One thing that concerns me about conservative evangelicalism right now is the inability we often demonstrate to let those who exist and teach outside the boundaries of historic Christianity…just stay there. I often feel like there’s a compulsion in evangelical culture to always be writing and tweeting against “false teachers,” and here I include air-quotes not because false teachers don’t exist, but because not every person who teaches false things actually rises to the level of a “false teacher.”
There is a time when polemics are needed to protect the confessional integrity of a body of believers, either at a small group, congregational, denominational, and, yes, cultural level. But the gospel urgency of such polemics should, I think, decline as we go down that scale. Unorthodoxy in small group and local church teaching should be met with quick and decisive action. Unorthodoxy in denominational teaching should likewise be addressed, but that situation is different and requires a more careful, strategic response, one that must consider how much this denominational position affects the congregation.
The cultural level is the most slippery of all categories. If you want to, you can do polemics full time against all sorts of heresies in American religious culture. But is that really what orthodox evangelicals should aspire to? Or should we practice a sort of polemical triage, keeping close watch over the corporeal bodies around us and a more marginal watch over heresies that exist outside our boundaries? This is not to say that bad teaching in other denominations or in Christian institutions of which I’m not a member are unimportant. It’s just to say that they’re not AS important.
The problem is you wouldn’t know this from reading a lot of evangelical blogs. I honestly don’t know why we’re still writing stuff about Jen Hatmaker. It’s fairly evident that she does not align with historic Christian teaching on sexuality or marriage. Yes, LifeWay has stopped selling her books. But that’s because Lifeway is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with specific beliefs about sexuality which is funded by local churches that share those beliefs. Lifeway’s compelling interest to not sell books by Hatmaker or other progressive evangelicals such as Rachel Held Evans is not just a culture war interest, it’s an institutional interest. Lifeway exists because Southern Baptists go to church and give money for the support of institutions that don’t contradict the Baptist Faith and Message.
What I don’t understand is why this test of compelling institutional interest applies to our resources, but not our minds and our time. Yes, there is certainly space to write about people and doctrines “outside our tribe.” That space should be, I would submit, filled first and foremost by pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, and church teachers who have an obligation to their flocks. But blogs, Tweets, videos, and #content that is produced from within clearly defined doctrinal and institutional boundaries, directed toward people and ideas and groups that don’t share any of those boundaries (in fact, they may not posses any real boundaries of their own), feels like a validation wrapped in a rebuke.
Part of the reason for the intra-Christian animosity in the same-sex debate is a bipartisan attempt to maintain an illusion: the illusion that we really are all on the same team, and that some members of the team are just awful members. This is not true. We’re not members of the same team, a fact that would be more self-evident if we took denominational identity and doctrinal coherence seriously. To continue to wring our hands about people like Hatmaker is to continue to give the nebulous, unaccountable, and helplessly du jour concept of “online platform” a spiritual significance that it hasn’t earned. It’s not at all clear to me why Hatmaker’s opinions on same-sex marriage belong in a different category than Bart Ehrman’s opinion on the Scriptures. The latter is utterly false and damnable, but also of no immediate compelling interest to my family, my church, my denomination, or even my subset of evangelicalism. The fact that Hatmaker’s heterodoxy is more in demand than Ehrman’s may mean I should be more ready to give an answer on that issue than I might be otherwise, but it assuredly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for me to wage an online war against it in a way that implicitly baptizes social media as a valid ecclesial structure, or that extols getting a book deal as just as consequential to ecclesial life as being ordained for ministry.
Some people might read this and think I am calling for people, especially women, to be more marginalized and ignored, while letting the “experts” handle things for us. That’s not what I’m calling for. But I am wondering aloud whether part of our problem as American evangelicals right now is not only that we have too many bad teachers, but that we have too many teachers, period. When a charismatic speaker with a podcast writes a book that is theologically dysfunctional, I simply do not think that it’s in evangelicals’ best interest to always make “correcting” them a full time job. If the theological dysfunction were ignored rather than engaged, might it be possible that the economic incentives for such dysfunction would thin out? And if they did, might it be possible that we’d be left with a better ratio of teachers—who want to think long, slowly, and deeply about Scripture, under authority and accountability of real ecclesiastical structures—to platform builders, who want to become social media famous with the help of their resentments, and whose only accountability is their Google analytics page?