Evangelicals sometimes will reduce the Christian life to one thing. Sometimes that thing will be faithful church attendance. When this happens, the way these Christians speak of what it means to be a believer becomes radically attendance-centered, and often seems comfortable with a trade-off between going to church and acts of mercy, personal holiness, etc. You can often detect this attitude in churches that are filled with very superficial relationships. No one really has the knowledge or the will to get involved in the life of someone else. All that matters is that everyone’s there on Sunday.
Sometimes we’ll reduce the Christian life to individual Bible reading and prayer. When this happens, presence at church is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed. In the off chance you do spend time with this person, they will often say something theologically suspect, and you’ll realize that this weird, untrue idea would not last very long in the company of more seasoned believers. But of course, one has to be in such company first.
And then sometimes evangelicals, especially those on my own branch of the tree, will reduce the Christian life to evangelism. These brothers and sisters talk of the church as if it’s a gas station on the world’s highway; you’ll need to stop occasionally to get refueled, but then you’re back on the road again. When evangelism becomes the end all, be all of Christian faithfulness, everything takes a back seat to reaching out, sharing, witnessing, etc. Anything that could possibly prevent a non-Christian from coming in or staying in the presence of other believers is immediately opposed and discarded. If it doesn’t result in people coming to church and making decisions for Christ, it’s not worth keeping—whatever “it” is.
I thought about this dynamic when I was reflecting on Paige Patterson’s controversial story about pastoral counsel he gave to a wife who was being abused by her husband. Patterson has since apologized for the offense taken at his words, and I don’t want to litigate the controversy right now. What struck me as I thought further about his comments was that the counsel he gave this woman fits a pattern I’ve seen so many times growing up in conservative evangelicalism. No, I’ve never heard a pastor say he was “glad” a woman came in with two bruised eyes (and that’s why I do think the outrage over the comments is fair and just), but what I have heard, literally thousands of times, is that we cannot say or do anything to an unbeliever that would cause them to flee from us. If a non-Christian is willing to sit in church, our rejoicing at their presence should outweigh any other consideration…because isn’t that why we’re here?
To express joy at an unbelieving husband’s presence at church while his abused wife stands in front of you is a severe case of Christian reductionism. Why does her battered, vulnerable body not matter as much as her husband’s rear end in the pew? There’s certainly nothing biblical about the idea that the presence of an unbeliever in church hearing the gospel is the supreme good of Christian ministry that cannot be topped. In fact, the biblical teaching of church discipline makes the opposite argument: That it is worth it to remove from fellowship a person whom you think might not be genuinely born again if doing so models the discipline of Christ and preserves the integrity of the church. Excommunication would not make sense, and would not have been commanded by the Spirit through Paul, if an unbeliever needed to be “plugged in” more than anything else.
Similarly, some evangelical churches have abandoned or ignored orthodoxy out of concern that it drives unbelievers from the church. This is the same mistake, though more palatable for many of us. A fear to confront sexual sin that leads to shifting beliefs or inconsistent praxis is the same crippling reductionism that ultimately harms both Christians and unbelievers. I wonder how many evangelicals who nod and cheer when this standard is applied against crusty Southern Baptists and domestic abuse would hedge and squirm when the topic turns to sexuality and gender. The Bible punches both left and right.
Patterson’s story reminded me how severe the consequences of this reductionism can be. When the Christian life becomes about only one thing, we become willing to move other facets of faithfulness out of the way to have a clearer shot at the one thing. The hardest part is that evangelism, out of all the things we can reduce to the Christian life to, does not feel reductionistic. It does not feel like slighting the other parts of Scripture. It feels like maximal obedience. That’s why we often don’t stop ourselves until some intensely ugly sin shows itself.
I wish the woman in Patterson’s story would have experienced a more full, a more holistically faithful vision of the Christian life, instead of being told that her husband’s sin was no big deal as long as he showed himself in church. I wish many of the churches that I know from childhood would have recovered a more balanced obedience, instead of having cookout after cookout until the body finally shriveled and died (or going door-to-door with the Romans road while having not the foggiest clue what the Bible says).
We can do better.