Examining Ourselves to Death: Evangelicalism’s Preoccupation with Itself

January 28, 2014

With apologies to Qoheleth: Of American Evangelical navel-gazing there is no end.

We are a source of both curiosity and consternation to outside academic and journalistic observers, but we are pretty adept at looking under our own hoods quite exhaustively. Consider some quite recent titles by Evangelical publishers:

The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism

Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide

The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good

The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement

Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration

This list would expand dramatically were we to include more from the stream of books about Evangelicals and politics.

The scholarly journals are equally full of such analyses. In 2013, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society published Gerald McDermott’s provocative article, “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology.” The Chronicle of Higher Education gives us, “Among the Evangelicals: Inside a Fractured Movement.” Such publications as Touchstone, First Things, Books and Culture, and The City regularly dissect the sociological, theological and political currents penetrating the Evangelical movement. Numerous blog sites by and about Evangelicals weigh us in the balance on an ongoing basis.

And we can’t forget the various study centers, seminars, and conferences we devote to thinking about ourselves. From the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College to The Barna Group’s polling research, we appraise our beliefs, pronouncements, ministries and actions with respect to all facets of North American culture, academia, social experience, politics, religious engagement and the professions with astonishing exactness.

There is great merit to reflective, candid self-examination. The Bible calls followers of Jesus to consider our ways consistently and frankly. Spirit- and Word-led self-auditing shows we’re serious about measuring ourselves against the standards Scripture gives us for conduct, character and conviction. We need to expose our own “unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), not to mention displays of immaturity, poor reasoning, parochialism, and anti-intellectualism, with honesty and humility.

This is true on individual and corporate levels. Churches, colleges, missionary societies, publishing houses, Christian leaders and laymen—none of us is above gracious but critical self-review and, as needed, review by perceptive and caring brothers and sisters in Christ. A friend once reminded me that the New Testament is a book of exhortation. If we’re to remain true to its intent, the sometimes painful processes of personal and public accountability are requisite.

Yet a frank assessment of the writings, events and polls we produce about ourselves seems to indicate a troubling degree of self-preoccupation.

There is a lot to examine. Interwoven through Evangelical Christianity are many strains of regional, theological, cultural and liturgical variety. Our people represent every imaginable sphere of American life, and thus present a sociological feast for anyone interested in figuring out who we are and what we believe.

However, such a feast presents the continuous temptation of intellectual gluttony. We appear to be analyzing ourselves into perplexity, even, in some cases, despair. We focus on our failures and limitations. We place one another under a magnifying glass so precise that every flaw is not only seen but quantified and discussed.

Some American Evangelicals are more spiritually mature than others. Some were weaned on the King James Bible, others read The Message as their essential source-text. Some are well educated, others are not. Some speak with the twang of the rural South, others with the flat delivery of the Pacific Northwest. Some are charismatic, some are non-continuationist. Some dress so modestly that they can almost be mistaken as Amish. Others dress flamboyantly (and in some cases, suggestively). And most look like the garden-variety pagan you see strolling along the sidewalk.

Some come from strong, two-parent families, others from terribly broken homes. Want pathologies? Go to any Evangelical church, and you can find them: abuse (substance, sexual, physical, psychological), divorce, homosexuality, heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, addictions from gambling to pornography. Just pick a pew near you and strike up a conversation.

Then there are the odd emphases on obscure or debatable doctrines, excessive preoccupations with everything from prophecy to predestination, the absolutizing of relatives and the relativizing of absolutes, forms of worship (e.g., music with a beat fosters lust; a church without responsive readings is a church without a soul), and what takes place when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Let us pluck, adroitly, all the logs and motes from our eyes. The process of doing so, under the joint auspices of grace and truth, is called sanctification. Evangelicals tend to be for that.

But to what extent are we putting our self-obsessive ponderings ahead of Jesus, ahead of the Gospel’s proclamation, ahead of serving those all around us whose souls remain unredeemed and whose needs far outweigh yet another seminar on the role of Evangelicals involved in literature departments in state universities, Evangelical perspectives on contemporary fashion, or similar interesting but basically dilatory things?

The luxury of endless self-examination is animated, in part, by the very ease of our lives. American Evangelicals have a fair amount of disposable time, are quite prosperous, and increasingly well educated. Additionally, the church’s foibles are real and noticeable. To ignore them would be like ignoring a metastasizing cancer on one’s forearm. We have to deal with them. But dealing with them is not synonymous with focusing endlessly and sometimes almost exclusively on them.

Some of the motivation for relentless evaluation by Evangelicals of Evangelicals and Evangelicalism comes from shame. When we say and do stupid or simply un-Christian things, the whole Body of Christ suffers substantively and in the perception of the public. The scandals of various national ministries in recent years are only the most vivid and easily recognizable of this pattern; dig a little deeper—perhaps in your own church or Bible study—and you’ll find people who are tactless, coarse, incurious, trauma-prone, melodramatic, etc. They embarrass us, and we dislike association with them (especially given our obvious social and moral superiority to them, right?).

Yet Paul encourages believers to “associate with the lowly” and to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 12:16, 15:7).  He reminds the Corinthians:

There were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God (1:26-29).

Can any of us see himself or herself in this description?

As to our public testimony, let’s be honest: Are we more concerned with the secular and unbelieving public’s perception of us than fidelity to our Lord? Do we forget, in all our gymnastic musing, the good news about Jesus—even Jesus himself?

Jesus Christ was and is controversial, counter-cultural, and confusing to those who have not met him. It is a sad commentary on the condition of our hearts when we try to conform him to an image we believe will be socially acceptable. We can’t, anyway; he is and will be who he is, our best efforts to make him culturally respectable notwithstanding.

Yes: We want to be consistent, credible witnesses for the God of the Bible in every sphere of life. Yes: We want our scholarship to be rigorous, our behavior pure, our theology sound, our ministries compassionate and relevant, our writing compelling and useful, and our social credibility respectable. Or something like that. But does our relentless combing-through of ourselves not border on, and sometimes plunge into, pettiness, narcissism, and forgetfulness of the main things—and the main person?

We need to examine ourselves, individually and collectively, admit our errors and failings and take those lumps we deserve. But not to the point where microscopic and generally negative reviews of who we are and what we do spew forth as what Greg Thornbury has called “a cottage industry of books (that) consumes itself with various screeds about the current state of affairs within evangelical churches on both matters theoretical and practical” (Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, 43).

We’re redeemed sinners, but the “old man” clings to us, individually and corporately, tenaciously. This will remain true until we meet our Lord face to face. No excuse for sin or stupidity, this, but nor should it serve as an undue impediment to talking about the greatest news the world will ever know to all who need the Jesus we preach.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24