Evangelical Heterodoxy

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The term “Evangelical” no longer has meaning

A recent study by Lifeway and Ligonier points out once again that the term “Evangelical” means next to nothing these days. The doctrinal survey points out that those who self-identify as evangelicals are all over the theological map in terms of their beliefs. If there is an overarching theme it is that American evangelicals are products of their time, and are far too influenced by the surrounding culture. They are being transformed alright, but not toward a more biblically-shaped mind. It should surprise no one that Americans in general hold heterodox views, and the study data must be read carefully to distinguish when the respondents are Americans in general, or whether the answers reflect only evangelicals.

“Two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Twenty-four percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure.” The exclusivity of salvation through Jesus is very clear in the NT. “No man comes to the father except through me”, Jesus told his disciples. That cannot be squared with “God accepts the worship of all religions” when no other religion defines Jesus as God incarnate. Among evangelicals, those who agree with this statement drops to 46%, but that is still a shocking number. Nearly half of evangelicals apparently believe that all faiths are more or less equal in God’s sight.

Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans are not clear on one of the most fundamental aspects of the gospel: You cannot earn salvation. “Three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say people must contribute their own effort for personal salvation. Half of Americans (52 percent) say good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven.” That drops to 36% agreement among evangelicals, but again, a startling number of believers are confused on a most basic aspect of salvation.

It should be noted that were the survey to segment other groups aside from evangelicals, I don’t doubt that the results would be similar. That is, if Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc. were categorized, the results would not be any different. (See Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenalization of American Christianity for such evidence.) In other words, this problem is not unique to evangelicals, but indeed it should be the case that evangelicals are the outliers due to their orthodoxy, not their heterodoxy.

The solution to this is not a new one: Faithful exposition of the Bible. No amount of catechesis that is divorced from the biblical record can do this. The creeds are not living and active, able to divide between soul and spirit. Only the Word of God is able to do that. American evangelicals need to recover a regard for the Bible once again, not as supreme authority, but as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, as sole authority.


The Scriptures Are Disappearing

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Influence on public life aside, Christians need more of the Bible.

Kenneth A. Briggs is a longtime journalist covering religion who is out with a new book, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. The theme is the vanishing of the centrality of the Bible in American life, and more importantly, in the church. This is but a further step of decline in what the Barna Group wrote about in its 2010 survey, citing six megathemes of the church’s direction. Number one on that list, “The church is becoming less theologically literate.” Theological literacy begins with the Bible, and Mr. Briggs work serves to highlight the sad and startling fact that among professing Christians, the Scriptures are simply not read very much.

Evangelicals should pay heed to what Briggs notes when asked about places he expected to find the Bible, but didn’t. “In the mega-type churches – the churches that were really heavily loaded with the visual and the audio and the rest of the electronic stuff, the music – I was really stunned by what I saw as that alternative version of Christianity being delivered through those means.”

Christians cannot grow spiritually beyond their knowledge of Scripture. We may have relational ministry, we may have worship teams, we may have what some view as crass “theotainment”, but if we do not have a deep and growing relationship with reading the Bible, we will not have conformity to Christ. No amount of community can make up for our lack of attention to the written word of God. Our pedigree means nothing. It doesn’t matter who started your church,  or what association or coalition we are part of. If a personal engagement with an open Bible is not part of our faith, we will be spiritually anemic. My sense is that Briggs’ book is part investigative reporting, part lament. He is saddened, as all christians should be, by the erosion of the Bible in not only our public discourse, but in our churches. Take, and read.


Both conservative and liberal Catholics agree – Pope Francis is changing church teaching

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Is the pope playing a theological shell game?

Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation, is a document that offers pastoral guidance for Roman Catholic clergy toward the reintegration of Catholics into congregational and sacramental life. Specifically, those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who are in other situations referred to as “Irregular unions.”  Damon Linker refers to Francis as a ‘stealth reformer’, and charts the path of how he is undoing previous doctrinal positions ever so quietly. A stealth reformer such as Francis, “keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.”

Linker has no doubt about Francis’ methods, nor his goal. He means to change doctrine by turning a blind eye to enforcement, and to leaving it to the discretion of parish priests as to whether it is acceptable to admit people to the sacraments. The pope is, in a way, covering his ears and shouting “la! la! la!” He doesn’t want to know or hear about what goes on at individual parishes. Linker expresses consternation with conservative Catholics who are upset by the apostolic exhortation, referring to their “retrograde intransigence.” Where he once espoused the conservative position, Linker seems ready to be done with a Church that refuses any dialogue on issues. Francis has broken this mold, and is a man very different from his two predecessors.

While Linker finds this encouraging and refreshing, others such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, find it a betrayal of the ancient faith. Dougherty agrees with Linker in this: Pope Francis is changing doctrine, if only by obfuscation and evasion. For those who believe this is an impossibility (“As the church teaches and has always taught”), what Francis propagates in the apostolic exhortation is, according to Dougherty, cowardice, confusion, and recklessness. Conservatives recalling the halcyon days of John Paul II and Benedict, doubtless find the current papacy hard to stomach. Convert Luma Simms is also one who all but declares Francis is peddling bad doctrine. She, too, accuses the pontiff of obfuscation, waffling, and of casting believers back on individual, private judgement. Those who insist that the church never changes its doctrinal positions are faced with difficult choices.  One matter on which conservative and liberal Roman Catholics are agreed, even as they quibble about method: the pope is changing the teaching of the Church. 


The Case for Domestic Pacifism

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Is our hope in superior fire power?

The Washington Post re-ran a piece by John Piper, titled Should Christians Arm Themselves? that presents a counterargument to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent comments that Liberty University students should carry guns. Falwell’s comments came in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, attributed to Islamic terrorism. Piper’s argument is that it is not consistent with the teaching of the New Testament that Christians face inevitable persecution with armed resistance. His position is a careful presentation of the biblical evidence to the contrary. He makes several points that are unassailable. A brief excerpt provides a mildly sardonic example of where Falwell’s logic would lead:

I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket.

Piper goes on as well to ask the question where all discussions of christian pacifism lead:

A natural instinct is to boil the issue down to the question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?”

He provides a 7 point answer to this question, and is forthright enough to say, I do not know what I would do before this situation presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me. 

Piper’s logic and reasoning hews very closely to a book I read several years ago, Choosing Against War: A Christian View, by John D. Roth. Roth is a professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  Goshen is a Mennonite school, and Roth presents a position consistent with historical anabaptism. Roth, too, said he didn’t know what he would do at the moment in a hypothetical situation of his wife or family being threatened. Roth is a thoroughgoing pacifist, and would thus refuse all military service. I don’t get the impression from Piper’s article that he holds to that view. And this is why I use the term “domestic pacifism.” If we exclude service in the military, and limit armed resistance to ordinary citizens carrying guns, then I think the Christian case against Falwell’s stance and for domestic pacifism is air-tight.

For a Christian, the worst that can happen is not death, but rather entering into a Christless eternity. If I have the power to take the life of another, and to send them to such an end, do I want to exercise that power? Can I assert with confidence that God would want me to take the life of another in this way? Though I didn’t always hold this view, I have to come to see that domestic pacifism is the most faithful to the New Testament, and in my view, the one most consistent with Christian witness.


In Defense of Ross Douthat

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The “laity” are not welcome in doctrinal discussions.

Perhaps I should refer to this less as a defense, and more an identification of an irony. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat has come under fire from an unlikely source – fellow Roman Catholics. But these are Catholic academics and theologians who essentially feel that due to his status as an uncredentialed layman, he is unqualified to comment on theology and doctrine as he has done many times in his columns.  Douthat is among those I write about in my book Evangelicals Adrift, and is a prime example of a convert to Catholicism who upholds his expatriate faith with a zeal that the native-born, as it were, do not.

Before converting to Catholicism, Douthat was part of pentecostalism (my memory is Assemblies of God, but I cannot find the reference, but it is not so important). No doubt he there became accustomed to reading his Bible for himself, thinking about doctrine, and within pentecostalism, so sharp a division between clergy and laity did not exist, to the extent it does in Catholicism. To suggest, as these theologians do, that Douthat is not qualified to write on matters of theology or doctrine is simply ridiculous.

Douthat is well-educated and literate, he is a critical thinker, and therefore he has pretty much all the equipment he needs to weigh the evidence for or against various doctrinal positions within his Church. He can read the source material for these discussions just as anyone else can. The suggestion that determining these things should be left to the “professionals”, should be insulting to any and every member of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, part of the reason for the current troubles of the church is due to this professionalizing of what belongs to everyone.

I by no means think that if the Catholic Church adopted a flatter structure, this would solve their problems. Their doctrinal issues run far deeper than a democratization of the church hierarchy can solve. But within the confines of the structure he is working with, Douthat is doing what one would think Catholic academia would want. As a layman, he is taking profound interest in what the Church teaches, and where it is going.  The pope himself said as much in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” Ironically, Douthat is doing what the pope he often opposes is suggesting, and it is this very thing, which these theologians say is not in Douthat’s purview, that the pope they defend is encouraging.


The Irrelevance of Relevance

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Relevance may be just another word for compromise.

A recent piece by Allen Guelzo titled The Illusion of Respectability calls attention to the uneasy relationship that christian academics have with higher education. Guelzo is specifically addressing those who choose a career in academia and who will be faced with what he calls the “lust for respectability.”  Is there discrimination against christians in higher ed? Most certainly. That fact will lead many to compromise and Guelzo’s plea is to recognize anew their calling as stewards, as servants, as those who need to embrace their standing as pilgrims. If academic ostracism is the result so be it. I don’t at all disagree with this, and indeed, even those whose careers are not in academia can find application here.

What I found most interesting about Guelzo’s piece is where he quotes Roger Olson, as to what he has seen change about evangelical christianity during his lifetime. “Evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. … All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.”

This indictment used to be particularly appropriate for youth ministry, where the overriding emphasis was on relevance. But it is doubtless true for all of the church now, and where the lust for respectability that Guelzo laments is, it seems, causing christians to ask not, “is it true?”, but rather, “does it work?” We want outcomes, results.  In Jeremiah 25, the prophet tells the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” In other words, Jeremiah got no results, it didn’t work. He had nothing to show as far as impacting the culture. But the message was true, and this was the gauge by which he was measured. This is the essence of what both Guelzo and Olson call believers back to. It begins and ends with scripture, with making it our study, our focus, and our guide. Apart from a deep knowledge of the Bible and the Savior, relevance is quite frankly, irrelevant.


Is the Pope Catholic?

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Previous generations might not have thought that the current pontiff is.

I remember this rejoinder from childhood as a sarcastic retort when you asked a question that had an obvious answer, but it’s been interesting to see how various constituents from within the Roman Catholic Church are asking the question not in jest, but in earnest.  Francis has certainly struck a different course and tone from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, (aka “God’s Rotweiler” for his ferocity in holding the line on conservative dogma).  Conservatives have not been happy with moves such as making annulments easier – a move the guardian termed a “stunning departure” from his predecessors, to his olive branches to those outside the church. These have led to lots of storm and stress within the church. Liberal catholics tend to be encouraged by him, but conservatives are chagrined.

It has always been the case that factions exist within the Catholic Church, but for the long pontificate of John Paul II and the shorter one of Benedict, the liberals were on the outside looking in. Now, it’s the conservatives who have been set back on their heels by Francis. Michael Brendan Dougherty asks with true sincerity whether the Pope is leading the Church into apostasy. Whether open schism erupts is still a question, but one wonders, how much dissent can there be before it’s just called for what it is? The answer, then, to the question of whether the Pope is Catholic all depends on which side of the aisle you’re on.