Whither Evangelicalism?

Evangelicals need to have a major rethink:

As with every Christian cohort, evangelicalism has been a mixed bag with various strengths and weaknesses. As such, it is always fitting and proper to make regular critical evaluations and assessments as to its actual condition. Because I am an evangelical I have often written on such themes.

Many others have as well of course. Two important articles which discuss some of the weaknesses and shortcomings of evangelicalism have recently appeared and are worth drawing your attention to. They both speak about evangelicalism’s elites and how they have gotten too close to the world, and perhaps even sold out to it.

The first piece is by Rod Dreher. In it he examines the remarks of a former evangelical Mark Galli who had been a Presbyterian pastor for ten years and editor of Christianity Today for seven, but became a Catholic in 2020. Dreher offers a number of quotes from Galli that I would fully endorse. Here are a few of them:

Elite evangelicalism (represented by CT, IVPress, World Vision, Fuller Seminary, and a host of other establishment organizations) is too often “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” These evangelicals want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture. This has been a temptation since the emergence of contemporary evangelicalism in the late 1940s….

 

Indeed, effective evangelism has been one motive, and in some ways it has proved to be an effective strategy. But I don’t know that evangelicals have been sufficiently self-reflective to admit their basic and personal insecurities. It’s just no fun being an outsider to mainstream culture. We all just want to be loved, and if not loved, at least liked and respected. Elite evangelicals are not just savvy evangelists but also a people striving for acceptance.

 

I saw this often when I was at CT. For the longest time, a thrill went through the office when Christianity Today or evangelicalism in general was mentioned in a positive vein by The New York Times or The Atlantic or other such leading, mainstream publications. The feeling in the air was, “We made it. We’re respected.”  This irritated me, because I naturally believed that CT’s outlook was superior (since it was grounded in the truth of the gospel and not secularism), so I often commented that we had things backward: The New York Times ought to be thrilled when it gets a positive mention in Christianity Today.

 

This tendency has only gotten worse, as now the mark of a successful evangelical writer is to get published regularly in the Times, Atlantic, and so forth. What’s interesting about such pieces is that (a) such writers make a point that affirms the view of the secular publication (on topics like environmental care, racial injustice, sexual abuse, etc.) and (b) they preach in such pieces that evangelicals should take the same point of view. However, their writing doesn’t reach the masses of evangelicals who take a contrary view and don’t give a damn what The New York Times says. If these writers are really interested in getting those evangelicals to change their minds, the last place they should be is in the mainstream press. Better to try to get such a column published in the most popular Pentecostal outlet, Charisma. Ah, but that would do nothing to enhance the prestige of evangelicals among the culture’s elite.

 

Evangelical columns in large part merely bolster the reputation of secular outlets, as these publications can now pat themselves on the back and say, “See, even religious people agree with us.” Rarely if ever will you see an evangelical by-line in such outlets that argues to protect life in womb or affirms traditional marriage.

 

We see an ancient dynamic here: When you seek to win the favor of the powerful, you will likely be used by them to enhance their own status. And along the way, many of your convictions will be sidelined. We’ve seen this happen on the religious right in the political nightmare of the last few years. But it happens on the left just as often.

The full piece by Galli is found here: markgalli.substack.com/p/the-galli-report-100821

Some of the comments by Dreher, who is Eastern Orthodox, are also worth presenting here:

It’s fascinating to read Galli’s confession that CT intentionally avoided taking “liberal” positions on certain issues, but signaled its real stance by never publishing anything that favored the “fundamentalist” position on those issues — positions that would have embarrassed CT‘s staff in front of the secularists….

 

I hope that American Orthodoxy can resist and rebuff the pressure by certain voices — especially academic ones in the Northeast, where Orthodoxy is dying — within it to liberalize. This is another area, though, where our weirdness helps. An Evangelical friend pointed out to me the other day that taking the step to convert to Orthodoxy is such a leap for your average American Christian that they are already a bit used to doing something radically outside of the mainstream.

 

Readers, I welcome your take on Galli’s essay in the comments section. But I hope you will also venture a guess as to which people, schools, or factions within your broad religious tradition will inherit the future of your church or tradition. www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/mark-galli-elite-evangelicalism-slide-secularism/

The second recent article that also speaks to such matters is by Carl Trueman. He starts his piece with these words:

There are times in history when Christianity feels its place in society coming under threat. As it finds itself pushed to the margins, two temptations emerge. The first is an angry sense of entitlement, an impulse to denounce the entire world and withdraw into cultural isolation….

 

The second tendency is more subtle and more seductive. While appearing to be valiant for truth, it conforms Christianity to the spirit of the age. If fundamentalist fist-shaking is the temptation of the ragamuffin masses, accommodation appeals to those who seek a seat at the table among society’s elite. And these elite aspirants often blame the masses when their invitation to high table fails to materialize.

Trueman spends some time looking at one early theological liberal who was quite willing to accommodate to the surrounding culture, Friedrich Schleiermacher. He then looks at two current evangelicals who have sought to promote intellectual and academic excellence while still affirming traditional Christian beliefs: Mark Noll and George Marsden. He then says:

The problem with Noll and Marsden’s approach, as with [James Davison] Hunter’s related notion of faithful presence, is that modern intellectual culture has never been engaged in a morally neutral exercise of refining the canons of intellectual inquiry and debate. The leading figures of the Enlightenment and their intellectual descendants were engaged, with varying degrees of conscious intention, in an attack on the moral significance of orthodox Christianity.

 

In Revelation and Reconciliation, Stephen Williams cautions us not to take modernity at its word: Though the “epistemological challenge to Christianity must be taken seriously,” we must not forget “that it is grafted onto a fundamental resistance to the message of reconciliation.” The Enlightenment did not simply rebel against old ways of thinking about knowledge; it rebelled also against the moral teachings of Christianity. The mainstream of modern thought has deemed doctrines of human sinfulness and Christ’s atonement incompatible with human autonomy and freedom. This moral and political objection to Christianity is the dominant motif of today’s cultured despisers. Unlike the canons of scholarship, the objection that Christianity promotes subservience, injustice, and hatred cannot be accommodated by Christians. Reason is compatible with faith, but the opposite of humility before God and obedience to his commandments is antithetical to it….

 

Here’s the rub: Within Christian circles, particularly those of the leadership class and its associated institutions, the desire to appease religion’s cultured despisers has become a powerful force. Like Schleiermacher, those who hold to this vision think that a winning strategy involves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the despisers. This no longer means conformity to the canons of academic discourse, the well-­considered position advanced by Noll and Marsden. It means echoing woke outrage. And, where possible, it means laying the blame for Christianity’s failure to meet elite standards on other Christians, typically on those who stand to the right of the “good ­Christians” politically and beneath them economically and socially. Sadly, the Schleiermachian ambition to appease the cultured despisers has reinforced the Menckenite tendency to sneer at the “fundamentalist” masses. The class division in American society between the educated people who count and the “low-information” people who do not appears just where it should never be found: in the body of Christian believers.

He concludes:

Christians should not expect to be warmly embraced by the world, nor even to be tolerated. In John 15, Christ tells his disciples: If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

 

Harkening to Jesus’s words is not an excuse for sloppy scholarship any more than it is an excuse for indifference to injustice and evil. Nor does it justify treating with contempt those with whom we disagree. Christians who act despicably should not complain when they find themselves despised. But Jesus’s warning surely reminds us that we do not need to take our cultural despisers seriously; still less ought we to side with them against those who actually share our faith. Christianity tells the world what it does not wish to hear. We should not expect to be embraced by those whose thoughts and deeds contradict the truths of our faith. Nor should we seek to make our faith more palatable, lest the salt lose its savor. Accommodating the world’s demands is a fool’s errand, as anyone who reads Schleiermacher should know. www.firstthings.com/article/2021/11/the-failure-of-evangelical-elites

Any evangelical worth his salt has got to say ‘amen’ to that.

[1652 words]

4 Replies to “Whither Evangelicalism?”

  1. Another excellent article. We as Christians need to speak the truth in love. Unfortunately the truth is not popular in today’s culture and we will be attacked for it. My concern is where we water down the truth to gain the approval of men, which is so easy to do.

  2. Sad part is more and more churches conform “we’ve got to attract the young people” for at least 50 years we’ve bee trying to change the church to suit the young so they stay yet because of that we’ve become more of a country club than a church even more of a discotheque. Conforming to the world never saved anyone. I wonder how many have been lost eternally from CCM???? With all our rock concerts and big production events how many have we really saved. How many would leave Christ if the churches removed CCM????

    How many churches would have to close or consolidate because of lack of sufficient congregation??? There are 2 and 1/3rd billion people who claim the title of Christian. How many actually are??? How many in poorer nations have been duped into a false Christianity following a false Christ because supposedly Christian men came to make profit not prophets???? And strength of belief isn’t the issue but what you believe. A person can be very strong in their belief of a lie but it is in the end still a lie! I can believe the sky is purple with all my heart and soul but it still isn’t true.

    Popularity is always a tough one because it is something people are taught to crave from childhood so to join a group of unpopular outsiders who are looked down on and even losing jobs for being part of can be a tough sell. We all want recognition but one can either have it in this life or the next but often not both. Sometimes but not often.

    I appreciate more being in a disabled state as I can do things sight unseen except by God and from him I get the recognition I need. I remember the widow and the mites. No-one was there to congratulate her to put her name on a scroll of honor but her give was far greater than then gifts of those give larger amounts and being give accolades for doing so. Even today millions give to charity everyday without fanfare or great honor paid to them yet a few millionaires and billionaires give a couple million and people start gushing with praise and thank you’s.

    God sees what you do, hears what you say, knows what you’ve done, and keeps record and you will receive due reward in time. You may get no honor on earth but in heaven you will receive praise due to you for what you have done in his name. Perhaps by then the shyest of us will be more outgoing.

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