Are ‘Liberals’ Really Destroying the Church?

Are Liberals Really Destorying the church

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 theologicalAnd 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.

 

 

 

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Dear Indiana, This Is NOT Religious Freedom

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Dear Indiana,

You’re a nice state. I mean, you’ve got Bloomington and the Colts, dunes on Lake Michigan, cornfields, windmills, country concerts and the world’s best funnel cakes at your county fairs. You have a lot going for you.

But if there’s one mark against you, its last week’s signing of ‘The Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ by Governor Mike Pence. The act allows for the citing of religious beliefs as a defense for anyone prosecuted by a private party for discrimination. The main concerns with this legislature regard treatments of same-sex couples. Because Indiana business owners now are legally protected from ramifications for their refusal to serve, sell, aid or cater to gay persons on the basis of personal convictions.

“I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” Governor Pence said in a very private, quiet ceremony last week.

Which is ironic. Because this is not religious freedom.

The legislative mandate that I am able to deny someone else goods or services because I judge their beliefs as being in opposition to mine, creates a dangerous paradigm. As a Christian, I am now protected in openly and publically refusing mechanical assistance, food services, and even banking to someone, just because they are gay. Take a moment to tinker with that sentence; remove the words “Christian” and “gay” and insert “Aryan” and “Jewish” in their stead. Try it with “white” and “black.” Are you nervous yet?

This is why history books will one day recognize the gay rights movement as another sad chapter in the story of the American Church.

Because we, as American Christians, have proven once again that we will go to great lengths to avoid our oppression. We’ve proven that our knee-jerk reaction to the slightest scent of persecution is to rise up and pull whatever political strings are necessary to ensure that we are safe. It doesn’t matter who isn’t protected, just so long as we’re left unscathed.

Thus, in an effort to avoid being oppressed, the Church willingly takes on the role of oppressor.

This is not religious freedom. And it certainly is not Christian.

We would be wise- in debates such as these- to reconsider our earthly role as the body of Christ. Because the calling of the Christian is not to legislate our beliefs. The Biblical mandate for Christian relationships with earthly kingdoms is not to force them into alignment with our personal journeys of sanctification. Rather, God commands that the church be a city on a hill, a vibrant example of Christ’s love in contrast to the world’s corruption, evil, oppression and hate.

We ought not say: “let us ensure that our’s is a Christian government.” Because it never will be.

Rather, what we should be saying, what we should be living, is a life that tells the world: “Look at how nations go to war and kill each other- we Christians love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us. Look at how the kingdoms are enthroned with power and money- we Christians share possessions openly with everyone. Look at how governments close borders to refugees in need- we Christians open our houses to anyone. Look at how people discriminate and hurt, we Christians love and cherish the marginalized, broken and yes- even the sinful. Lest we forget the log in our own eye.”

But we cannot say this. Not right now, anyway. We’re too busy protesting, arguing and advocating for our ‘rights.’ When we’ve accomplished that, we might see to those of others. Maybe.

Which is to say every Christian in Indiana and the rest of America should look upon this law with ominous shudders because of the precedent it establishes for those Christians across the globe who really are facing persecution. Today, thousands of Christians live under the oppression of radical religious rule (have we forgotten the plight of Iraqi Christians under ISIS who are forced to pay a hefty tax or convert?). Christians live in fear, many unable to attain basic services or earn a living. They are boycotted, robbed, beaten and sometimes killed. All this because a radical Muslim’s expression of their religious convictions is protected by their judicial law.

And that’s not religious freedom.

True, refusing to serve someone at the local diner doesn’t equate to beating them and taking their wallet. But history tells us- again, Germany circa 1935- that its not too far behind. And it’s a slippery slide.

To many of us, this law will be of little concern. We will never feel its ramifications. Maybe this is because we don’t live in Indiana. Maybe it’s because we’re part of the religious status quo. Maybe it’s because we’re too busy making sure that religious freedom means: “I’m safe and I’m free.”

But -if we’re being honest, Indiana- we know that this is not religious freedom. It’s the tyranny of self-interest. And it’s been the go-to reaction of American Christians for far too long.

The issue of homosexuality is a real one. It is an issue of moral and theological implications that all Christians should grapple with. But someone else’s conviction regarding their sexuality has nothing to do with Christ’s mandate that- above all else- I am to show love, hospitality, generosity, empathy and care.

We must come to value the freedom of Christ more than our ‘freedom of religion.’ The freedom of Christ moves us to find new ways to love all others at all times. And it certainly doesn’t allow us to go on a legislative binge whenever we get the sense that culture is treading on our toes.

My hope is that one day the American Church will be known, not for the legislature we erect in self-defense, but for the dividing walls we destroy with our love. It can happen. And in the grand scheme of things, Indiana, you’re not a bad place to start.

After all, you have funnel cakes.

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Sincerely,

A Christian in support of freedom

 

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P.S. And, by the way, what exactly is a ‘Hoosier??’

 

 

 

What Needs To Be Said About Wheaton

What Needs To Be Said About Wheaton

Normally I’m proud to tell people that I graduated from Wheaton. It has a reputation for being an institution that thrives on the basis of rigor, discipline, and academic conversation all towards the ends of “Christ and His Kingdom.”

But this week Wheaton made the news in a painful way. The college has a long standing tradition of hosting a Town Hall Chapel. During this gathering of the college community, students are allowed to address the college’s president- Dr. Philip Ryken- directly. It’s a cherished tradition in which the student body is allowed to express their concerns publicly and respectfully and hear the response straight from the horse’s mouth- so to speak.

But on Monday that’s not what happened. On Monday a married, heterosexual senior stood up and asked Dr. Ryken a question concerning apparent discrepancy in Wheaton’s policy against same-sex marriage and/or relationships. The student (who’s wife has shared a wonderful post on the incident found here) saw a potential discontinuity in Wheaton’s Community Covenant- a document all students and staff must sign- between the college’s decision to directly address and condemn homosexuality while excluding any stance on sacraments such as baptism and the Lord’s supper. The student asked:

“Why is it the case that our college, in documents we all must agree to or be expelled, insists on formally condemning and denying equality to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, on spurious theological grounds, yet completely leaves behind baptism and Eucharist, which Jesus Christ himself instituted to grow and strengthen the Christian community?”

And then something terribly embarrassing and immature occurred: another student threw and apple at him. Someone threw an apple at him. Someone threw and apple at a student who questioned the school’s stance on homosexuality.

To make matters worse, a couple of days later the perpetrator posted a letter to the college’s Forum Wall, an informal bulletin board in the campus’ student center, often used for the expression and even comedic sparring of opinions. But this letter was anything but a joke. Here’s what it says:

Forum Wall

Now I want to be clear here: this post is not about my stance on the issue of homosexuality, per say. The issue is a nuanced, complicated, theologically and politically (to say nothing of emotionally) charged debate. And it’s not my intent to attempt to address it with any sort of authority let alone comprehensively in the next five minutes.

But I also can’t compartmentalize what took place at Wheaton College. While on the one hand, this was immature and disrespectful, we mustn’t pretend that such diagnoses pertain only to the perpetrator and not to the nature of the debate itself. In other words, this particular event is a glaring example of what is somewhat symptomatic of Evangelicals when it comes to the debate over homosexuality.

Evangelicals, as exemplified by the author of this letter, like to assert that we stand on the foundation of truth. We claim the high ground of morality then dare anyone obstinate enough to go ahead and question us. We hold our viewpoints with an attitude that says “this is the truth. Because it’s undeniably what the Bible says and the Bible is inerrant. Therefore not only am I justified in my assertions but I am also justified in the manner in which I express them.”  In other words, we employ a type of theological immunity with which we excuse a multitude of sins. And the events at Wheaton are a bitter and deplorable example.

Homosexuality is not a black and white issue. I say this because humanity is not a black and white issue. There were Nazi soldiers who committed great acts of humanity and most of the figures we hold up as saints and tenants of the faith committed sins which would have made LA paparazzi blush. Jesus did not walk around with a set of criteria, presenting us with a checklist for morality. Rather he told parables, nuanced, intriguing, mysterious and vague parables that confused the hell out of the disciples (and us- if we’re being honest) and pissed off the Pharisees. Jesus denied the dogmatic structures of religion.

Likewise, we- the church- cannot view the issue of homosexuality as something which we address once (either in condemnation or affirmation) and then declare the problem solved. This would be irresponsible of a church filled with people of every shade, culture, disposition and struggles. For theology without relationship is moralism and relationship without theology is humanism. There’s not a blanket, dogmatic approach to life with Christ. Religion works that way, but Jesus doesn’t.

And yet, we often handle the issue of homosexuality the same way as a certain Roland Hesse. As frustrated and angry as I am with this individual, he’s really just a product of the Evangelical agenda developed in response to the gay agenda.

It is true- and I have witnessed it and experienced it personally- that there are individuals who express their support of homosexuality in disrespectful and immature fashions. They make blanket generalizations, declaring any Christians who can’t- with either intellectual or theological integrity- affirm homosexuality as “intolerant” and “hateful.” This does happen and it is just as unhelpful as throwing an apple at in Town Hall. It hinders the conversation which desperately needs to be had.

But- and here’s my point- such (limited) occurrences do not justify Christians reacting in kind. And if there’s one thing Christians are mighty, damned good at it’s adopting a victim mentality when it comes to this debate. We love to point at the secular culture and express how unfair, immature and cruel they’re being to us. We’re like two siblings in the back of the van on family vacation: one of us punching the other and then defending our actions with a: “well they started it!”

Evangelicals have come to base our mode and fashion of debate on the standard of culture rather than Scripture. Again, I’m not talking about the issue of homosexuality itself. I’m saying that the way we handle this argument- before we even get to the argument itself– is in stubborn denial of the log in our own eye. We punch because we were punched first; we insult because was have the high ground and its time that those miscreants understood that.

What needs to be said about the episode at Wheaton College this week is not: “We’re sorry this happened. But the Bible does condemn homosexuality.” No, it’s time that we shut up, keep our dogma to ourselves, and instead express what really needs to be said.

“We’re sorry.”

That’s it. No “but…you’re also wrong, so….yea.” No “well have you seen how the other side acts?!” No “but we have to make sure we express the truth!” No “but if we don’t say anything then we’ll be allowing Christ to be slandered.” Christ never asked us to defend him. He asked us to put away our swords and learn how to love others…for a change.

The testimony of Scripture is one in which Christ said “go and sin no more.” But is also (arguably more so) a story that speaks for the marginalized, the hushed, the oppressed and the overlooked. If we, as Christians, are the ones throwing the apples and not the one’s being hit by them, then we really need to check ourselves. Because Jesus didn’t throw anything at us. To the contrary, he received our immaturity, our sin, our anger, our self-righteousness. He conquered our sin with his love and commanded us to do the same. If we want to enter this vital conversation as representatives of Christ, then we need to start with a more humble approach.

What needs to be said about Wheaton starts and ends with “we’re sorry.” We’re sorry for the pain, hurt, hatred, anger and injustice that we’ve committed in the name of Christ. We’re sorry that we create environments where anyone who says “well, hey maybe we’re wrong here…” is silenced and put down. We’re sorry.

But if something else must be said then, please, let it be: “forgive us, we know not what we do. And we hope someday that you will know we are Christians by our love.”

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