The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism, Part I: The problem

The Evening Descends
The Evening Descends (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Scott Fowler

Behind the Times

According to Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (Resident Aliens), Christendom, having begun with Constantine in 313 AD, ended in 1963.1 I can still remember the inner conflict I experienced the first time I heard that Christendom was dead or that we were living in a post-Christian era. It was well after 1963 when the news came to me. I was young and rather uninitiated into mainstream theological discussions, but even after I heard and understood those statements, I encountered many others who had not heard either. In fact, I am sure that I could still find many even today who do not understand what is meant by post-Christendom or for that matter what Christendom means. My point? The average evangelical normally runs at least twenty to forty years behind the times. With that said, there is another seismic shift happening in the church today. Perhaps it is more like an implosion or, better yet, a radiation accident that everyone is trying to escape before it gets lethal.

The Demise of Evangelicalism

It is not often that one is afforded the opportunity to witness the end of an era. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Not all at once, to be sure, but it fell. Those of us alive at that time witnessed the end of an era. Today, we are witnessing the end of an era in the Church—the end of evangelicalism. But once again, most of us are late getting the message.

The seeds for the demise of evangelicalism have been in the sod for quite some time. I only began to be aware of it last year, though I have been cognizant of its problems for longer than that. For me, the concept of post-evangelicalism came when I recently heard an interview Phyllis Tickle gave to Gabe Lyons for the Next Christians video series. I was alarmed, did further research on Phyllis Tickle, and was yet more alarmed. So, I read her book, The Great Emergence. That’s when I realized that I did not want to be labeled by the word evangelical anymore.

Now, consequently, Phyllis Tickle doesn’t want to be called an evangelical either. In fact, it would seem that the term evangelical is being abandoned like a sinking ship leaving nothing but an empty hull behind. Where it gets interesting is deciding what we are abandoning evangelicalism for. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Politics

Some are abandoning evangelicalism for political reasons. The fabled evangelical block of power failed conservatives in the last two major elections. Now, with evangelicals being more and more labeled as extremists, I expect to see the Republican Party begin moving away from evangelicals and moving to the left—at least far enough to get back in the game.2

 Emergence Christianity

Some are abandoning evangelicalism because they feel that they are part of a historically significant movement, namely emergence Christianity. Among two of the disturbing claims made by Tickle in her interviews and books is that the concept sola Scriptura (Scripture only as our final source of authority) is all but dead, and that the Church will “get over” its rejection of homosexuality and, presumably, will make room for gay Christianity (not a surprising perspective coming from a lay Eucharistic minister and lector in the Episcopal Church).3 Though Tickle has an uncanny ability to speak articulately and yet leave you wondering if she has answered the question, she nevertheless does not seem to be a reporter for the “sans-sola-Scriptura/pro-homosexual” brand of emergence Christianity but rather a strong advocate for and participant in it. All of this is coupled with a staunch reinvigoration within emergence Christianity of a bottom-up, social gospel.

Theistic Evolution

Some are abandoning evangelicalism by virtue of their errant doctrines as can be witnessed at biologos.org where there is strong advocacy for embracing theistic evolution by self-proclaimed Bible-believing, Christians. The issue here is not a quibbling over age/day theories, but whether or not humanity sprung from one original mated pair (Adam and Eve), etc.

The Antagonistic “Insiders”

Some are abandoning evangelicalism by virtue of their rejection of its tenets. In other words, their complaints about evangelicals seem to have led them into being something else, though they do not admit it. In many ways these could be characterized as “bullies” who have an “insider’s” axe to grind against evangelicals. These people present themselves (and in some cases are represented by the media) as evangelicals, but when they speak they don’t sound like evangelicals.4 At least they don’t sound like we used to. So, the Church gets saddled with “experts” who seem more like Trojan horses than true arbiters of wisdom coming from within genuine evangelical spirituality.

Gay Christianity

Along with a reinvigorated secular push towards the nation-wide acceptance of same-sex marriage (helped along in no small way by the fact that, in his second inaugural address, President Barrack Obama decided to elevate a bar fight in New York City to the same level as the fight for racial equality when he mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall all in the same breath),5 there is an astonishing tide of momentum gathering behind the idea of gay Christianity. As mentioned above, proponents from the orthonomic branch of emergence Christianity6 are helping to lead the way. But, other lesser known influences are cropping up all over the place. Sandra Turnbull,7 a Assemblies of God-raised and educated8 lesbian pastor of the Glory Tabernacle Christian Center, has written a book titled God’s Gay Agenda in which she declares,

Today, I know who I am. I am a eunuch born this way from my mother’s womb. I have a destiny in God. I have a high-calling that I am pursuing along with my life partner. Love fills my life. I have a wonderful family and a great Church. And to think that all of this was made possible because my life was turned upside down many years ago when I found myself in the eye of a storm— a storm about my sexuality.9

Turnbull is not alone. A perusal of Rachel Held Evans’ blog site (an author published by Thomas Nelson) reveals her support of gay Christianity as this quote, written concerning the infamous Chick-Fil-A boycott:

I am especially sorry to my LGBT friends who have been bullied in the name of Christ—many of you as Christians  yourself—and I long for the Church to become a more welcoming home to all who want to follow Jesus, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. . . . As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel.10 

When I expressed concern to Thomas Nelson publishers, who published Evans’ recent book, their response was:

 The personal opinions and political views expressed by an author are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect that of the company. Thomas Nelson publishes products written from a Christian worldview, and we respect our author’s right to express their personal opinion. We cannot comment on anything concerning Ms. Evans other than the book that she has published through us.11

There are so many more examples like the recent article in the Atlantic, Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University. Forgetting for now the question of how any Christian should respond when put in the situation of the author’s professors at Liberty University, you can’t help but anticipate the coming battle when you read,

Eventually, though, I decided that if Jesus met me some time, and if he got to know me, and hear my ideas, and listen to me laugh, then he would like me. What made me come to that conclusion? Meeting people like Dr. Prior and Dr. Reeves. All these people—including Jerry Falwell—helped teach me about Jesus, and I figured that if they liked me, then maybe Jesus might, too. Gandhi once said that he liked Christ, but not Christians because they were so unlike their leader. But the people I met at Liberty… well, Gandhi would have liked them.12

Well, it’s nice to be liked. Jesus more than likes us, He loves us with an everlasting love (Psalm 100:5; John 3:16). But what does that mean to the author? If Jesus “likes” you does that mean He accepts you? Does that mean that you were created to be a homosexual? Sandra Turnbull thinks so.

What about the youth pastor from Texas who writes in his blog,

I have homosexuals who come to my youth ministry regularly. Some of them passionately love Jesus. I have seen their lives and their hearts, and I know that they have a real relationships with God. Do homosexuals who loves [sic] God go to heaven? I know it. Do they have real relationships with God? Undeniably. . . . If you are a homosexual (teen) and have felt judged, criticized and hurt by church, come to [my youth group]. If you’re afraid to step into church because you’ve experienced alienation in the past… come to [my youth group].

I hope I am wrong about this young pastor, but I think he just planted the seeds for a gay church!

The Believing Church

Evangelical doesn’t seem to mean what it used to mean. More accurately, it is being co-opted by many groups that do not hold to what used to be known as traditional evangelical values. OK. I am not married to the term evangelical but I am concerned that the believing Church identify itself in an ever-changing atmosphere of heresy and compromise.

 

Notes

1 This is a tongue-in-cheek general reference by H & W.

2 In the lapse of time since this was written several articles have been written documenting the movement of Republicans towards the left of center for the sake of remaining viable politically, particularly on the subject of gay marriage. To be clear, my main issue with public support of same-sex marriage is that it places homosexuality in the category of normal behavior and as a Bible believing Christian I cannot endorse that. The question of human rights is a separate issue. For that reason, I do not say to the LGBT community that they cannot practice whatever sexual behavior they may desire. I don’t agree with it and I reserve the right to say so and to warn against such behavior. But asking me to endorse it, support it, normalize it, even Christianize it goes beyond what the true meaning of tolerance calls for.

3 See her website at http://www.phyllistickle.com/about/

Simply read the writings of Mark Noll, Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Dudley and others.

5 Selma, Alabama played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, Seneca Falls was the birthplace of the Women’s Rights movement, and Stonewall is a Greenwich Village gay bar in Manhattan where it is said “gay pride began.”

6 In her book The Great Emergence (pages 149-150), Phyllis Tickle describes two approaches or views of authority happening within emergence Christianity. One is “orthonomy” which is “the tendency . . . [to allow] aesthetic response and/or emotionally or spiritually moving experience to become bases for authority. The other is “theonomy” meaning that “only God can be the source of perfection in action and thought.” Now, presumably this means using the Bible as the final authority. Tickle, however, says “neither is sufficient by itself.”

7 See these websites for more information about Turnbull and her book and her church: http://sandra-turnbull.com/endorsements/http://glorytabernacle.com/index.html ; http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Gay-Agenda-ebook/dp/B009KUREQE.

8 The Amazon site for her book contains a short bio of Turnbull which claims she was educated at Evangel College and Claremont School of theology. Her website mentions her Assemblies of God missionary parents. I confess that I am assuming that Evangel College must refer to what is today called Evangel University, an Assemblies of God school which began as Evangel College in 1955 (see previous footnote for these websites).

9 Turnbull, Sandra (2012-10-01). God’s Gay Agenda (Kindle Locations 173-176). Glory Publishing. Kindle Edition.

10 http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/chick-fil-a

11 My concern at the time was that Evans is being presented as an evangelical Christian and being endorsed by a leading evangelical Christian publishing house, yet holding views that are inconsistent with an evangelical Christian worldview. Thomas Nelson’s claim that they publish products written from a Christian worldview while showing no interest in any personal opinion expressed outside of what was being published reflects either that Thomas Nelson thinks gay Christianity is part of the Christian worldview or that somehow it is excusable to compartmentalize what we sell separately from what we say or think personally. My view is that one’s everyday worldview needs to agree with our “sales pitch.”

12 http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/being-gay-at-jerry-falwells-university/274578/

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

 

10 thoughts on “The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism, Part I: The problem

  1. somepcguy

    The biggest problem that many Christians have is that they believe that at some point Christians were the majority. I come from a tradition that teaches that Christians have always been the minority. A key verse in my belief system is Matthew 7:14 “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Christendom was never composed primarily of followers of Jesus, rather at one time Christendom was a tool used by some to maintain political power. Christendom has ceased being a useful tool for those seeking political power to control the populace, so they have abandoned it. Christianity has never lent itself to the politically powerful controlling the populace (hence the creation of Christendom, which took on the veneer of Christianity without the substance).

    As I wrote this reply I found that my thoughts on the subject were too complex to clearly lay out in a reply to your post so I will stop at this point. I think you will get the gist of my point.

    • cscottfowler

      Thanks for commenting somepcguy! I don’t think that most Christians even think in terms of Christendom or not but I do think that American evangelicals have thought in terms of being in a majority for various advantages it can bring, although I certainly don’t think every Christian who has tried to leverage majority momentum has had evil motives.

      Interesting that your tradition (I’d be curious to know specifically what you are referring to) has specifically taught that Christians are in a minority. It is that the road is narrow and few will find it, but that isn’t a goal. The Great Commission has always been about winning the world. I think most who hope for a Christian majority hope so for the sake of bringing about what they believe is best for society, in the same way that conservative and liberal politicians do. There have always been those who have abused power but most evangelical Christians would agree that the believing Church in America in the last 200-300 years has brought about great good in the world and greatly influenced an America that has done great good in the world and like it or not Christendom mentality has played a part in that.

      Personally, I think it is good that we are in an era where the Church is not relying on the government for approval. In any case, my article mostly used Christian ignorance about the end of Christendom anecdotally and was not the point. I is possible that you could equate my concern about the demise of evangelicalism with a defense of Christendom but I assure you the two are not related as far as my concerns go though a point could be made that the current onslaught against right doctrine has to do with the fall of Christendom but that is not what this is about.

      I hope you will share more.

      • somepcguy

        I am part of the Mennonite Anabaptist tradition. Mennonites have traditionally wished for everyone to become Christian, but, also, traditionally believed that Christians would always be in the minority. Of course, they also traditionally avoided any kind of political involvement. It is only in my lifetime that Mennonites began to vote.

        • cscottfowler

          Hi somepcguy, thanks for sharing more about your tradition. I certainly agree with that. In other words, as a classical Pentecostal I was raised with the same intentions/expectations. I believe that is a scriptural expectation based on what we see in the book of Revelation, etc. Personally I am for Christians voting and doing their best to be constructive participants within their respective cultures but we must realize that God is our source and the only real hope we have of transforming the culture is by being the genuine Church. Hey, I hope you will be part of this growing cci discussion.

    • Charles Scott Fowler

      Hi Chris, this is the difficult place we find ourselves in these days. It is all too easy to disallow truth by simply invalidating someone else’s interpretation. As a result you can find books and scholars who have studied, published, and stand ready to support almost any interpretation. In any case, when it comes to Romans 1 we are not talking about some difficult to translate words:

      “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

      The plain reading of the text is easy enough to understand. You have to redefine the context in order to get any traction but that doesn’t hold up either.

      But, in answer to your question, even without considering the Bible, the idea of men in sexual relations with men is not an obvious one.

  2. Rich

    We use terms like Christendom and Evangelicalism, Democrat and Republican, I think, to identify groups of people who think similarly, and share similar convictions and goals. But at some point, the fabric, the thing that holds the group together, begins to wear out… That is sad, certainly, but not a terrible thing. It can be a time to re-evaluate. At church this past Sunday, I heard someone describe himself, I believe, as a born-again, Bible-believing, Spirit filled Christian. I like that term.

    • cscottfowler

      Hi Rich! Yeah, you know it’s never a good idea when we force people to profess to believe in something against their will. It’s like the guy who goes to work and demands that everyone stop swearing and his co-workers cooperate. He’s foolish if he thinks he has brought about any heart change. Christendom was sort of like that in many ways. Lately I have been referring to the believing Church as my way of referring to people who believe the Bible as evangelicals traditionally have. Of course that does not mean there won’t be areas where we disagree of non-essentials.

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