The Pen

American Evangelicalism: In Crisis and Confusion

We are witnessing nothing short of a full-on gospel crisis in American Evangelicalism today. Just as the homosexual movement has rapidly deteriorated into the full-blown confusion we see around the psychological disorder and delusion of gender dysphoria; we are witnessing the exponential demise of what was once a clear, focused, gospel-centered movement. When everything in evangelicalism is a gospel issue, nothing is. And this is precisely what is happening in modern evangelical Christianity. A few examples are presented in this post and then a plea for some sanctified common sense follows.

Social justice is all the rage these days. Even within the reformed camp, the balance between social concerns and the gospel is shifting much more quickly than one would have previously imagined. Social justice has, for all intents and purposes, eclipsed the pure gospel of historic Christianity so much so that we no longer know where the gospel story concludes, and its impact on me as a new person in Christ, in my culture, begins. We can see this in a variety of movements that have and are competing for the attention and the money and the time of Christians, week in and week out. Abolish Human Abortion argues that the church isn’t being the church unless it works to feverishly put a stop to the murder of unborn babies. The unborn babies are your neighbor, says AHA, and you are commanded to love your neighbor and protect the defenseless. If you are not picketing abortion clinics and opposing abortion in just the right way, then you are not loving your neighbor. For AHA, ending abortion is a gospel issue. The Gospel Coalition is cranking out one social issue after another and they are all gospel issues. From Tim Keller’s highly controversial and questionable philosophies outlined in his Generous Justice to the most recent pet, outlawing American Football, TGC has turned every social concern into a gospel issue. Many prominent Southern Baptists leaders, a denomination of which I happen to be a part, has its political arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, devoted almost exclusively to social issues. From its website we read the following: The ERLC is dedicated to engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ and speaking to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing. And of course, these issues, ranging from social justice to racial reconciliation, from sex trafficking to immigration, are all gospel issues. The ERLC, TGC, and AHA all want your attention, your time, and your money in order to carry out their agenda. But there is more.

Many of these movements, if not all of them, contain varying degrees of components associated with liberation theology and are incredibly confused about the nature of Christianity, personal holiness, and the mission of the church. This is especially the case as it relates to the relationship of the church and the world, not to mention, the content of the gospel. Now, in case you are skeptical of my thesis (and healthy skepticism is encouraged) that what you are witnessing in Evangelicalism is in fact, liberation theology sporting a fresh coat of paint, note this comment from J. Daniel Salinas concerning the book, An Inquiry into the Possibility of an Evangelical-Liberationist theology: Chaves, the Brazilian professor at the Baptist University of the Americas, argues that later developments in both North American evangelicalism (NAE) and Latin American Liberation Theologies (LALT) have drawn them theologically closer than ever before.[1]

The matter of liberation theology is itself indelibly linked to hermeneutics. This can be seen in how groups such as AHA, TGC, the ERLC, and Racial Reconciliation interpret the biblical text. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote: “The theology of liberation offers us not so much a new theme for reflection as a new way to do theology. Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis.” As Samuel Escobar points out, “This critical reflection was the result of a new political alignment (praxis) of some Christians in Latin America during the 1960s and their critical way of reading the history of the church in that region.” Liberation then offers up a new way to do theology and along with it, a new hermeneutic, a modified gospel, an alternative mission of the church, and it defines the relationship between the church and the world. The old adage comes to mind: if it is new, it is not true and if it is true, it is not new. Is it too much to suggest that what we see taking place right now in evangelicalism, among the new Calvinists, some in the reformed branch, and especially in the Southern Baptists is a new way to do theology? Social concerns are informing how theology gets done rather than theology informing how the church gets things done. Liberation theology begins with the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, and their concerns, and it shapes theology by insisting that exegesis submit to those concerns above all others. And this is how you end up with the proverbial tail wagging the dog problem. Don’t forget, Liberation theology fills those words with new meaning so that even the most orthodox of doctrines, such as male leadership in the church, is now viewed as complicit in the oppression and marginalization of women. Critical thinking is indispensable and the church neglects it to its own peril.

Returning to the Southern Baptists political arm, the ERLC, in reading the mission statement of this committee, one has to wonder if it should even exist in the first place: The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission exists to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.

First, it is the local elders’ duty to help their communities understand the moral demands of the gospel. That is accomplished through preaching, teaching, and discipleship. The same is true for applying Christian principles to moral problems. The statement reveals its overtly political agenda when it turns to “social problems,” “questions of public policy,” and “to promote religious liberty.” In order to defend this mission statement, biblically anyway, one has to change the mission of the church so that it includes culture shaping, involvement in politics, and one has to believe that the church must work for religious liberty. But when one reads the New Testament Scriptures, writings that took place in a largely oppressive and intolerant setting, they do not find anything like these objectives there. More about this below when the subject of pure religion is addressed.

One of the most recent and highly visible areas of focus for these leaders is the topic of racial reconciliation. These men are operating on the basic premise that there is a rift between Christians of different racial classes in society. They begin by uncritically accepting melanin as a legitimate way to classify race and from there they carry their message forward with great enthusiasm and passion. Now, because racism is all the rage in the culture, and because no one wants to be called a racist or seen as doing anything whatsoever that any minority group could use to accuse one of racism, these leaders want to appear to be on board fully and completely. So, they are walking the politically correct line. With this in mind, they are working tirelessly to convince the church that they have a problem that needs to be addressed. The solution to this problem includes everything from the SBC repenting for past racism on an annual basis now for several years, to convincing white Christians that they are the bad guy, having been raised in a predominantly white culture and having unwittingly adopted racists attitudes of which they are naively ignorant and incapable of recognizing. Some are even going so far as to advocate for affirmative action in pastoral staffs, and even extend that point of view to the recommendation of books and conference speakers. “There should be people in those positions who look like me,” they argue. The argument is not based on biblical exegesis, but instead, on principles directly coming from black liberation theology. In fact, recently an article appeared over at Core Christianity that was, for all intents and purposes, denying the sufficiency of Scripture on the issue of racism. I don’t measure a man’s ears when I decide to read his book or attend a conference or submit to his leadership as an elder. I am not going to pay attention to his skin tone either. It is that ridiculous and the sooner we start seeing that truth and looking at the issue that way, the better off we will be in my opinion.

Coming back to the article over at Core Christianity, the title of the article was a sure attention-getter: “Good Doctrine isn’t the Answer to Racism.” The racial reconciliation argument continues to lose exegetical debates, making it necessary to retreat and come up with new strategies. The article begins with the claim, “Just because doctrine is right, good, and true does not mean it is healthy.” Andrew Menkis argues that doctrine, in order to healthy, must be lived. Menkis, in his own attempt to jump on board the racial reconciliation train and project just the right appearance and perhaps “make his contribution,” confuses Christian doctrine with Christian praxis. The word doctrine is derived from the Greek didaskalia. It simply means, teaching, instruction, that which is taught. Doctrine is a teaching. For example, the idea that doctrine should be lived out is implied in the teaching itself. When Menkis makes the claim that he makes, that just because the doctrine is right, good, and true does not mean it’s healthy, he is making a false statement on the one hand and a very basic category error on the other. If it is true that doctrine must be lived in order to be healthy doctrine, then Menkis’ doctrine is in the same boat as all other doctrines. That means that Menkis’ own doctrine about doctrine being lived is itself not a healthy doctrine. A question for Menkis might be, “If good, right, and true doctrine isn’t healthy, what is it?” If something is not healthy, then that means, logically speaking, that it is unhealthy. This means that good, right, and true doctrines can be unhealthy. This reasoning is specious. Living doctrine isn’t doctrine. The actual application of doctrine to daily life is not doctrine. Christian doctrine, in many, many cases is meant to be lived but not always. For example, the doctrine that all those in the body of Christ are in fellowship with one another is not a doctrine itself that can be practiced. It is a doctrine that describes our new status in Christ. We call it the doctrine of reconciliation. Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God through Christ in one body by the blood of Christ. I cannot live that. I cannot live the doctrine of justification. I cannot live the doctrine of regeneration. Menkis, in his attempt to project the appearance that he is on board and in his ambition to “make a contribution” to the topic, has made himself look rather silly in my opinion. This is the kind of foolishness that you end up with when you abandon sound hermeneutical principles in preference for methods that begin with the core values and principles of pagan society.

Pure religion begins with the gospel of Christ which is itself the power of God to save and regenerate the human heart. To Nichodemus, Jesus said, you must be born afresh, anew, from above, all over again. According to James, religion that is pure, that is undefiled, is religion that includes ministry to widows and orphans and to keep oneself pure from worldly influence. This hearkens back to 1:22 where James says be doers of the word and not hearers only. But my “not doing the word” does not make the word itself unhealthy nor does it mean that the word itself does not have the cure to my problem. The word is always intended to be applied or lived where there is application to be made. The proof that God has invaded my life can be seen in my care for others, especially widows and orphans and in my refusal to pattern my life after worldly principles derived from society. The church must have a vigorous ministry in place to care for widows and orphans. In some cases, this means providing food for care, medical needs where appropriate, etc. The same is true for orphans. It could mean financial support for orphanages, investing time in visiting the children living in these arrangements, or, in some cases, it could mean adoption. God directs the heart. James tells us to look after people in need during their time of affliction. But Paul also reminds us of the practical aspects of this ministry. Paul gives us criteria with qualifications before placing a widow on the list in 1 Timothy 5. That we care for widows and orphans with some qualifications is undeniable. But how we do that will vary from person to person or church to church.

The mission of the church is to preach the gospel, baptize converts, and to make disciples. The gospel is that Christ came and died to save helpless sinners from their hopeless condition. To baptize converts is to practice the public confession that one has indeed bound himself to Christ as Lord and Savior. To make disciples is to make students of the commandments of God. Disciple-making entails teaching men to observe everything that Christ has commanded. This is the mission of the church. Nowhere in Christ’s commandments are we told that we must fight for religious freedom, shape the culture in which we find ourselves, or influence civil government to adopt Christian principles. It is through the use of a hermeneutic of liberation that such nonsense finds its way into the mainstream. The source is not Scripture, but instead, the personal ideologies of men who have gained a platform of influence. They need to be corrected by other godly, strong leaders or removed from that platform.

The relationship of the church with the world is the last component of the three basic elements that make up pure religion. The gospel is first, the mission is second, and the relationship of the church with the world is the third component of pure religion. In Romans 13 and in 1 Peter 2, the church has her instructions for how she is to relate to the civil government. Whatever philosophy you might have on this topic, you would be well-served to make sure it is grounded in these passages of Scripture. What are these instructions? First, every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. That is pretty clear. Why? Because every authority is from God. Every civil government is established by God according to Paul. And to that government, we must submit. Whoever resists the authority opposes the ordinance of God. Of course, taken in the context of Scripture as a whole, when the civil law contradicts the divine law, divine law is the greater of the two. Peter’s instructions are identical to Paul’s instructions. Peter says that we must submit ourselves to every human institution for the Lord’s sake. This applies to a king or to someone the king might send. Peter commands us to honor the king. This is not an option. It is a commandment. The word honor, from the Greek timaō means to show high regard for, to revere. Yet, many of the social causes and issues that the church and these leaders specifically find themselves obsessed with are issues that fly in the face of these instructions. This means that Christians should avoid vilifying our government leaders, president and all, publicly. We must submit to, honor, and respect our government leaders. The objection is sure to come that our leaders are godless men who support all sorts of immoral legislation and policy. This is true. But it is not any truer than it was for the government under which Paul and Peter and the rest of the early church operated. In fact, modern American government is morally superior to Rome from a this-world perspective. If you doubt that, then perhaps you should do some reading on the practices of ancient Rome. What is puzzling is that most of the leaders involved in these movements are also involved in completely ignoring the clear NT mandate regarding how the church ought to relate to the secular authority. In fact, their agenda seems to require a certain rebellion against the secular authority. Such insurrection is not the fruit of Christian living we see in the first-century church.

The evangelical church, to include its reformed branch, is in a full-on crisis today. That crisis is due in large part to elements of a hermeneutic of liberation theology finding its way into the community. Men have gained access to the celebrity platform and ascended to a place of influence who do not hold to the historic positions handed down by the reformers. Movements like liberation theology, black liberation theology, the seeker movement, and the emergent church have all worked in varying degrees to weaken the hermeneutic of the conservative Protestant churches. The intensity of the war for truth has increased exponentially just within the last 5 years and more so even within the last year. Christian leaders must do a better job of examining the foundational teachings of men before enabling their influence. It is not evil to examine these claims to make sure they reflect the teachings of Scripture. Nor is it evil, when those claims are lacking in biblical support, are incredibly weak, or outright contrary to Scripture, to correct these men. If we continue to embrace worldly practices, such as obsessing over offending one another, then truth will truly suffer as a result. We should always remember that God is an ever-present witness in what we do and why we do it.

In closing, we should remember some of the very last words of one of the greatest Christian soldiers to have fought in this War, the Apostle Paul:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Tim. 4:7-8)

[1] J. Daniel Salinas, “Review of Evangelicals and Liberation Revisited: An Inquiry into the Possibility of an Evangelical-Liberationist Theology by João B. Chaves,” Themelios 39, no. 1 (2014): 142.