than God: Evangelicalism has a large contingent of people who seem to speak more about political activity than about Christ. It often appears, for many Evangelicals, that death, hell, and the devil have been replaced by political liberalism and Christ has been replaced by the Republican Party. I understand that we all want a good society to live in for this life, but Christianity is not about that. Evangelicals, however, seem always to be consumed by their search for political messiahs.
Moralism Instead of Gospel Freedom: Most Evangelicals would strenuously object to the charge that their group is dominated by legalism. I grant that Evangelicals are fairly consistent in rejecting the bare idea of ‘salvation by works,’ and that is good, so far as it goes. Of course legalism did not originate with Evangelicalism; our sin nature makes us prone to seek our righteousness on our own. My concern is that very often membership in the church is made conditional upon conformity to a standard of behavior which is not commanded by scripture and about which there is no discussion allowed (See here and here, for example). It is difficult to see how such requirements do not entail a “Faith in Chist AND ______” sort of gospel—which is a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6)
Chronic Bent Against Serious Theological Reflection: I must be cautious in saying this. Of course there are many Evangelical individuals who are models of serious reflection. I am thankful for their efforts. The concern I have is that Evangelical churches tend to have something of a ‘code of silence’ regarding anything but the approved set of mantras. People are free to talk about “living one day at a time,” avoiding the tendency to “live by my own strength,” the “power of prayer,” the importance of one’s ‘quiet time,’ and so on. But, if someone dares to stray from that safe little orbit of clichés, people tend to react with annoyance or even outrage. If the poor fool dares to ask for clarification on or challenge one of the sacred clichés (e.g. “What do we mean when we say that prayer is powerful?” or “Is ‘quiet time’ taught in scripture?”), he or she will probably face blacklisting, marginalization, or even expulsion. I think that Evangelicals tend to believe that critical thinking is dangerous and divisive. The clichés are often viewed (perhaps subconsciously) as the substance and statement of orthodoxy. So, they actually feel like they are ridding the church of heresy when they drive away a person who, for example, asserts that “scripture does not teach us to think of ourselves as powerful because we pray” (True story. Yes, I was the poor fool involved).
Spiritual or Theological Elitism: While there does tend to be a resistance to theological reflection, there is also, in some parts of Evangelicalism, a rather shocking amount of elitism. So far as I can tell, this seems to be closely tied to the hero worship that I mentioned above. Sometimes those who seek to counter the bent against theological reflection are the most guilty of elitist tendencies. The phrase “the life of the mind” (always unexplained—if anyone doesn’t already know, their mind is dead; they should be ignored out of existence) is very popular with these types. This was, when I could manage to be tolerated, my preferred subculture within Evangelicalism; so it is quite possible that I myself have been guilty. As with all of these critiques, my aim is not to pronounce harsh judgment, but to explain the problems which I find to be so predominate in Evangelicalism that they caused me (I think reasonably) to reconsider my loyalty to the group.
Decisionist Theology: Again, I am glad that some Evangelicals are providing thoughtful and persistent critique on this issue (Tim Challies, James Adams, and Brian Schwertley, to name a few). But these critics themselves admit that this bit of very bad theology is a nearly universal dogma in Evangelicalism. By decisionist theology I mean the notion that God’s work of salvation is entirely (or even mostly) at the mercy of the free will of the people whom God would save. The tradition of long and emotionally charged ‘invitation’ times at the end of church services and other Evangelical gatherings (like evangelistic ‘crusades’) is one place where this theology is worked out. It can also be seen in the tendency of Evangelicals to point to a ‘moment of decision’ for Christ for confidence before God (i.e., you walked the isle, prayed the prayer, made the decision, etc., thus you have salvation).
Blatant Slavery to Culture for Its Thought: It is very puzzling to me how incredibly devoted Evangelicals tend to be to the Romanticist notion that feeling is our best, most reliable, or—in some cases—only access to ultimate reality. I understand that this is a deeply embedded part of American culture (think how many movies have some version of “follow your heart” as their major theme); what really puzzles me is how Evangelicals fail to see that Christianity is simply incompatible with Romanticist philosophy. That is not the only example. I have found that many Evangelicals—even some of the more thoughtful ones—are simply incapable of discussing commitment to one’s spouse or family in any terms other than the positive emotion one feels toward those people. In other words the sentence, “I stay with my husband because I love him.” means “I stay with my husband because I feel positive emotions toward him.” The problem with that is the corollary, “I forsake my husband because I no longer feel positive emotions toward him,” or the more common phrasing “I don’t love him any more.” If a choice is justified only because of the prevalence of positive emotion, then it must be rejected if negative emotion prevails. And Romanticism is only one example this slavery to cultural thought.
Inability to Effectively Critique Culture: I’m not talking about the fact that they couldn’t bring the culture to accept Christianity—that is a given. What I mean is that Evangelicalism seems to have been impotent to biblically assess the trends of our culture. For example, the Evangelical response to the cultural notion that homosexuality must be acceptable because “people are just born that way” has generally consisted of nothing more than the incensed retort “NO THEY’RE NOT!” But, one need not know Christian theology very well to understand that we are all sinful by nature and that being “born that way” is no justification before God for our sin.
Prosperity Theology: Here again, I want to acknowledge that there are many Evangelicals who resist this trend; I applaud them. Unfortunately, I have found Evangelical pastors and teachers commonly reject the ‘health and wealth gospel’ movement (good for them), but fail to reject the ideology. They know that Joel Osteen is wrong, but often fail to see how some of the things they teach are not really any different. For example, Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life is wildly popular with Evangelicals and received the 2001 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Award.
Zero Tolerance Policy Toward Any Who Point out Systemic Problems—Confrontation of individuals for their sin is occasionally acceptable (“Sister Jill, you should not have left your husband,” etc.)—at least in theory. But if anyone ever dares to question the system (“Doesn’t hosting a board-breaking karate master for Sunday worship communicate an incorrect message about what the gospel is?’), that person gets blacklisted, marginalized, shunned, or even sent packing immediately (just try asking for a scriptural defense of the trend of ‘satellite’ churches)—and even that is better than how they treat the elderly members who dare to mention that they liked it better before the music was so loud. Rather than thoughtful reflection on such questions, there is very commonly the execution of the questioner.
Tremendous muddling of the gospel of Christ—This is a powerful motivator for me. It occurred to me that, if I stay in the Baptist denomination, my children are likely to get—from their time in church—a confused mishmash of ideas which bear very little resemblance to the true gospel. I’ll quickly list just a few. As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap with my category of shallow theology.
- Faithism (trust in one’s own state of—or ability to conjure up—belief)
- Legalism (merit earned before God by means of keeping rules—or, by extension, anything else we do [self denial, charity, generosity, achievements of any sort])
- Groupism (our standing before god established by our being in the most superior group—closely linked with hero worship)
- Emotionalism (positive emotions are the substance of Christianity—or at least the most important part). Think Max Lucado, etc.
- Intellectualism (confidence before God is derived from our intellectual status–or that of our group or group’s leader)
- Prosperity theology (discussed above)
- Liberation theology—in its various forms—is alive, well, and the entire gospel according to some Evangelicals. This was not the dominant feature of any of the churches that I visited, but it was not usually clearly rejected.
- Environmentalism—as a culturally driven group, Evangelicalism tends to want to mimic the culture. Environmentalism is, “all the rage” right now, and there are plenty of Evangelicals who appear more interested in being respected in the sight of the green crazed culture than in what scripture might teach on the subject. Environmentalism is not so much a gospel as a prophecy of doom, but Evangelicals seem to be eating it up.
Where I Ended Up
These things were so prominent that I found myself thinking—as I discussed Christianity with an unbelieving friend—that the worst thing I could do, if I truly wanted him to become a Christian, would be to invite him to my church. If my church would poison this friend against Christ, why should I expect my children to respond differently? And, I was well aware that they could tell how perpetually dissatisfied I was with the churches we were going to.
I sincerely hope this post doesn’t come off as a rant. I really intend it to be a lament. I don’t even hope my words will cause others to follow me in my sorrowful walk of shame away from Evangelicalism. I suppose I hope that, in some small way, these words will contribute to the good of calling the group to accountability.
I have at least hinted at where I have ended up. Having been dragged kicking and screaming (John could well attest) to such basic theological reconsideration, I found the answers given by Lutherans to have some real weight. Having come to grasp what is and is not being asserted by Lutherans in their talk about baptism and the lord’s supper (no small feat for someone who is accustomed to thinking in Baptist categories), I have accepted the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments. As I stated in part one, that was the holdout issue for me. Even four years ago I, with John, liked most everything else about Lutheranism (in it’s better expressions—I am told there are a few Lutheran churches which very much resemble Evangelical megachurhes) better than what I found in Evangelicalism.
I was recently confirmed as a member of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in La Grange, KY). I admit that the problems I have described are not entirely absent from my new church. But, so far as I can tell, they do not at this point in time predominate. I hope and pray they never will. I believe that my children will get a far clearer understanding of the gospel from their time there than they would at any of the Evangelical churches we attended. Furthermore, I have good reason to think that my own shortcomings will not preclude me from membership and full participation there, and that patience and forgiveness (both of which I need in generous amounts) can be found there.