By / Oct 20

Does God change? Is God the Son a created being? Is the Holy Spirit a force or a person? Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? These are some of the most important and fundamental questions in the Christian faith, questions that the church has answered definitively for most of its history. Increasingly, though, as the biennial “State of Theology” survey produced by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research shows, self-professed evangelicals find their answers to these questions at odds with historic Christian belief. 

As a way of discovering what “Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible,” these organizations have teamed up every two years, since 2014, to “take the theological temperature of the United States” with the survey and to develop an interactive report of their findings called “The State of Theology.” With each new iteration, the report has consistently shown a pattern of dwindling theological proficiency both among the general American population and the men and women in our pews. And the 2022 report is no different.

So, what did the most recent report reveal, and what are we to make of it?

Report takeaways

In her analysis of the report, Christianity Today writer Stefani McDade highlights what she calls the “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals,” resurrecting bygone terms like Arianism and Pelagianism to describe the theological slippage occurring within American evangelicalism. Commenting on the history of the “State of Theology” report, McDade says that “Overall, adults in the US are moving away from orthodox (i.e. historic) understandings of God and his Word year after year.” Here are three major takeaways from this year’s survey results.

  1. The Doctrine of God: In the survey, the overwhelming majority of evangelical respondents (96%) declared that they strongly agree with the following statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” And while this would seem to indicate that these evangelicals hold to an orthodox view of God, things grow murky as the survey digs deeper into the doctrine of God. For instance, 48% of evangelical respondents believe that God “learns and adapts” (i.e., that he changes); 73% believe that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” (an ancient heresy called Arianism); 43% stated that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God;” and 60% declare that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” Based on these numbers, McDade’s assertion that we “are moving away from orthodox understandings of God” appears exactly right.
  1. Inspiration of Scripture: Among evangelical respondents, 26% believe that “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.” And while the surveyors could have worded this statement more clearly, respondents who answered in the affirmative communicated a belief at odds with the church’s historic confession that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God. Commenting on our apparent waning belief in the inspiration of Scripture, McDade pointed out that “Researchers called the rejection of the divine authorship of the Bible the ‘clearest and most consistent trend’ over the eight years of [survey] data,” both in the evangelical church and generally across the U.S. population. 
  1. Human Nature: On the topic of human nature, based on survey results, another ancient heresy—Pelagianism—is proving to be resurgent, even within the church. As Dr. Gregg Allison defines it, Pelagianism proposes “a denial of original sin” because, in the view of Pelagius (a 4th-century theologian), there is no “relationship between Adam and his sin and the human race.” According to Pelagian thinking, “people have no tendency to sin and may live without sin.” So, we learn in the survey that, in Pelagius-like fashion, 57% of evangelical respondents believe that “most people are good by nature” and 65% affirm that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God,” two theological beliefs that the church has long denounced. 

Historic Christian belief

In analyzing a survey like this, we may be tempted to ridicule our fellow evangelicals and decry the collective lack of theological proficiency it reveals, or even to assume what my former pastor liked to call the role of “heresy hunter.” And while what we learn from the State of Theology survey should sober us, it should also compel us to define and teach what historic Christian belief actually is. If we want to “right the ship,” so to speak, and reverse the trend we’ve witnessed for at least a decade now, we’ll need to introduce evangelicalism once again to the church’s centuries-long confessions of the faith. And that’s what we’ll explore now. 

  1. Doctrine of God

Trinitarianism: Evangelical survey respondents confessed, nearly unanimously, their belief that God is Trinity. Yet, as we mentioned, when the survey dove deeper into some of Trinitarianism’s offshoots and implications, questions emerged regarding their “Trinitarian proficiency.” Even though Trinitarianism is a historically difficult doctrine to fully apprehend, there is no doctrine more central or more fundamental to Christian theology. Therefore, many of our errors downstream can be traced back to a faulty understanding of Trinitarianism, which is what we see in the State of Theology survey results. 

In his excellent book, Delighting in the Trinity, author Michael Reeves says, “because the Christian God is triune, the Trinity is the governing center of all Christian belief, the truth that shapes and beautifies all others. The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” But what does it mean that God is Trinity? How do we define “Trinitarianism”? In season nine of the Knowing Faith podcast, a season devoted to the hosts’ exploration of the doctrine of God, J.T. English offers the following definition: “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God, yet there is one God.” Author and professor Fred Sanders adds to the conversation, saying, “God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is essential because it introduces us to who God is. Herman Bavinck goes so far as to say, “the confession of the trinity is the sum of the Christian religion.” Thus, before we can understand more of what God is like with any real competence, we must begin with “the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” And it’s just this: God is Trinity.

Attributes of God: As mentioned, knowing what God is like and knowing his attributes flows from the confession that “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons,” or that God is Trinity. Furthermore, Bavinck once again says, “It is in this holy trinity that each attribute of His Being comes into its own, so to speak, gets its fullest content, and takes on its profoundest meaning.” The doctrine of the Trinity, then, is not only a prerequisite for knowing God rightly, but it also enables us to see the beauty and glory of his attributes in full.

When we derive our knowledge of who God is and what he is like from the Bible, and with help from the creeds, councils, and confessions of church history, instead of the prevailing moods and whims of culture, for instance, we will find ourselves on firm theological footing. We will know, as the majority of evangelical respondents affirmed on the survey, that “God is perfect and cannot make a mistake.” But, contrary to 56% of survey respondents, we’ll also know that God does not “accept the worship of all religions;” and we’ll know that he does not “learn and adapt to different circumstances”—he is immutable (48% of evangelical respondents disagreed). It is these and all of God’s attributes that we can truly proclaim “only when we recognize and confess” that they belong to the one true God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Divine Inspiration

While every evangelical respondent affirmed that “The Bible is the highest authority for what [they] believe,” once again, when pressed further the survey identified several holes in evangelical bibliology. Despite confessing the Bible as their highest authority, responses were mixed on whether it “has the authority to tell us what to do,” whether it’s accurate in its teaching, and as we mentioned, whether it is “literally true.” These responses illuminate a defective view of Scripture.

“The absolute authority of the Bible,” Michael Svigel says, “is a doctrine that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (i.e., all Christians). But historic Christian belief in the absolute authority of the Bible lives or dies with the doctrine of divine inspiration—that Scripture has been “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And if Scripture has been inspired, or breathed out by God, then the Bible necessarily possesses specific characteristics. Namely, as it relates to the survey questions mentioned above, the Bible is authoritative (what the Bible says, God says) and inerrant (everything it affirms is true). Or, as Christopher Morgan puts it, “Scripture originates with God, who speaks forth his Word . . . Because this is so, Scripture is God’s Word, authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, clear, and beneficial.” To confess that the Bible is God’s inspired Word is a confession that, by definition, places us under its authority. And in that case, it has the power and the right to teach, reproof, correct, and train us in the ways of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

  1. Original Sin

As we’ve mentioned, research shows that evangelicals are steadily growing less doctrinally proficient year over year. But there may be no doctrine that has fallen more out of fashion in recent years than the doctrine of original sin. Pelagianism (see above), which is a denial of original sin, has become much more palatable.

The doctrine of original sin teaches that, at the fall of Adam and Eve, all of humanity rebelled against God with them, participating in what Barry Jones calls “the vandalism of shalom.” More than merely rupturing our relationship with God, which would have been bad enough, our participation in this “originating sin” has infected us in our very nature, rendering us totally depraved, or morally corrupt, and totally unable to reconcile ourselves to God. Reflecting on that “original sin,” Herman Bavinck writes that,

The first sin which man committed did not long stand alone. It was not the sort of action which, having done it, man could shake off or brush aside. After that sin, man could no longer go on as though nothing had happened. In the very moment in which man entertained sin in his thought and imagination, in his desire and will, at that moment a tremendous change took place in him.

That change, as John Calvin explained is the “hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul.” The doctrine of original sin, this historic confession of the Christian faith, uncomfortable as it may be, is the belief that “all people at birth” inherit a corrupt and depraved nature all the way down. 

Practical theology

Virtually all of our societal ills, both inside and outside the church, can be traced back to a break in our theology. Everyone is a theologian, after all, whether they’re an atheist, a Christian, or anything in between. And our theology—whether it’s good or bad—leads us to live in particular ways. In other words, our theology has practical implications. Indeed, as my former pastor once said, “theology is the most practical thing in the world.”

A.W. Tozer is famous for saying that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” There are many reasons why Tozer’s statement is true, not least of which is that what we think about God informs what we think of ourselves, how we view the world, and, practically, how we act in the world. So, what are the practical implications of evangelical theology as represented in the State of Theology report?

  • When our doctrine of God drifts away from orthodoxy, we drift away from the God of Scripture. In his place, we either substitute a god of our imagination or idolize some lesser thing and assign it ultimacy. Our allegiances become disordered and we give ourselves to the wrong things in the wrong ways, neglecting all the while to acknowledge the God who has made us and who has made himself known to us. 
  • When our doctrine of Scripture falls out of step with church history, our ethics follow suit. If we overlook that God has breathed out his Word we undermine its authority, question its necessity, and doubt its trustworthiness. When reverence for the Scriptures wanes, following its commands becomes optional at best, or dismissed altogether. And the Bible is foundational because, in the Bible, we learn who God is, what he has said, who we are, and what it means to bear his image. The people of God are a Word-formed people; when we neglect the Word we become a de-formed people.
  • When our doctrine of human nature and original sin is traded away for what’s culturally en vogue, we “exchange the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). We “call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20), preferring to minimize the use of biblical terms like “sin,” “iniquity,” and “transgression” and celebrate what the Bible prohibits. A denial of original sin is evidence of sin’s continued influence on us. 

The results of this year’s State of Theology survey revealed what’s been obvious for a long time now: our biblical literacy is weakening. Our Christian practice, or lack thereof, has long betrayed our waning theological proficiency. We see it in the way we behave online, in the way we have messianized various leaders, and in our lack of commitment to holiness. So, where do we go from here? In response to what we can rightly recognize as heresy, our instinct might be to furrow our collective brow and speak of church discipline and ex-communication. Instead, I’d argue that we should view our current theological crisis as an opportunity for discipleship.

Heresy as an opportunity for discipleship

American evangelicalism is in a theological crisis. We have lost our way, and “in order to find the way home,” Svigel says, “we must first admit we’re lost.” The State of Theology survey is our admission that we’re lost. But once we’ve confessed that we have lost our way we need a plan for returning to the “ancient paths, where the good way is” (Jer. 6:16). We must return to what J.T. English calls “deep discipleship.”

Deep discipleship is the remedy for heresy. It is about developing “the ability to connect all of reality to the Triune God,” and it is the vocation of every Christian. From the lips of Jesus, we have been called to “go and make disciples” and teach them to observe his commandments (Matt. 28:19-20). To put it provocatively, we have been called to continually teach that truth that transforms heretics into disciples of the Triune God who know him and his Word, who love him and his Word, and who follow him and his Word. While there is much to fret about from this year’s survey, the responsibility of the church remains clear: “go and make disciples.”

By / May 17

A few weeks ago, I groaned as I opened up a social media account to be greeted by a headline about a prominent megachurch pastor who was engrossed in scandal. My first thought was, “Not again.” It seems like every few weeks, we learn about more prominent evangelical leaders who have moved from rise to fall due to toxic leadership, financial mismanagement, or sexual failure. Why does this keep happening?

The right focus on the right leadership gifts 

The reason is not profound. It’s quite simple actually. May I suggest that the reason leaders keep falling is because we’ve perhaps overemphasized some aspects of leadership while underemphasizing or flat ignoring others? 

Here’s what I mean. We tend to elevate and platform leaders with certain external gifts. We put on a pedestal those men and women who are beautiful, bold, gifted, and charismatic. If they are dynamic communicators, effective leaders, and can draw a crowd or sell a lot of books, they become prominent in our evangelical world. While the ability to draw a crowd or deliver a dynamic message is not a vice in and of itself, I believe we have overemphasized the importance of these leadership gifts.

Meanwhile, we’ve ignored or forgotten certain other aspects of leadership. For instance, we’ve forgotten our theology. We’ve forgotten, as an example, that the Bible says we are completely sinful, even pastors and leaders. No one is beyond a public or private moral failure. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We shouldn’t be surprised when we put our favorite evangelical leader on a pedestal and then they fall off. Maybe they weren’t created by God to take “center stage.” Maybe the pedestal shouldn’t be occupied by anyone but Jesus. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about a leader having a fall, because the Bible tells us that there is no one we can completely trust but Jesus. Jesus never fails. Leaders fail quite often.

More than that, while we tend to platform leaders with obvious external gifts, we have underemphasized the importance of internal character. The most important gift a leader can give to those who follow is their character. I heard Gary Thomas say recently, “What a trap it is to work hard on your sermons but not work hard on your character.” Ouch.

Scripture is replete with references to what matters most in leadership. Consider the psalmist’s description of David’s leadership: “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands” (Psalm 78:72). Or how about Paul’s description of the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Out of that entire list of qualifications, only one has anything to do with a pastor’s competency or skill. A pastor must be “able to teach.” Everything else has to do with the pastor’s inner life, what a pastor must be. The pastor must be blameless, committed to his wife, not violent, or greedy, or covetous. He must be gentle and be a good husband and father. He must be humble and have a good reputation. 

What’s noticeably absent? Paul never says that a good pastor must be any of the things we often look for in our popular evangelical leaders. There’s nothing here about having dripping charisma, nothing about being hip and cool, nothing about turning a pithy phrase in the pulpit, nothing about “velocity” or “efficiency” as a leader, nothing about the ability to grow a large church.

Good leadership is about character. Maybe the reason the public falls keep happening is because we’ve forgotten what’s most essential. We’ve forgotten that who we are in public is an overflow of who we are in private. We’ve forgotten that who we are when no one but God is looking is who we really are. And if who we really are is anything other than someone who is submitted to the Father, yielded to Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit for the purpose of obedience for the sake of his name, then our inner brokenness will become public reproach.

By / Dec 14

According to historian George Marsden, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Figures such as Bob Jones, J. Frank Norris, and Aimee Semple McPherson all fit within this mold. However, much of the study of fundamentalists has tended to exclude African Americans, for a variety of reasons. Daniel Bare, professor of history at Texas A&M University, has recently argued in Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era that thinking about fundamentalism as a primarily white movement ignores very real ideological links between Black and white theologically conservative Christians. 

In his study of Black fundamentalists, Bare argues that to understand them, it is necessary to explore how their theology and racial identity intersected and the ways that this informed their calls for equality in the public square. 

In the book, your approach is not just historical or theological, but one that combines the two, a “social history of theology.” What does this entail, and how does it help when considering these African American fundamentalists? 

The “social history of theology” is a term that I picked up from Mark Noll’s book America’s God to describe the interconnectedness of theological conviction and social/historical context. His point was that you have to understand theological developments within a wide range of social contexts — from the ecclesiastical to the political to the commercial — in order to fully account for why theological ideas develop differently in disparate social contexts. So, given my focus on the United States in the era of Jim Crow, it seemed only natural to extend this idea to encompass the influence of racial context on theological developments. 

After all, the reality of race as a pervasive, structuring element of American society in this period is undeniable — from segregation to voter disfranchisement to the horrors of lynching and other socially-approved forms of racial violence. Racial considerations influenced ecclesiastical developments; they influenced politics; they influenced economics. And whereas the thinking of the white majority in the United States (and in various church contexts) largely developed in accordance with the presumption of white superiority and the propriety of segregating the races, the social realities of discrimination and oppression also prompted Black thinkers and churches to find strength in their community and apply their intellectual and theological efforts to challenging the unjust ideas that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

With all that in mind, my book takes a historical-theological approach that is intended to give proper consideration to both historical and theological factors. So I do believe that theology as being theology holds a profound significance in defining one’s religious identity and worldview, and that theological convictions and formulations deserve to be treated seriously, on their own terms, without reducing them to mere expressions of more subliminal political or economic ideologies. Thus I take a deeply theological look at the religious beliefs of the people I discuss in the book. 

At the same time, I want to recognize that social and historical context plays a significant role in the ways that we think about religion, theology, and broader worldview issues. Our context influences our presuppositions about how the world works, how we interpret the Bible, which issues in the world deserve our focused attention, and so forth. And when we look at the Black fundamentalists whom I discuss in the book, we see people whose theological formulations were largely aligned with those of their white fundamentalist counterparts, and who took their theology very seriously, but who also saw the need to apply their theology in such a way as to address the racial injustices of the world in which they lived. 

As you note in the book, most of the scholarship around the term “fundamentalist” has excluded African Americans for a number of reasons. However, you argue that though different in key ways, these African Americans were part of the larger movement, doctrinally if not formally. How so?

Since my book takes a historical-theological approach to exploring the topic, the definition of fundamentalism that I use is essentially theological in nature. I look at fundamentalism as a centrally theological enterprise that requires an essentially theological definition. It was largely a reactionary enterprise responding to what theological conservatives saw as the dangerous encroachments of theological liberalism (or modernism). Fundamentalists viewed modernists as abandoning the historic Christian faith through their doctrinal compromises, as abandoning the “fundamentals” that comprised the essence of “real” Christianity. 

So as I examine fundamentalism in the book, I lay out four definitional elements to consider: 1) an avowedly supernaturalist and biblicist worldview; 2) an express commitment to the central doctrinal propositions at issue in the fundamentalist-modernist conflict, most obviously crystalized in the “five fundamentals”; 3) a readiness to openly and explicitly criticize and condemn modernist theology; and 4) a willingness to utilize fundamentalist terminology (e.g., “the fundamentals,” “fundamentalism,” etc.) in defining one’s theological positions and religious identity.

The strength of this historical-theological approach is that it allows us to identify and consider Black voices in the historical record who self-identified as fundamentalists and expressly aligned with the theological heartbeat of fundamentalism. Amid a society built on institutional segregation, these Black fundamentalists were not typically part of the formal fundamentalist institutional networks, which were established by well-connected white men like J. Frank Norris or William Bell Riley. As a result, African Americans have remained typically excluded from the story of fundamentalism. Yet if we look at the theological commitments, the apologetics and polemics, the doctrinal formulations, we can see that the fundamentalist outlook clearly spanned the color line. 

The key difference you highlight is that the conservative Black Christians in your study were more outspoken on racial issues than their white counterparts who either ignored the issue or were complicit in racial injustice. How did the Black fundamentalists see their advocacy for this issue as flowing from their theological convictions?

This is a key element of the argument I present in the book. The theological formulations and argumentation surrounding “the fundamentals” was very much the same for fundamentalists across the color line, but Black fundamentalists were apt to draw applications from their theology that their white counterparts would not, specifically with respect to issues of racial equality and racial justice. This illustrates how social and cultural context can play a large role in how people formulate the day-to-day application of their faith.

Throughout the book I offer examples of Black fundamentalists contending that their fundamentalist doctrines actually contained correctives to the evils of Jim Crow that they faced in everyday life. From the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, these were divinely appointed truths that necessarily entailed rebukes of racism and segregation. Among the most compelling orators in this vein whom I discuss in the book was Isaac Reed Berry, a Black Methodist minister who was ordained in 1917. Two of Berry’s favorite theological topics in his preaching were also two common fundamentalist themes — biblical inspiration and substitutionary atonement. 

With respect to biblical inspiration, Berry saw in the Bible God’s forthright rebuke of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy; such texts as Acts 17:26 (“[God] made of one blood all nations of men”) and Psalm 133:1 (“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”) underscored the full humanity and equality of African Americans. Yet, he reasoned, such a divine rebuke only holds weight if the words of the Bible are in fact the very words of God himself; otherwise these biblical passages could be dismissed as mere manmade trifles. Thus, the doctrine of biblical inspiration was foundational for fighting bigotry in the world. Such applications of these common fundamentalist doctrines were unlikely to cross the minds or the lips of Berry’s white counterparts.

Isaac Berry’s social activism appears more similar to the program of social gospel figures like Walter Rauschenbusch. However, Berry and other Black fundamentalists were often in conflict with others in their denomination who were sympathetic to modernist theology. What does this reveal about the tension that Black fundamentalists faced?

Isaac Berry’s (and other’s) gospel message had clear and undeniable social implications without becoming a “social gospel.” Too often people tend to conflate community engagement or religiously-motivated social action with the “social gospel” perspective championed by the likes of Rauschenbusch. But I think it is important to keep in mind that the “social gospel” perspective that Rauschenbusch formalized in his A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) was not merely about finding social applications in the Christian message, but significant theological reformulations on doctrines such as the Trinity, redemption/atonement, Christ’s divinity, and so on. So for fundamentalists, whether black or white, the social gospel perspective was a non-starter from the outset because they prized these traditional “fundamental” doctrines.

Yet the Black fundamentalist preachers that I study in the book did indeed at times offer major social applications, and pushed for large-scale social action, from their pulpits and from their expositions of fundamentalist doctrine. They believed that relying on the fundamental doctrines of “old-time” Christianity, as it was sometimes called, was the only sure way to elicit social change because the calls to justice and righteous living that resided in this gospel message bore God’s own imprimatur in the pages of the inerrant Bible. As a result, Black fundamentalist voices did indeed find themselves at odds, sometimes, with other leaders of the Black community with whom they may have shared certain pressing social/cultural goals (e.g., pushing for voting rights, securing funding for Black education, etc.) but differed as to theological belief or the methods of achieving those desired ends.

This conflict illustrates certain tensions in the experience of these Black fundamentalists. Their blackness separated them from the institutional “fundamentalist” movement that tended to be dominated by powerful white figures like J. Frank Norris (a proponent of segregation and Jim Crow), leading to their marginalization not only at the time but also in the historical study of fundamentalism. Yet their fundamentalist theological convictions also spurred conflicts within the Black community as well, as many leading Black thinkers adopted more social-gospel-friendly perspectives on racial advancement. However, the tension also highlights another important point — that there is a multifaceted diversity within African American intellectual and religious history, and we ought not fall into the trap of creating a monolithic caricature. In the words of famed historian Albert Raboteau, it is a “sometimes overlooked fact [that] African-American opinion has never been unanimous.”

One area of the book that is especially interesting given current conversations is your chapter on the fusion of fundamentalism with Americanism. These African American pastors and evangelists were explicitly connecting their civil liberties with Christ’s sacrifice and America’s identity as a Christian nation. Given that they were making these arguments in the context of a segregated society, how did they reconcile the tension between an America that was both Christian and segregated? 

The whole connection with the idea of America as a “Christian nation” came out most clearly in Isaac Berry’s preaching, as he drew connections between the civil freedoms promised by the United States’ founding ideals and the spiritual freedom secured in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. He declared, for instance, that Americans’ “civil liberty was first purchased with the priceless blood of the Divine Son of God,” and that “America needs today to bow the knee at the foot of the cross, where freedom’s sword was forged.” In large part, Berry reconciled this tension between a picture of “Christian America” and the reality of racial injustice in the United States by calling Americans to live up to their founding political (and religious) ideals, as he perceived them. 

“Christian America” captured the idealized founding of a nation based on the principles of civic equality, political freedom, and Christian virtue; the fact that racial injustice continued to plague the nation did not invalidate the founding ideals, but rather revealed that Americans were failing to live up to the high standard of their heritage as a “Christian nation.” In this way, Berry’s concept of a “Christian America” served as a basis for him to condemn the un-Christian, sinful practices that he observed in the world around him. So in this configuration, embracing the idea of a Christian America went hand-in-hand with confronting the evils of American racism, just as the prophets of old invoked Israel’s status as God’s covenant people while inveighing against the nation’s wicked departures from God’s statutes.

How does this new way of understanding fundamentalism, and African American Christianity during this period, have ramifications for today? Is there anything that it helps to clarify about our current approaches to race and religion? 

More than pinpointing any one specific issue of the current day, I hope that this study is helpful in illuminating how the process of thinking about, applying, and expressing religion is not only a function of propositional theological claims, but also reflects the social and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves. As I put it in the last sentence of the book, “theological unity across racial lines was no guarantee that political and social uniformity would follow.” If we look, for instance, at evangelicalism as today’s analogue (albeit imperfectly so) of the fundamentalist movement of a century ago, we can certainly still see major fissures in evangelical life that manifest along the lines of race. 

Very often white and Black evangelicals, even as they may confess the same doctrines on such topics as inspiration or Christology, may yet tend to express very different convictions when it comes to social and political applications of their common faith — from issues like the social justice movement, to conversations about police reform, to considerations of religious liberty, to immigration policy, to presidential voting patterns, and so on. I hope that in this context, the examples in the book might prove to be points of profitable reflection for believers today, and the interests of Christian fellowship and charity might prompt us to seek to humbly and honestly understand other people who offer sincere perspectives that differ from our own, rather than dismissing one another out of hand. 

By / Sep 24

What is the relationship of Old Testament laws to the American government? How ought Christians respond to the decline of cultural influence? What are the ways that Christians exercise power within the public square? These are some of the questions that animate Christian Reconstructionists, a group that likely is less well known than broader denominational or theological identities such as Baptist, Catholic, evangelical, or Reformed. Crawford Gribben sheds light on this group in his book, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. While the ERLC does not subscribe to the tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, it is important to understand this numerically small but influentially growing movement, as Gribben’s work shows. 

In Gribben’s recent study of the movement, particularly in the community centered around Moscow, Idaho, he found that these evangelical Christians were continually navigating the tension between resisting the wider culture around them because of its rejection of Christian values and hopefully expecting that there would be a cultural renewal and return to God’s laws and standards, though likely not in their lifetime. Though a numerically small group, these Reformed evangelicals have shown themselves to be adept at marshalling soft influence through avenues such as publishing, homeschooling curriculum, and the founding of a Christian liberal arts college. Gribben’s study is an excellent introduction to the lived realities of this movement, its history, and the ways that theological principles have practical outputs in the project of cultural renewal. 

Gribben, a professor of religious history at Queen’s University Belfast, was kind enough to answer a few questions related to the movement and his scholarship. 

Your book is a study of Christian Reconstructionists, a particular group of Reformed evangelicals rooted in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, and more recently pastor Douglas Wilson. What are the distinctives of this movement? 

Christian Reconstruction is the name of the social theory that an Armenian-American Presbyterian minister, R.J. Rushdoony, began to develop in the late 1950s. As its descriptor suggests, it’s a social theory that argues that modern societies should be reorganized in terms of biblical law. While the movement is varied, its advocates tend to argue that the judicial laws in the Mosaic covenant, as a reflection of the “general equity” of the moral law, as the Westminster Confession puts it, should be adopted by modern states. This position is often described as “theonomy.” But Reconstructionists don’t just argue that these laws should be adopted by modern states — they also expect that these laws will be adopted by modern states. Their confidence that modern states will be reconstructed according to biblical law reflects their widespread commitment to “postmillennialism” — the expectation that the preaching of the gospel in this age will result in extraordinary revivals, to the extent that, before the return of Christ, the global population will in large part be regarded as Christian. 

These ideas — “theonomy” and “postmillennialism” — might seem strange, even outlandish, to modern evangelicals. But these claims, and others like them, were made by reformers and Puritans. In fact, many of the colonies that came to make up the states of New England were led by ministers and theologians who were committed to these views. What makes Christian Reconstruction so distinctive within the broader cultures of evangelicalism is that its arguments are being made in a religious landscape that has largely abandoned claims that were once normative within American Protestantism to embrace instead the principled pluralism of the American constitutional tradition.

The plan proposed by the community in the American Redoubt (Idaho, Montana, Wyomin, and the easter portions of Washington and Oregon) shares some similarity to that of others, such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Is this just a wider dissatisfaction with American culture, or is there something unique going on with those who are moving to the Redoubt?

Yes, there are similarities between the kinds of people who are moving into the Redoubt and those who are attracted to Dreher’s Benedict Option. In fact, Dreher has explained that he had intended to include in his book a chapter on the Moscow, Idaho, church that is led by Doug Wilson, until some controversial decisions made by congregational leaders relating to the pastoral care of a sexual offender changed his mind. But there are also some important differences between the Reconstructionists and Benedict Option Christians. Most importantly, while both groups are withdrawing to a large extent from mainstream society, the Reconstructionists do so with much greater confidence they are building communities that will survive the crisis in American culture and that will emerge to create, entirely organically, the institutions that will hold together the new — and newly Christian — United States. I think it’s also important to note that the Benedict Option idea appeals to Catholic and Orthodox groups. Christian Reconstructionists tend to be emphatically protestant (though their protestant credentials have been questioned by some of their critics, especially in relation to the “federal vision” theology with which Wilson has in the past been associated).

In the book, you emphasize the role that the group’s theology plays, particularly their postmillennial eschatology. Why does this cause them to react differently than other evangelicals to a shifting culture? 

Well, as Wilson put it in one of our conversations, it’s so much easier to play when you know you’re on the winning team. While lots of larger evangelical communities are losing ground — at least in the sense of shrinking membership — the Moscow, Idaho, community is pushing forward with some very ambitious plans. They make no secret of their intention to make Moscow a Christian town — nor of their expectation that the world will be converted to Christ. I think this expectation provides this community with a very distinctive confidence. While other groups of evangelicals are scanning the headlines for the signs of the times, or are persuading each other not to “polish the brass on a sinking ship,” as some premillennial critics of social action put it, the Moscow Christians and their Reconstructionist fellow travelers are developing concrete plans to survive and resist what they perceive to be an extraordinary moral collapse. And they’ve been very successful. 

In Moscow, they have established a classical Christian school — one of the founding institutions of a network of similar schools, whose conference was addressed in 2019 by Senator Ben Sasse — as well as a high quality liberal arts college and music conservatory. Members of the congregations associated with this community run very successful businesses, including the publishing house that does most to promote the group’s ideas. Overall, they’ve created an ecosystem that publicizes their ideas, that encourages migration into the area, that supports new arrivals with employment opportunities, school and other educational ventures — and this kind of growth is, of course, positioning the community as the fulfilment of its own prophetic expectations. Success breeds success — and so it will be interesting to see how Wilson’s new Amazon talk-show, “Man Rampant,” contributes to this positive feedback loop. 

There is a consistent theme of the tension between rhetoric and theology, most clearly in the renewed interest in the theology of the “lesser magistrate.” How does this work itself out for the congregants who are not actively looking to take up arms against the government, but do exist in a culture where that is possible and sensationalized (as with the fiction novels you mention)?

That’s an interesting question. Very few of the people we met while doing fieldwork for this book were interested in talking about taking up arms against the government – and none of those who did were attending Wilson’s church. I think a lot of the discussion about “resistance” is largely rhetorical. The old protestant doctrine of the “lesser magistrate” is certainly important in these circles. But the small number of Christian Reconstructionists who have turned toward violence — like Paul Jennings Hill — have been consistently denounced by thought leaders in the movement. All of the people we met within the Moscow congregation were living what might in other circumstances be regarded as fairly ordinary lives — working, shopping, going to church, and so on. The more militia-orientated people tended to prefer to keep themselves to themselves.

For many of the Reconstructionists, it is through cultural renewal, rather than political or violent action, that America can be saved. This is, as you note, one of the problems that Rushdoony had with the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s: they focused on political power rather than spiritual regeneration. How has the modern movement tried to focus on this goal of cultural renewal? What is their hope in the long term for America?

As I said before, members of the Christian Reconstruction movement work for and expect to contribute to the conversion of the United States. And that word “conversion” is key. The emphasis in their writing and speaking is not on coercing citizens into a Christian republic — despite the claims of their critics. Instead, Reconstructionists argue that as individuals are converted, they will influence their families for Christ; as families are converted, they will influence their neighborhoods for Christ; and so on. They expect a bottom-up transformation of American society, not any kind of transformation imposed from the top-down. That’s why these believers tend to avoid any participation in politics — even at a local level. While they might enjoy talking about the reconstruction of the legal system, or tax codes, they are often kept busy enough building Christian families, running businesses that reflect their Christian commitments, and going to church. In fact, you might say that in day-to-day life most of these believers are indistinguishable from their evangelical neighbors — except that, when they pray “thy kingdom come,” they expect to see it happen before the return of Christ, and they anticipate that their everyday lives will make a real contribution to that end.

Much of the book is built around the community in the American Redoubt, and particularly in Moscow, Idaho. Even the magazine, Credenda Agenda, as you note promulgated old ideas and new books, “but most of all it sold the community that was gathering around [Doug] Wilson’s ministry” (115). What is the role of the community for this movement, and how does that shape their activity?

The idea of community is really at the heart of this project, I think. From the 1990s, Credenda Agenda  — the magazine that did most to promote the group’s ideas — was never about one man. Instead, it brought together a range of writers who were capable of producing smart, satirical, and theologically sophisticated arguments. The letters page of each issue showed that readers found what they read attractive. They liked the idea of being part of that kind of community. And the institutions that this group established were designed to reinforce that community — a K-12 classical Christian school, then a liberal arts college, and so on — all taking their place in the positive feedback loop that I mentioned before. Online testimonies from some of the most recent migrants into the area still emphasize that this idea of community — maybe even ideal of community — is what drew them to Moscow. 

This group isn’t numerically large, and you even state that they don’t exist inside the religious mainstream. However, they are becoming increasingly influential. How so?

You’re right — the community isn’t especially large — in fact it’s tiny by comparison with many megachurches, even in Idaho. But this group projects its soft power very deliberately and very effectively. Wilson’s most recent venture — the Amazon talk-show called “Man Rampant” — seems to be surviving on that platform. Wilson has a nose for publicity. He co-authored a book with Christopher Hitchens and participated in a hymn sing in Moscow that resulted in arrests and attention on Twitter from President Trump. There is a real sense of crisis in American culture at the moment. This group’s influence is growing because they know how to articulate what might be at stake in that crisis, and how to present a response to that crisis that turns it into a single moment in the great sweep of victory by which the “kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And that’s why their influence is only likely to grow.

By / May 13

“Virtual Reality and its related technologies are going to change our world. If Christians don’t drive the discussion about how this tech gets used . . . who will?” This is one of the many questions that compelled Darrell Bock and Jonathan Armstrong to co-author their latest book, Virtual Reality Church: (Or How to Think Biblically About Church in Your Pajamas, VR Baptisms, Jesus Avatars, and Whatever Else is Coming Next)

As virtual reality has emerged, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it changed the world, almost requiring that we reckon with VR and its family of technologies, these questions have entered the church’s calculus sooner than we may have imagined. So, the authors set out to help the church think biblically about the possibilities and pitfalls of integrating virtual reality and other technologies into the life of the church.

Bock, author of dozens of books, is the executive director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, where he hosts the “Table Podcast,” and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 

Armstrong is professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, teaching in the areas of New Testament language and literature and church history. Additionally, Armstrong consults with Christian colleges and universities on the intersection of education and technology. 

Together, Bock and Armstrong have produced a resource in Virtual Reality Church that will undoubtedly compel churches and Christians to think critically about virtual reality’s place in Christian churches.

Technology and the church, past, present, and future

Though the book’s title suggests that Bock and Armstrong deal exclusively with virtual reality, a technology they describe that “allows users to be actors in a digitally created world by their motions and manipulations in the real world” (40), they in fact survey and interact with technology a bit more broadly. And they do so in service of the church. In the opening pages of Virtual Reality Church, the authors state that the two “core goals” of the book are: 

(1) to encourage educators and ministers to think about the history of the church’s use of tech and so to be disciplined and flexible in their approach to future use, and (2) to think critically about which processes in education and church life can be improved by increased use of virtual telecommunication and which processes should be kept on campus or conducted in person in the church building (15).

Rather than seeking to win readers with a particular argument or impose their own views, the authors have sought to encourage church men and women to think critically about the history of the church and the future of the church regarding its use of technology.

Though the most cantankerous among us may snub our nose at the growing ubiquity of technology in our sanctuaries, the church has a long history of integrating the up-and-coming technologies that have marked each era of history, from the invention of writing to the printing press to radio and television. Each successive generation of Christians has been in a position to think carefully about its society’s burgeoning technologies and consider if and how to integrate them into the life of the church and the mission of God. Bock and Armstrong argue that the advent of virtual reality is no different.

The questions that Bock and Armstrong pose are not necessarily if virtual reality should be integrated into the life of the church (though that is a valid question), but how and in what environments should ministers and church leaders consider implementing these inevitable technologies. Moreover, the above questions ought not be considered before more foundational questions are asked such as: what is the missional potential of VR and related technologies (53); what might be possible that was not possible before (17); and what do we gain and lose when we apply a new technology or process (17)? These and other questions scattered throughout the book help the reader think honestly about the role that virtual reality and other future technologies may play in the church moving forward.

Two things are certain: the church will not cease to exist, and technology will not cease to advance, and rapidly. The question that this leaves for the church is what use will we make of the advancements of technology for the sake of the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Thinking critically about the potential of technology and its pitfalls

Can a church exist in virtual reality? Virtual reality, after all, is not actual reality. This is the question that I skeptically imposed onto Virtual Reality Church before even cracking open the front cover. But that is not a question that the authors are preoccupied with, though they do address it in the book. The driving question, rather, is how an existing church can integrate technology, whether virtual reality or something else, into the life of the church for the sake of its mission. This is a question that churches and Christians in our society should be thinking about. 

While the authors are generally optimistic about the possibilities that come with introducing new technologies like virtual reality into the practice of the church, they also recognize that certain pitfalls loom. “Every new technology brings positive and problematic change for the communities who adopt them” (45), they rightly say. Though technology clearly offers great potential for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the global church, I am not sure we’ve yet thought critically enough about some of its pitfalls.

This does not mean that virtual reality or any other technology, for that matter, should be resolutely shunned and evicted from our church buildings. But it does mean, as this book encourages and models, that church ministers and members alike should be actively engaged in an ongoing conversation about the place of technology in the local church. What is a church? What are its nonnegotiables regarding the weekend gathering, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, for example (which the authors do address)? Where are technologies like virtual telecommunication and virtual reality welcome and unwelcome in the life of the church and its sacred practices? These are the conversations that Virtual Reality Church have kickstarted for us and that we should take back to our local churches for consideration. 

“Evangelicalism has existed at the crossroads of tradition and innovation from its inception” (55). The church of Jesus Christ has encountered and utilized technological advancements for the entirety of its history. Though today’s technology is new, the questions we must ask have been asked for millennia by our forebears. Like Bock and Armstrong have modeled for us, and others before them, we should continue to ask and answer today’s questions for the sake of the gospel and the building up of the church.

By / Aug 31

I wore it with the confidence of a No Fear brand ambassador. I believed my neon yellow WWJD bracelet flashed the message I’M A CHRISTIAN, setting me apart from the world and in with the Jesus freaks.

Like other Christian movements of the 1990s, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon spawned a generation of youth group zealots motivated by peer pressure and rewarded with false assurances of holiness. Yet also like other movements during that era, WWJD carried a grain of truth. Christians should act like Jesus. Even in our current politicized evangelical landscape, the command to imitate Christ is indisputable.

Though WWJD had obvious flaws, I wonder if it deserves something of a reboot today. Hop onto any social media platform, and you’ll soon find examples of Christians acting in less than Christ-like ways. While many evangelicals have panned cancel culture, the problem extends beyond casting out a public figure to casting stones at anyone who expresses a thought or opinion that bothers you.

Take the example of the debate about COVID-19 gathering restrictions. Various opinions have been shared and stances taken on social media. In one situation, a commenter tagged several friends and told them to come after a particular individual in order to “share truth.”  Within 48 hours, more than 500 accusing comments maligning this person’s character had been recorded. 

You’d think that Christians would rise above such malicious behavior and strive to maintain a credible witness. Yet, we seem just as likely to set comment threads ablaze as the next keyboard warrior.

Tracing the source of the fire

Why is it so hard for us to tame our tongues on social media? Social scientists posit several theories about what ignites these online firestorms. One study suggests that people become aggressive online to punish those who are violating social norms—for example, insulting a politician who is abusing power. Aggressors assume their words are justified because they believe they’re standing up for the greater good.

Another study indicates that moral grandstanding—the use of moral talk to seek higher social status—contributes to vicious speech online. That study also found a link between moral/political conflict and social vigilantism, which is the desire to correct others for espousing what you consider to be bad or incorrect beliefs. Both moral grandstanding and social vigilantism are associated with polarization and breakdowns in effective communication.

Given our mission to shine truth in a dark world, it’s understandable that Christians could fall into harsh communication patterns while trying to champion moral imperatives. You could call it a misguided inversion of WWJD: “I believe I’m doing what Jesus would do, and will take down anyone who opposes Jesus’ (my) conviction.”

The problem with this mindset lies in a basic yet often forgotten truth: We’re not Jesus. We’re sinful. We don’t possess all authority, wisdom, and power. We can’t peer through our screens and pierce the thoughts and intentions of other people, nor do we bear responsibility for correcting every person for every wrongdoing we think they committed. 

Asserting ourselves as Jesus doesn’t effectively serve Jesus. As Christians who are being sanctified in truth, we still make mistakes and jump to wrong conclusions. So we can’t rely on our assumptions as a compass for how we respond to other people. In fact, the Bible issues a stern warning against those who assume superiority while speaking venomously: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). And as fallen human beings, we still have trouble taming our tongues (James 3:8). 

Christians are supposed to submit every idea we encounter to the authority of Scripture, but we rarely submit our gut reactions to the same scrutiny. Even when righteously indignant fires burn within our chests, we should bring our frustration to the Lord first before spewing it online. Though there might be times to correct error and call out false teaching, we should try to do so gently and with humility. Recognizing our own faults and exercising patience with others can help us avoid the ruin of foolish talk. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2).

Looking to the author and perfecter of our speech

Following Jesus’ lordship means we should learn from observing his communication style during his ministry on Earth. Jesus spoke to others with compassion, gentleness, and concern for their physical and spiritual welfare. He talked to strangers, practiced active listening, sat with the suffering, and remained silent under false charges. At no point did he tell his disciples to gang up on someone who offended him. Throughout his life, Jesus submitted to the mission that directed his every step: to obey the will of his Father.

Of course, we can’t overhaul our sinful speech habits by simply parroting Jesus’ words. Change must begin in our hearts. Michael Horton emphasizes this distinction in Pilgrim Theology: “The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ.” When we root ourselves in Christ, digging into the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and meditation, and service, we can banish corrupting talk and speak what is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). As we draw close to our source of renewal, words of life will naturally pour out of our mouths like fresh springs instead of cesspools.

So what would it look like if Christians today committed to examine our words before engaging online? Making such a radical pledge of self-moderation could revolutionize the digital forum and testify to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Think of how reflecting on Jesus’ example might change the way you interact on social media. What if, before firing off a nasty comment on someone’s Facebook rant, you prayed for them? What if, instead of bashing a person who tweeted something you considered wrong or offensive, you DMed them to initiate a private conversation? What if we, as children of God being conformed to the image of his Son, made the shocking decision to not post anything on social media when we’re too riled up to communicate in a gracious, God-glorifying way?

We can’t say with certainty what Jesus would post or not post on social media, or if he would create any accounts in the first place. Rather than invent hypothetical scenarios of what Jesus would do if he were to take over our social media platforms, I suggest we adopt his main ambition in life. Before posting, let’s pause and ask, “Would this please God?” For we aren’t ambassadors of our own opinions or feelings, but rather imperfect, in-progress followers of Christ.

By / Mar 2

Recently in an ethics class I teach, a student raised their hand and asked me, “What’s the relationship between ethics and evangelism?”

That’s a good question. I had never formally explored their direct relationship. It turns out that ethics is inseparable from how we understand the task of evangelism. How so? Because wrongdoing, or sinning, is what establishes the ground of our need for redemption from God. To discuss what sin is, then, is to immediately begin a discussion about right conduct and wrong conduct. What is a sin? It’s a violation of a divine standard that human beings are obligated to obey (1 John 3:4). To put it another way, a sin is anything for which Christ needed to die to redeem a person.

Were each of us in a state of perfection in our day-to-day obedience, we would have no need of redemption. Considering that we’re not, this means that ethics—the task of how we go about living our lives in accordance with God’s holy nature—is not only relevant, but absolutely necessary to our understanding of evangelism. Understanding wrongdoing and what sin is, is essential to understanding our accountability before a holy God, our deserved judgment for sinning against God, and how the sinlessness of Jesus can atone for our rebellion.

Evangelism is about more than ethics, but never less, especially if ethics means calling people to repentance for their sin against a holy God. In effect, it’s our ethics that condemn us to hell, and it is Jesus’ ethics that makes possible our salvation. Let’s unpack all of this by using an example.

Ethics and our redemption 

I recently watched the documentary One Child Nation, which exposes in brutal and graphic detail the horrific policy of the Chinese government allowing only one child per household. This was done in order to protect against the concerns of overpopulation, like starvation. To pursue this policy, the Chinese government oversaw a campaign of forced sterilization and abortion. It’s worth writing a whole article just on this documentary alone, but that’s not the purpose of this article. 

Rather, in the interview, the producer interviews a family-planning official who delivered children, sterilized women, and aborted children. The number of children this official said she killed was upward of 40,000-50,000, if my memory serves correctly. That’s a staggering number that words fail to accurately comprehend. How could one person live with so much death and guilt at their hands? 

The woman being interviewed was deeply conflicted with an agonized conscience. She knew what she had done in killing so many babies was wrong, but it’s what her job and the officials above her required. She has since made a pact with an impersonal force in the universe to try to act charitably and mercifully to all women and children in the aftermath, hoping that her good actions outweigh her bad actions.

Understanding wrongdoing and what sin is, is essential to understanding our accountability before a holy God, our deserved judgment for sinning against God, and how the sinlessness of Jesus can atone for our rebellion.

In essence, this woman is trying to atone for her sins by looking to herself for this redemption. She is trying to save herself, which is the tendency of every self-justifying yet condemned person. In the movie, there is no gospel, there is no offer of Christ who she can look to for atonement, redemption, and forgiveness. Rather, she is left to herself and her conscience and the fear besetting an individual who knows they are guilty and feels judged by some cosmic standard, even if she does not quite grasp that cosmic standard to be a personal God, YHWH. It’s a vain pursuit of self-reckoning that will only bring further condemnation. I so badly wanted to yell at the television, “But there’s Christ, look to Christ!”

What was apparent from the documentary was that it was this woman’s corrupt actions, her ethics, that have led her to this place of unremitting despair. This means, in turn, that the message of the gospel comes to her by contrasting her sinfulness with the sinlessness of Christ, the one who was qualified to obtain our salvation by his perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21). Such are the similar circumstances of a situation we all know well: Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well (John 4). Saying of Jesus, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” Jesus named her actions for what they truly were—sin—and the woman was awakened to the reality of her sin and her need for redemption, which she immediately recognized was available in Christ (John 4:29).

In sharing the good news and love of Christ, we must understand that people come to know Christ through the judgment they know they deserve and the redemption they know they cannot find in or by themselves. This means evangelism absolutely requires telling people that their sin is wrong, and is worthy of judgment because of God’s holiness, but that Christ offers the promise of forgiveness because his life is what saves us. 

To love our neighbor as God intends means to see them truly for how God sees them: As condemned, but never outside Christ’s reach. His arm is not too short to save anyone. To love our neighbor is to proclaim to them the moral obligations owed to God, and in turn, the moral duties that their nature is ordered toward and fulfilled by. It is to tell them of forewarned judgment and doom.

There are likely two realities that follow from engaging the topic of ethics in relationship to evangelism. One possibility is the person who hears of their rebellion and need for repentance and will respond with scoffing dismissal, even rage. For this person, the awakening of their conscience to divine accountability brings anger. This is because at their conscience level, they know they stand condemned before God, and their reflex is to entrench themselves in further self-justification. Even still, the reality of moral law stands, and we await in patience, hoping that God’s kindness will bring them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). 

The other possibility is that the person who hears of their sin responds with enthusiastic joy; that their rebellion can be atoned for and forgiven at no cost to themselves, but to Christ who died for them. For this person, the call of Christ means casting their burdens onto him, whose yoke is light and whose offer of redemption brings rest to their souls (Matt. 11:28-30).

To say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) is to proclaim to people that they have sinned. They have failed to live for God’s glory. They have rebelled. The good news of the gospel comes through recognizing the bad news of our sin. The good news, though, is not self-earned. The next verse in Romans reminds us how we obtain the atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation our souls are thirsting after: “justified by his grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Salvation requires repentance of our sin. Conversion requires a turning away of our sin. It’s clear, then, that the interior logic of the gospel is inseparable from a strong foundation in ethics and the pursuit of evangelism.

By / Jan 10

In 2016, as in every presidential election year, there was no shortage of writing and descriptions of evangelicalism—from exit polls about the infamous 81% of white evangelicals who voted for then candidate Donald Trump, to those who were choosing to no longer use the term evangelical. As Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (America’s largest evangelical denomination) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in his own piece on the topic, “the word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless . . .”. For all of those objecting to the term, there was a consensus that whoever was described by outsiders as an evangelical, was not a true evangelical. So who exactly counts in this transnational and trans-denominational movement?

That is the question that guides Thomas Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis. Kidd is the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History and Associate Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of numerous books on early America and American religion: Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017), American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths (Yale, 2016), and Baptists in America (Oxford, 2015). As both a historian and devout Southern Baptist, Kidd is one of the most qualified individuals to analyze this movement and articulate for those outside just what the “good news” is that evangelicals profess.

Evangelicals: A definition

Kidd begins by offering a definition of evangelicals with three key components: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (4). Kidd’s definition coincides considerably with the more common definition of evangelicals offered by David Bebbington. According to Bebbington’s definition, evangelicals are defined by Biblicism (the Bible as the Word of God), crucicentrism (Christ’s work on the cross), conversionism (people need to be converted), and activism (the gospel works itself out in the world). 

The definitions overlap at the importance of the Bible (Biblicism), the need to be born-again (conversion), and a personal relationship with Christ (crucicentrism). However, Kidd’s definition expands Bebbington’s by foregrounding the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Kidd notes that early evangelicals were more likely to describe themselves as “walking” with the Spirit or having a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit than any other way (22-3). 

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and the impetus to live in light of the leading of the Spirit, frames the book as Kidd charts this history of evangelicals. Though his book does note the early roots of evangelicalism in Europe and its growth in the third-world, the story focuses primarily on the way in which evangelicals flourished as a movement in the United States. Though it is not uniquely American, it would not have grown as quickly and vibrantly without the cultural milieu of the early American context.

Expanding our idea of who is an evangelical

Kidd’s history of the evangelical movement does much to orient the reader to the major figures and themes throughout. From the growth among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the work of individuals such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Billy Graham, and Carl F.H. Henry, the story of evangelicalism is presented as a vibrant community. However, the strength of the book is not in its overview of these major figures but in the way that it reorients our definition of who counts in this movement. Rather than just focus on the work of George Whitefield, Kidd introduces the reader to Phyllis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry and who wrote a poem praising Whitefield. Another figure who receives attention is Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who registered voters and fought for equal rights because of her evangelical faith (97-8).  

Kidd emphasizes the way in which the future of evangelicalism will be more multiethnic. For example, Latino Protestants, particularly immigrants, are one of the fastest growing segments of evangelicals. The same can be said for immigrants from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America. This is especially true given the role that the Pentecostal movement (which Kidd counts as at least evangelical adjacent, if not thoroughly evangelical in its early years), and its growth outside the United States. 

Evangelicals and politics

Kidd deals with the portions of the movement which birthed the stereotype of evangelicals as “white Christian Republican voters.” These “Republican insider evangelicals” form a significant portion of the latter half of this history and are emblematic of the crisis that he describes. Members of this subset of evangelicals become an image (and in some regards a caricature) of what it means to be an evangelical in modern America.

In many regards, it is this portion where Kidd’s ability to present the nuances of this movement are on display. Here he is able to articulate the vision behind these figures and their guiding principles, without dismissing the ways in which the movement did tie itself to power. Kidd notes that the same Billy Graham who desegregated his crusades in 1953 at Chattanooga was also the same man who was a staunch defender of Richard Nixon. Later evangelical leaders would court the Republican party even more closely, becoming a reliable voting bloc for the party. Kidd presents the reasons for their allegiance—legislation concerning abortion especially—in terms that avoid presenting them only as craven political operatives. At the same time, white evangelicals’ allegiance (with some notable exceptions) in the 2016 election does cause Kidd to worry that the relationship between politics and religion had proved toxic and that “something had apparently broken in the white evangelical movement.” 

The only place where Kidd’s book could have provided more clarity was in the wedding of the evangelical and Pentecostal movement. Kidd notes that there are reasons, theological and sociological, for separating the two, but also admits that this is true more in the 20th century than previous years, with the Azusa Street Revival of Los Angeles in 1906 marking the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement (6). Because Kidd emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit as a defining characteristic of early evangelicals, the historical divisions between evangelicals and Pentecostals are blurred throughout the book. Thus, a discussion of the evangelical republican insiders features prominent Southern Baptist ministers alongside Paula White (a leader in the Pentecostal/Prosperity Gospel movement), who are said to “have supplied a neatly packaged version of evangelicalism as a cohort of white Fox News-watching Republican voters who consider themselves religious” (154). So while Kidd is willing to seperate at the theoretical level these groups, in practice they are united because of their common cause in political goals.

Reclaiming the term “evangelical”

Though the 2016 election revealed a crisis in the movement and led others to distance themselves from the term, this book is a reminder of all that is good in the history of evangelicalism. There are instances where the movement of good news has capitulated to a culture of brokenness (George Whitefield and his support of chattel slavery being but one example), but there are also instances of resistance and hope (two of the three largest charitable organizations are evangelical: the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention). Kidd’s book even convinced Russell Moore, who was hesitant to use the term after the election, to say in his endorsement “this book makes me remember why I loved the word ‘evangelical’ in the first place . . .” 

I think that there is no higher praise than to remind people that this momentary crisis is no threat to the evangelical movement broadly, and that there is still good news for the world and a people to proclaim it, even if those carrying the message look more like sub-Saharan immigrants or Hispanic mothers in storefront churches than Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.

By / Nov 11

When my brother and I would fight as kids, I remember my Mom saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” In this era of evangelical tribalism, I find myself asking the same question. But the real issue runs deeper than why we won’t hold hands and sing Kumbaya at camps, conventions, and conferences.

Is it possible that in our efforts to be true to the foundations of our faith, evangelicals have actually become unfaithful Christians? Unity around theological liberalism creates tragic consequences, but perhaps Bible-believing evangelicals have underestimated the overwhelming opportunity costs of our fractured orthodoxy. 

When the apostle Paul confronted the Christian factions in Corinth, his simple question was, “Is Christ divided?” Nothing in the text suggests that Apollos, Cephas, or Paul were engaged in heresy or that they were encouraging division. Instead, believers who identified with the particular personality, gifts, and calling of these men were segregating into tribes in a way that distracted both believers and unbelievers from the central message of the Cross.

Personal loyalties to certain brands of Christian orthodoxy distracted first-century onlookers from following Jesus. While the people inside those factions viewed themselves as being faithful to “The Word,” Paul chided them as missing the point of the gospel message altogether. 

Ironically, but not so encouragingly, the tribalism in the hallways of our conferences and conventions, the social media voices that decry one faction while building their own; the influencers who use theological language, yet struggle to share Jesus with lost people; and those who expect civility without modeling it do more to oppose Christ and the message of his bloody, sufficient work on the Cross than they do to promote it.

When we genuinely love one another, we can vigorously and constructively debate substantive issues with one another in ways that do not divide us.

The cost of our factions to legitimate gospel work is revealed in at least seven ways: 

  • Factions reveal a yet unformed character among people who should be mature in Christ 
  • Factions steal from us the joys of Christian fellowship
  • Factions make it more difficult for lost people to receive salvation in Christ and for new believers to grow in Christ 
  • Factions falsely elevate ourselves above “less faithful” brothers and sisters in Christ
  • Factions drain our energy and blur our focus for effectively sharing and showing the gospel in the public square 
  • Factions discourage eager Christians from joining the mission of Jesus at a higher level
  • Factions hinder our ability to debate and more thoroughly clarify important secondary issues 

Assuming we can agree on the destructive costs of evangelical tribalism, what can we do to honor one another as we bear witness of God’s redeeming work in Christ Jesus? Consider these four steps as first steps in that direction: 

1. Determine the doctrinal essentials necessary for Christian fellowship and gospel partnership.

For my tribe of Southern Baptists, our statement of faith is the Baptist, Faith, and Message (2000). It’s the core convictions stated in this document that serve as the foundation of our fellowship and missional partnership.

If your church or network of churches has a statement of faith, determine if it indeed reflects your essential convictions. If it does, hold to it firmly. If it does not, then study to show yourself approved, settle what you believe and why, and then build ministry partnerships with others who share those essentials.

As we identify and agree on our essentials, we avoid insisting on an orthopraxy that is not shaped by our orthodoxy. In other words, we hold fast to our core beliefs, which then frees us to build larger spaces in our lives for fellowship with people with whom we disagree on second- and third-tier issues.  

2. Focus personal influence and energy on the centrality of the gospel.

Jesus called a motley crew of disciples to draw near to him. Among those 12 men were a nationalistic zealot and a compromising tax collector. Some of them were evangelistic men of the people; others became theology wonks more comfortable with a pen and papyrus. 

The Bible records no occasion that Jesus addressed those differences in any way. There is no evidence that Jesus thought the differences among his closest followers were issues worth correcting or that they were a basis for division. When the disciples moved toward drawing those distinctions in an attempt to elevate one over the others, Jesus called them to the back of the line to serve one another. He then showed them the way of the Cross. 

And then in the early days of the New Testament church, the apostle Paul’s unobstructed focus was on Jesus Christ and him crucified. The “foolishness of the cross” was his antidote for Christian tribalism, and thus is not only the basis for our Christian fellowship, but also the fuel for our shared Great Commission ministry.

3. Build and encourage meaningful friendships with people with whom you disagree.

Jesus prayed in John 17 that believers would be one just as he and the Father are one. It honors Jesus for us to make unity among the saints a priority, which then compels us to seek out and honor people who hold alternative views on secondary issues. 

The Kingdom is bigger than we might think. The outsider rarely knows another person’s motives. Humility calls us to acknowledge that as much as we think we are right, we could be wrong. And Christian love insists that we avoid reckless or ill-informed speech that impugns another person’s character or Christian sincerity. Paul’s warning against pugnacity prescribes an expectation for pastors and leaders to model Christian friendship by building relational bridges with one another, championing one another publicly, and demonstrating what it means to overlook an offense.

4. Engage in vigorous debate on the secondary issues in ways that promote love.

Although secondary issues are not primary, they are still important to building a culture of theological fidelity and greater faithfulness in our churches, church networks, and mission agencies. When we genuinely love one another, we can vigorously and constructively debate substantive issues with one another in ways that do not divide us.

The world-at-large, and evangelicals in particular, should see seasoned ministry veterans engaging one another as statesmen who walk with both kindness and conviction. We should give one another the benefit of the doubt, challenge positions when necessary, and yet still refuse to cast a shadow on one another’s Christian fidelity. Even with our clearly articulated differences, we can celebrate one another’s faithfulness to gospel ministry. In doing so, experienced pastors and well-respected leaders model for younger pastors and a watching world how to navigate these same challenges in the local church and in personal relationships.

It could be that beyond our simple failure to share Jesus with lost people, the greatest explanation for evangelicals’ anemic efforts in seeing more people saved and baptized is a contrived, holier-than-thou tribalism cloaked as biblical orthodoxy. Rather than rallying around the Cross, we have dug tribal motes with the shovels of secondary issues at the expense of the primary doctrines of our faith.

What then could happen if we viewed sin, Satan, and death as the great enemy that moved us into Christian friendship? What would happen if we moved to the back of the line and served those who had a slightly different perspective? What would happen if we became students committed to learn from one another and to grow in grace together rather than straining out gnats as we publicly nuance every difference?  

And what would happen if we held the essentials of our faith tighter than the nonessentials so that the essentials rather than the nonessentials fundamentally shaped our attitudes and actions toward fellow and future believers? 

Perhaps when evangelicals become known for our resilient unity around the essentials of the faith and for our gracious disposition around the nonessentials, we will gain a new and measurable gospel influence in the public square. Maybe as we treat people with the dignity they deserve, refuse to vilify dissenters, and learn to weld a thesaurus of civility as we discuss difficult issues, our neighbors will more clearly see the wonder and sufficiency of the gospel to rescue sinners from our greatest enemy.