David French, an attorney and staff writer for the National Review, recently wrote an article titled “If You Want to Destroy Your Church, Follow Liberals’ Advice.” It goes downhill from there.
The article was a rebuttal to an editorial by Rachel Held Evans in the Washington Post. French finds apparent frustration in Evan’s critique of contemporary Evangelicalism. Evan’s main point, French proposes, isn’t an attempt to reform the style or face of the church but rather its “substance”; Evan’s pushes reforms that are not theological but really just “a progressive writer’s wish list.” He further categorizes Evans (and presumably all ‘liberal’ progressives) as desiring to unlock the “Millennial spiritual energy found in the old ways- not its actual beliefs, mind you, but the trappings of the faith. To (Rachel Held) Evans, the answer is combining high-church traditions with no-church theology.”
French goes on to make the claim- based on statistical data- that mainline churches that have adopted progressive beliefs are “committing slow-motion suicide.” His conclusion is that Evans’ approach to church is not only theologically fallible but that “theological liberalization and cultural conformity” are paths to certain extinction.
“Yes, there are liberals who ‘long’ for the church to change,” French states. “But that’s because they long for it to disappear.”
It’s hard not to discard David French’s article as a straw-man tirade against progressive Christians and/or any Christian who’s ever registered as a Democrat. He uses the word “inclusive” like profanity, conveniently notes that President Obama’s denomination has seen serious decline in recent years, and attributes the demise of mainline denominations to their adoption of gay marriage (while overlooking the recent decline of the Southern Baptist Convention as mere happenstance). French doesn’t exactly invite open discussion on the topic at hand. Which- from a mere glance at Evans’ new book- was kind of her point.
But there is- at the heart of French’s fear-mongering- a pertinent question: is “liberal” theology destroying the American church?
In the aforementioned book Searching for Sunday, Evans joked that “you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.” (That’s the beauty of self-deprecation; Evans beat French to the punch.) This seems to give further validity to French’s point: Millennial Christians are looking for wide paths on ground that can only support narrow gates.
Or are they?
I’m weary of any discussion on the state of the American church that draws lines based on “liberals” and conservatives.” But, if we’re dealing with the categories as French has arranged them, then we must also say that French represents a facet of American Christianity that is unwaveringly stubborn (or at least tone-deaf) to Millennial calls for reform. We have an arrogant belief in our own flexibility: “unity in non-essentials” we like to say. But who decides the “non-essentials”? In French’s world, it’s the conservatives. This, naturally, means that any congregation which supports gay-marriage has crossed a line from whence they can only return with sackcloth and ashes. That’s hardly flexible. And it’s as ineffective in promoting a theological way forward as was the Diet of Worms.
David French’s approach to the next chapter of the American Church is old and cliche. The use of statistics to measure the health of the church may be practical, but its not theological. And it’s ridiculous- but thoroughly conservative- to quantify theological health with statistics; “well, churches who support homosexuality are shutting down, so obviously it’s decrepit theology.” We’re a religion begun by one man who gathered a small group of people and, with them, defied the religious majority of his age and the most dominant empire known to man. Jesus didn’t win the numbers game; but conservatives like French love to think they should and will.
What is equally cliche is for conservatives to hang the fate of Christ’s church on a single, politically charged issue. Christ’s gospel does not hinge on preservation of traditional family values, pro-life movements, or Reformed Theology any more than it does on hymns and liturgy. The gospel of Jesus Christ hangs on a cross and pours out of an empty grave. French may decry the “inclusivist” mentality that’s seeping into American churches; but its equally valid to decry the moralistic agendas that attempt to roll the stone back over the grave.
And if we’re really trying to move the church forward, then fear-mongering is an unhealthy way to go about it. French operates under the belief that liberal notions, like the “gay-agenda”, will overtake and destroy the church. So Emperor Nero couldn’t wipe out Christ’s followers but the gay couple on my block will see it through? Thinking such as this is why most theological circles can’t take Evangelicals seriously.
Perhaps ‘liberal’ churches are too lenient. And that’s nothing to disregard. But conservative churches, if we’re playing off stereotypes, have a tendency to kick you while your down then slam the door in your face. Don’t get me wrong-if you fix yourself, then they’ll gladly let you back in. The prodigal son sent a wonderful precedent for church potlucks. But some scars don’t fade. As many know all too well.
So which would Jesus abhor? The wide gate or the harsh Pharisee?
It’s not for me to say. But I think we ought to at least be fair in saying- be we “progressives” or “conservatives”- that the other side, though maybe not right for us, isn’t authoritatively wrong. I’m sure this notion makes David French’s skin crawl. But a dose of practical humility would’ve helped things in 1521. And it would really help things now.
I don’t consider myself a progressive. I don’t consider myself a traditionalist either. I consider myself a Christian and an Evangelical one at that. Yet I feel myself being pushed out of my pew. And I don’t want to leave. But it’s increasingly difficult-especially when encountering voices like Mr. French’s- to find reason to stick around.
Unless, of course, I care less about my theological agenda and more about the church.
David French might find it absurd that I could allow a gay person to become a member of my church. That’s fine. I find it absurd that he would see this as a threat to Christ. On the other side of the coin, Evans might find it absurd that I support pro-life movements as opposed to advocating for women’s rights and women’s health. That’s fine, too. Let’s all go to Christ’s table together.
Because it’s within the questions we ask, within the disagreements in humility, that the noise fades and we can hear when Christ calls us to the table. And he calls us to stop quarreling, stop drawing lines, stop slapping labels and making moral diagnosis; he calls us instead to sit and eat and drink and maybe even laugh. He calls us to realize we’re all human and we’re all feasting on his grace together.
Are liberals really killing the church? I doubt it. And even if they are, even if all the hordes of evil should assemble on red and blue donkeys, I still maintain that Christians shouldn’t be worried. After all, as Rachel Held Evans reminds us:
“Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.”
Which is to say that- worst case scenario- if ‘liberals’ do manage to kill the church, they might prompt the resurrection we’re all are together waiting for, the resurrection we all truly need.
It’s not likely. But it’d be nice.