5 Points on Race and Reformed Evangelicalism

The status quo cannot hold.

I am not qualified to write authoritatively on the vast majority of issues concerning racial justice, equality, or reconciliation. I feel a burden to listen and learn in this season of my life, rather than to speak. I did however have a rather enlightening moment this week during the T4G conference. I watched as Southern Baptist David Platt delivered a powerful and gospel-soaked message on whites, blacks, and American churches. I also watched as Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, preached a confessional message on neighbor-love that struck the spiritual core of this fragile moment in evangelicalism.

I then watched as some pastors and other T4G viewers (and I’m certain more than a few non-viewers) expressed their disgust with the conference and with these speakers for talking about race at all. One particularly vociferous bro lambasted Platt for making biblical exposition all about politics. Another person lamented Ligon Duncan’s “obsession” with skin color. Several other folks still couldn’t overcome their rage at plenary speaker Thabiti Anyabwile for a TGC article he wrote which argued that there is a generational repentance necessary for the historic violence against black Americans.

The combustion of what I heard from the speakers at T4G and what I saw from a vocal minority in response got me thinking. Here are 5 thoughts I had. Take them or leave them, from one who is no expert but is paying attention regardless:

1. There is a reckoning due. The status quo will not hold, and this fact is due to nothing less than divine Providence.

From where I’m sitting, confessional evangelicalism has been forced, through history past and present, as well as the very fruit of her evangelistic labors, to encounter its racial message. In a way, the tensions are a testament to God’s blessing of our churches. There  are ethnic minorities in our congregations and our institutions, and this is a mercy and grace of Jesus. Their voices are being heard, and that is a good thing. The status quo will not hold, and we cannot want it to hold without simultaneously wanting the fruits of evangelical labors to be revoked.

2. Evangelicals must label racism as a heretical sin and be consistent in our treatment of those who insist on holding onto such heretical sin.

Evangelical institutions and churches have used her biblical measures of church discipline and accountability to thwart the platforms of open theists, process theologians, Emergent church writers, sexual ethics revisionists, and others. Racism is an error and a sin no less than these other ideas, and in fact is demonstrably worse than most of them. If evangelical theology and praxis is worth protecting from the Rob Bells and Brian McLarens of the world, it is all the more worth protecting from tithers who register usernames like “The South Was Right” and apostatize in their spare time. Excommunicate the unrepentant, because their salvation might depend on it.

3. This is not going to be a clean shift. There will be errors. The question is which side do we err on.

There are deeply complex contours to this issue. If the possibility of making a misstep is grounds for throwing up our hands and giving up, then we should give up now. But if it’s not, then evangelicals who care about their own heart and the hearts in their churches have to decide in advance which side they’re going to err on when they err. Will they err on the side of excessive empathy and over-willingness to listen and change? Or will they err on the side of ancestral reverence and political hegemony? Should we really fear dipping into tokenism more than we fear a pinch of white supremacy?

4. Identity politics vs status quo is a damnably false dilemma.

It is possible to resist the secular spirit of the age both from the progressives and the nativists. Reducing people to their ethnicity, class, gender, or affinity group is not Christian thinking. The Bible explodes such easy categorization by submitting all our identities to our adopted identity in Christ. We must vigorously reject anyone who says that our recovery of biblical ethnic justice means we must adopt counter-Christian narratives of human flourishing.

5. Free churches can effect real change.

Evangelicalism  is often criticized for lack of central authority. But visceral reactions to Thabiti, Platt, and others prove that central authority is not synonymous with theological authority. It is precisely the theological authority of anti-racism messages that some white evangelicals have resisted. When the Bible is opened, there is power, and thus there is anger at that power. Those who think that evangelical churches cannot effect real change without a radically different ecclesiology are looking for power in the wrong place.

Advertisements

Against Child Missionaries

Why it is profoundly wrong to look to children to become leaders of our culture

In conservative evangelicalism, the phrase “salt and light” can often be used as a magic elixir. Summon it at the appropriate time, and suddenly none of your parenting decisions can be questioned. Are the folks at church wondering why you let your 13 year old watch any sitcom or film they want? “I just want them to be able to be salt and light when talking about pop culture.” Feeling guilty over sending your 6 year old to the gender-bending local public school? “They will be salt and light there.” Needing to explain at Bible study why your teenage daughter is dating a future Hugh Hefner wannabe? “She can be salt and light to him!”

The reality is that many conservative Christians have a deeply flawed view of their own children. They see them as potential deep cover agents for the kingdom, carrying their unwavering beliefs and values into the nooks and crannies of culture where adults can’t fit. The temptation to think of children as just miniature versions of adults—with all the fortitude and none of the career concern—is overwhelming for many, not least because it often works. It’s one thing for a 35 year old to go door to door in the neighborhood with gospel testimony. That’s just religion. If a 7 year old does it, though…well, that’s impressive.

It turns out that the same dynamics work in secular politics too. Look no further than the eager appropriation of children as the foremost agents of critical social change. They march for their lives, prophesying with adolescent lips against the NRA and Republican Party. They likewise “lead the way” on the latest gender theory novelties. If you want the biggest media outlets to respond to your political cause, the best way to ensure it is if you have some kids you can put out in front. If a 35 year old demands gun control legislation or affirms the liquidity of his sexuality, he’s just an activist. If an elementary student does the same, she is a “generation:” nothing less than salt and light.

Child missionaries, sacred and secular alike, are a powerful force in our society. In a recent post, Alan Jacobs references Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s as documentary proof of just how far our cultural factions can go in using children as culture warriors. Beck’s book documents the hysteria and disinformation surrounding day cares and preschools in the Reagan years and the widespread manipulation of children by well-meaning (and perhaps otherwise) adults into giving false testimonies of abuse and perversion. “The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed,” Jacobs writes. “And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.”

In fact, that kind of manipulation often goes unpunished. Why? Because of the extraordinarily sensitive and volatile nature of contradicting the words of earnest-sounding children. In most cases it is simply unacceptable to contradict or argue with another person’s child when they are sincerely telling you what they think. To do so, even with great care, is tantamount to assaulting their self-esteem, erasing their sense of identity, and bullying. Of course, in most conceivable situations, the benefits of engaging a child in this kind of serious debate (unless you are a tutor) are negligible. So most clever adults learn how useful weasel words can be for escaping this situation (‘That’s very interesting, dear. I’m sure you’re right”) without having to look forward to a far more uncomfortable confrontation with an affronted parent. Predictably, many adults have now caught on to how powerfully they can leverage this dynamic in favor of their pet ideologies.

As much as I’d like to pretend that secular progressives are worse than I in the weaponizing of children, I cannot do that. Because I grew up in evangelical culture, I’ve seen the true depth and skill with which Christians can turn their children into missionaries (figuratively and literally). Don’t misunderstand me. Believers have a clear mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This includes catechesis and practical discipleship. Any Christian home that is being faithful to Christ in this will feature young children who express their spiritual formation publicly. But the proper relationship between spiritual formation and public expression is one of predominantly quiet, intimate faithfulness, not of spectacle or parental expectations of super-spirituality.

For years now I have quietly cringed when I see small children at pro-life rallies holding up placards and handing out literature. I get it! The pro-life movement is about children after all. It’s indeed powerful to see young, smiling faces in a moment of advocacy for life itself. But I cringe because I sense that something is fundamentally off. I want my children’s generation of pro-life advocacy to be shaped first and foremost not be public protests or political mobilization but by the gentle joys of viewing human life the way that God does. Experiencing those joys and learning that vision takes time, and time is what children need far more than roles of leadership.

Likewise, I don’t want to commission my children to be “salt and light” in ways that demand spiritual resources that they haven’t formed yet. This is, I think, what leaves the poor taste in one’s mouth when seeing children march for gun control. Many of these kids bear no weight of responsibility toward people who are utterly dependent on them for safety and provision. Of course they don’t, they’re children! The marching youth cannot fathom the complex issues of self, family, and country-defense that make up the historical foundation of the Second Amendment. They shouldn’t be expected to, because such comprehension is adult in nature, and it is a moral abomination—the spiritual logic of Roe v Wade— to desire a democracy made up of only politically savvy citizens without the naïve and foolish children. Asking our children to become our sociopolitical guardians is the same as telling them we wish they didn’t have to exist.

It is a great hypocrisy that we as a culture decry child labor but glorify child activism. It is a greater hypocrisy that often the people of the Way do no better. Remember that to the disciples, Jesus promised the opportunity to become fishers of men. What did he say to the children? “Let them come to me.” Children belong at the feet of Jesus, not full-time out in the boats.

How to Wreck Christian Love

Caring about love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. It’s a gospel concern.

My devotional reading this morning was in Romans 14. I admit this passage is a tangle for me. On the one hand, Paul adjures Christians to refrain from judging each other. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v 4) On the other hand, isn’t “Judge not” one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied passages in all of Scripture? How can I make sense of verse 13, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,” and the final verse of Romans 13: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”? Aren’t those in tension?

Yes and no. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It is possible to wreck Christian love and unity by preaching the truth (like Rom. 13:14 above) in a way that assumes that my struggle is the same struggle that everyone else is having.  When Paul says in verse 23 that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats [meat, presumably produced in pagan marketplaces and likely offered to false gods], because the eating is not from faith,” he’s revealing the heart of the matter. The issue is conscience. Christians whose consciences do not condemn them are free to eat the meat, because they are eating “in honor of the Lord” (v 6). Their consciences are not haunted by the false gods. By contrast, the Christians whose consciences do condemn them should refrain, because a willingness to eat when your conscience is pricked is a sinful species of unbelief, and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v 23).

The fault line of disunity within this community is right here. Christians who are eating assume that the problem with the Christians who don’t eat is ignorance, or failure to realize their freedom. So they eat in front of the weak-conscience Christians in order to shame their conscientiousness. Paul rebukes this as making “your brother to stumble” (v 21). On the other hand, the weak-conscience Christians may pass judgment on the Christians who eat, reasoning that their problem is that they simply don’t care about the worship of idols or about purity in holiness.

Interestingly, Paul does not affirm either camp’s view of the other. He does say that “nothing is unclean in itself,” but immediately adds that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (v 14). Each camp is right AND wrong. They’re right to follow their conscience, but they’re wrong to assume they know what’s going on in the hearts of the other believers. This is what it means to “judge” one another in the way that Jesus forbids. There is indeed purity and holiness which we must exhort each other to, but we cannot exhort each other to it if we are convinced we can see inside everyone’s motivations.

This passage rebuked me. It brought to mind things I’ve written in the past, like this piece. I still agree with everything I wrote there, but I don’t believe the way I’ve applied it has always—or even often—been good. For example, I can think very clearly of examples where I saw someone on social media say they were seeing a certain movie, or I noticed a particular DVD in a friend’s house, and I drew conclusions in my heart about where they must “struggle.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the struggles I envisioned for them were identical to my own struggles. Inferring from their entertainment to their spiritual life was tempting for me because it let me validate my own experiences and not think of myself as “weak.”

This wrecks Christian love. It wrecks Christian love by empowering self-righteousness. It also wrecks Christian love by keeping believers away from each other in meaningful community. That’s the tragic irony of self-righteousness; it thwarts actual righteousness by making sure that people don’t really enter into the joys, sorrows, temptations, and triumphs of others.

It wrecks Christian love too by undermining our watchcare over each other. “Do not cause your brother to stumble” assumes you that you have a stake in your brother’s spiritual life. But if you think of believers whose lives don’t look exactly like yours as spiritual lepers or pariahs, how can you think you have a stake in their spiritual health? Isn’t it more important in that case to play the prophet, and use social media and blogs to passive aggressively shame them? And all the while, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” goes ignored.

There’s an old cliche that says that “Speak the truth with love” is the dividing line between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives stop at “Speak the truth,”  liberals skip over it and say “Speak with love,” while the gospel says “Speak the truth with love.” It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one. Caring about Christian love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. Reformed Christians especially need to hear this, because we often feel satisfied merely if we’re calling others to repentance. That’s not how Paul thinks. Let’s never pit Christian love and Christian purity against each other. And let’s not assume that what God is doing in our own hearts is exactly what he’s doing in everyone else.

Is “Purity Culture” a Problem?

Why the excesses of conservative evangelicalism won’t be fixed by unbelief.

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

This post was originally published in 2016.

 

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.