Evangelicalism, One More Time 2

Since the 1980s evangelicalism has developed new legalisms. Before I go there, let me define what “legalism” means: it refers to anything that is added to the gospel in such a way that it diminishes the sufficiency of our acceptance before God in Christ or diminishes the power of the Spirit to guide us. Legalism is not a rule; it is not disciplined actions. It has to do with “subtraction by addition”: adding something to the center so much that Christ and the Spirit are diminished.

It all has to do with “acceptance” and “rejection.” Legalism is designed to tell one person “you’re not in” and another person “you are in.” That’s how it works.

One more biggie: Acceptance and Rejection are not superficial actions. We embody whether or not God accepts a person or rejects a person in our legalisms. Don’t ever forget it: you may think you are just drawing a line in the sand for the sake of peace but what is absorbed by the excluded is “I’m not accepted by God” and what gets even more confusing is that the line-drawers start taking on the role of God. This is exactly what James meant in James 4:11-12.

Acceptance in the Christian faith is upon one basis: that the Father accepts the Son, and we are “in” the Son. We are not accepted on the basis of our particular behaviors, no matter how zealous or righteous or loving.

Do you see these three legalisms at work? Do you see the Acceptance/Rejection theme as central to legalism?

Since the 1980s, we developed three kinds of new legalisms:

First, there is a political legalism. In the 1980s and 1990s American evangelicalism got so wedded to the Republican Party that one could easily sniff it in the air. That is, one could easily know if one was “in” or “out” on the basis of whether they wore the red tie or the blue tie.

Second there is theological legalism, which has always been around. The newest forms of legalism are found among the NeoReformed, who have somehow managed to get complementarianism, Calvinism and young earth creationism … well, if not in it’s very close to the inner circle. If you don’t think this exists, go here to see it and tell us what you see there:


Sometimes this group sounds like Elijah who thought he alone was faithful. Hooey.

I poke at these guys often, but they’re hardly alone. Indeed, alongside this legalism is the progressive, emergent/emerging form of legalism, which says you can’t embrace traditional evangelical views (be they political or theological), especially something like evangelism for the purpose of salvation, if you are intelligent and ‘with it’. This is why I liked Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity, and the fierce reaction he got from those who see themselves as ‘with it’ showed to me he was at least pointing in the right direction about a good concern.

Third is the social legalism. This one is odd. Evangelicalism from the 1900s to about the 1960s was more or less silent when it came to social issues. Evangelicals were intoxicated with the fear of the Social Gospel. Then in the 60s and 70s, think Jim Wallis as a young firebrand, started to get socially involved. But Jim was very much alone, and he can tell you that story. But something happened in the 90s in the most ironic of ways: when everyone was beginning to carp about right-wing evangelicalism’s over indulgence in political causes (read: Republic Party and their form of political legalism), another group of evangelicals shifted more to the left politically (they joined Jim Wallis) and they began to see themselves as the Jesus Party — that is, they thought they had embraced the kingdom vision, the justice vision, the peace vision, while “evangelicals” were obsessed with penal substitution and going to heaven. That, too, became a form of legalism. The irony is that while progressive evangelicals were carping about right-wingers being in bed with the Republicans, they progressives climbed in bed in another room with the Democrats and are reading the liberation theologians.

Now I want to point my finger at the political legalism a little more sharply, and do some finger wagging.

Evangelicalism’s worst move, and its potentially destructive decision, was to politicize itself in the 1980s and 1990s and use it as a litmus test of who was in and who was out. The rise of the Moral Majority, and one has to factor in folks like Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy and James Dobson, has been the undoing of the evangelical coalition and not just by creating a new kind of legalism. Instead of focusing on unity for the sake of mission, evangelicalism became increasingly connected to a political party (Republicans). Instead of the Lausanne Covenant, which is one of the finest evangelical theological statements ever, we’ve got theological waffling and theological narrowing — instead of focusing on mission, we’ve turned on one another.

From the 80s on to be a true blue (or red) evangelical one had to align himself or herself with the Republican party. Or at least with overwhelmingly conservative political causes, and any variation was a sign of theological (!) drift. Think of Richard Cizik.

If you don’t think this politicization was a major movement among evangelicals, I suggest reading Robert Putnam and David Campbell: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They see the 60s as the Shock, and the Aftershock being the rise of conservative evangelicalism and its becoming a political movement. [More about Putnam and Campbell in a future series.]

The irony of this connection was that it led to the very thing evangelicalism was designed to shed. What’s that? Evangelicalism (read Neo-Evangelicalism) arose in the 1950s as a protest against Fundamentalism and its many legalisms and anti-intellectualism, and it’s concern was to get beyond the bickering to focus on the essentials in order to get on with the task of world mission in an intellectually respectable fashion. The spokespersons for this were Billy Graham and John Stott and CT. They fought for unity for a nobler cause; I don’t see many today taking up that vision. I for one am profoundly grateful for what CT is still doing — it still speaks for the Big Tent.

Now the irony: the protest against legalism that became evangelicalism led to a politicization that has included all sorts of opportunities for new legalisms. One has to subscribe to a list of non-essentials in order to be in good standing.

Those legalisms today are seen in politics and in an increasing number of evangelical institutions going legalistic with doctrines and ideas that should have no part when it comes to defining essentials. Furthermore, this preoccupation with minor matters (non-essentials) leads to the further fracturing of evangelicalism. And this fracturing often being expressed as the only way to “save evangelicalism.” It’s actually undermining its robustness.

Evangelicalism, therefore, is now officially up for grabs.

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  • rjs


    I don’t think there was a golden age of evangelicalism now (and for a while) under attack. Rather there was (is) a vision for what could be that has always been under attack in various ways.

    I think we need to push for that vision – but as a continuing climb, not a return to what never was. “New” and old legalisms are always the challenge – we fracture and align only with the like minded (or like-deluded).

  • Identifying these legalisms raises the question: Why did they arise? One important factor, I think, was that Evangelicals no longer really believed the traditional theology. They could no longer be whole-hearted about spreading the gospel as they understood for the reasons that had motivated them in the past. So they shifted their passion to politics. I see neo-Calvinism as a reactionary movement that is doomed once its young advocates have time to discover that it can’t carry the weight they put on it.
    And this: Scot, was Evangelicalism itself a legalism? In this sense: “If you don’t pray this prayer, you are not accepted.”

  • smcknight


    I don’t want to be heard as thinking there was a golden era, though I do think there was a coalition that is falling apart. I don’t want so much to return to those days but to continue in the spirit of that coalition.

    Mark, in a word, “No.” There is an inherent acceptance message to the gospel and our faith; one is accepted in Christ but one must get “into” Christ first. Legalism is to add something to the gospel in such a way that acceptance in Christ is compromised by the addition.

  • Robin

    I want to think more seriously about political legalism. If we say that evangelicalism has been “claimed” by the right, what does that mean and what would it take to break it.

    Are evangelicals really committed, deep down, to a strong national defense, free market dominated economic principles, decentralization, lower discretionary spending, etc.? Or, have evangelicals partnered (or been captured) by the right because of a few key issues?

    How many evangelicals would gladly shift their voting to the left if Democrats were committed, as a party, to abortion on demand and fetal stem cell research, and a couple of other big issues?

    I just don’t see evangelicals buying in hook, line, and sinker to republican politics; I see evangelicals pushed into the arms of Republicans because they cannot imagine voting for candidates that oppose them on some key issues they see as dear. If those two or three issues swing back, or even swing to the middle, I think the political legalism will end.

  • Rick

    I think the DeYoung/Duncan/Mohler video is interesting in that they (Mohler specifically) bring up the issue of where young church leaders go for theological understanding. There is an element of truth in the thought that the Reformed camps have been more encouraging and available for such pursuits.

    I disagree that it is the only logical course and endpoint for such pursuits, but it is the most outspoken. Other elements under the big tent do not seem to have the same network(s) of theological training and goals.

  • Susan N.

    Scot, from my perspective as one whose faith has weathered the fundamentalist/evangelical shift over the past four decades, your thoughts here pretty well sum up my experience and observations. And, FWIW, I do think that the new legalisms of evangelicalism are a means of identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out”.

    Aside from the political (Republican) and theological (neoReformed) criteria, I appreciated that you spoke about the “hipster” factor in progressive evangelicalism. I didn’t measure up to any one of these socio-religious requirements, and what’s even sadder (for me) is that I don’t ever aspire to that! All of the attempts at homogeneity and conformity are so childish and unnecessarily injurious, IMHO. Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees gives me a pretty good idea what He would think about the current state of affairs in evangelicalism — and how He would handle it.

    Thank you for using your “voice” for good; as one with integrity and credibility who speaks truth in a gracious manner. The biggest lesson and mandate for all of us who now or have ever counted ourselves “in” as evangelicals is peaceMAKING. I’ve become convicted that it is the only “Way” out and up from the mess we’re individually and collectively in. One person at a time. Let it begin with me, God willing and with His help.

  • Richard

    “Mark, in a word, “No.” There is an inherent acceptance message to the gospel and our faith; one is accepted in Christ but one must get “into” Christ first. Legalism is to add something to the gospel in such a way that acceptance in Christ is compromised by the addition.”

    Scot, my reading of the NT has led me to think that boiling it down to a sinner’s prayer is a form of legalism when it is detached from following Jesus (deep and devoted acceptance expressed through fruit). Does that resonate with your reading and reflection?

  • Alan

    I think you’ve hit it right on. Instead of circumcision and dietary laws and festivals, we now have alcohol, political conservatism and young earth creationism (and I’m really glad to hear you call out the more progressive end of evangelicalism and their desire to completely detach from anything smelling of traditional Christianity).

    The irony, of course, is that most of these new, staunch evangelicals (Mohler, et al) would be the first to claim the solas of the Reformation–particularly grace, faith, and Christ alone. Yet, they are doing the same thing as the circumcision party in Galatians when the claim is made that you can’t be a Christian and believe in something–say, evolution–or do something–say, partake of alcohol.

    BTW, I am a recent graduate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, working as a youth pastor in a conservative South Baptist church. Just thought I might need to toss that out on the table.

  • I see this as a pastor and I’m saddened. I’m reminded of a scene in Pulman’s Golden Compass trilogy when the children arrive discover there is no deity but a “Department of Heaven” with clergy making arbitrary rules, all designed to protect their own power.

    It seems to be that legalism is an effect of the Fall we will never be freed from. We’re all left spiritually orphaned and we try to calm our cosmic insecurity by banishing others from our shabby attempts at Eden. When those three legalisms are banished, we’ll need three more.

  • smcknight

    Richard, thanks but I wasn’t defending the sinner’s prayer. If I had to choose one requirement for evangelicalism it is the born again experience — the ability to say “I’ve crossed the line; I’ve trusted in Christ.” That has far too often eclipsed discipleship, yes. But I don’t see the requirement to make a commitment as any kind of legalism at all. Legalism is to add something to faith in Christ in such a way that being “in Christ” is minimized.

  • What seems to me an interesting question is this:

    Can a church set criteria for membership that go beyond the gospel without being guilty of legalism?

    Specifically, for example, while Baptist churches here in Austria will work with other Evangelicals (in the Evangelical Alliance and other initiatives) there is a huge debate whether it is legitimate for Baptist churches to require “Believer’s Baptism” (as opposed to infant baptism) for church membership. These Baptists will be quick to stress that unlike the Churches of Christ they are not saying that Baptism is necessary for salvation, but they do require it for membership, as a matter of “order”.

    Is that legalism?

    The issue arises regularly in situations like this: Some evangelical Lutherans dissatisfied with the liberalism of their parish start attending Bible Studies at the neighborhood Baptist church. Then the Lutheran parish is closed down because of declining numbers, and these evangelical Lutherans now start to attend Sunday morning services at the Baptist church as well, quickly becoming a part of the community. When encouraged to become members, the “Believer’s Baptism” requirement becomes a stumbling block, because to these brothers and sisters, this demand is tantamount to denying that they have been Christians all along, before coming to the Baptists, and frequently also is perceived as disrespectful to their believing parents who had them baptized as infants.

  • TJJ

    The joining of the evangelical church with the Republican party happened in large part in the 70s with the emergance of abortion as a political issue with the Row v. Wade decision. The law on abortion suddenly changed for the whole country, overnight. The way the issue fell out was that Democrats as a party came to embrace abortion rights as a party plank and doctrine, ehile the Republican party did not, and that began the shift of the evangelical church to the Republican party.

    Other social issues followed, including gay rights (remember Anita Bryant?), prayer in school (O’hara and those Supreme Court decisions, and the rather liberal woman’s liberation movement which championed not only abortion but also the pill (an issue that seems strange to us now, but was big in the 60s and early 70s), and the anti war vs. national defense issues highlighted by the Vietnam war (remember McGovern)

    On each of these issues, the more conservative Republican party was in greater alingment with conservative Evangelicals than was the Democratic party. There were issues in play at the time, mostly social issues, at a time of significant social upheavel, that caused these alliances to occur. It was not as if Falwell or Dobson just invented it. They exploited it, yes, but what brought it about was organic to the times and the historical currents that were in play.

  • smcknight


    Good question and it permits us to explore the nuances. Asking people to follow biblical teaching isn’t legalism — well, it shouldn’t be. The issue is about acceptance and rejection and about whether or not acceptance in Christ alone is at work. I’m baptistic in my views of baptism, but I would never want to make mode or time of baptism a matter of acceptance.

    Membership in a local church is a profound embodiment of our understanding of this acceptance/rejection mode of being. We declare who is in and who is out in such standards, and therefore such standards should be focused on Christ, on gospel and on the great Christian tradition.

    I don’t think this is idealism; it is counter cultural to denominational sectarianism.

  • smcknight


    Again, commitment to moral positions is different than commitment to a political party. When I begin to wear political partisanship buttons and the like then I’m pledging allegiance to Caesar. Voting for one person/candidate/party is not the same thing as commitment to a party. Too many evangelicals became Republicans in that era. Again, read what Putnam and Caldwell are saying.

  • TJJ

    What is interesting to me about the election this week, is how it was big for Reppublicans, yet, it was not about social issues or war issues as all, as has been the case the last dew election cycles with Bush and Rove. It was all about economic issues: the deficit, the unemployment, taxes, economic growth, bailouts to Big banks too big to fail and Wall street, while middle America and their homes and jobs were too small to save.

    And abortion, with plan B drugs, etc, seems to finally be fading as litmus test issue in our society as a whole.

  • smcknight

    TJJ, your last comment speaks to Dan’s early comment. It is not clear that most evangelicals have an economic theory in all of this, for it seems that most of us are in need of a brief course in economics and economic theory — and I say this to the Left and to the Right amongst us, but there is little doubt that this midterm election was over economic liberties. Would to God that more Christians would give serious thought to economic theories.

  • Tim

    Scot said:

    “I don’t want to be heard as thinking there was a golden era, though I do think there was a coalition that is falling apart. I don’t want so much to return to those days but to continue in the spirit of that coalition.”

    I think Scot is like the wounded lover who was long ago left behind. His girl has moved on, and wants nothing to do with him. He thinks that if he tries the right approach, if he keeps trying to woo her back, that something of their old relationship can be reclaimed.

    The problem is, his girl (the majority of the Evangelical community that is fundamentalist) doesn’t just want nothing to do with him, but actually fears and despises him (theologically speaking). His girl thinks that only by retaining a firm commitment to the strictest Biblicism and taking a stand on culture war issues can one be a good Evangelical Christian. Scot, to them, is like the snake in the Garden of Eden. Holding out forbidden fruit of theological backsliding, and the curse of eating this fruit is a long journey down a slippery slope.

    Scot continues to pursue this girl, and she’s done everything she can to tell him, it’s over. She’s ridiculed him publicly (he is seen as “liberal” and we all know how those are talked about in fundamentalist churches). and even taken out restraining orders (read Peter Enns expulsion from Westminster – which is exactly what would happen to Scot if he was employed at most fundamentalist seminaries).

    At some point, I think one of Scot’s buddies needs to come up, sit down with him for a beer, and tell him “dude, it’s over. She’s moved on with her life, you should too.”

    I think for Scot, it’s over. The fundamentalists don’t want him in their tent. They are not going to want him in their tent for what will likely be the remainder of his natural lifetime. The most he’ll ever be is a black sheep to them. They might allow him to sit with them, worship with them, etc. But they will hang a big warning sign around his neck that reads “warning, theologically radioactive, keep distance to avoid contamination.” In a nutshell, they don’t want what he represents theologically anymore, and they haven’t for some time.

    He didn’t leave them. They left him. I think all he can do now is find a new tent.

  • Richard

    @ 10 Scot

    Thanks for clarifying. I must have misunderstood Mark’s original question that you were responding too. I thought he was referring specifically to the “sinner’s prayer” not a conversion moment in general.

  • Robin

    TJJ and Scot,

    It is important to realize that while this election was definitely about economic issues, the narrative last night had nothing to do with evangelicals. In the hours of election coverage I watched I cannot remember anyone talking about faith-based voters or evangelicals like they did in 2004 and 2006.

    This could be an opportunity for republicans to pick up socially liberal libertarians and leave evangelicals in the wilderness to some extent. It could also be an opportunity for democrats to soften their stances on abortion and stem cell research and bring some evangelicals back into their camp.

    This is the first election I can recall where evangelicals or values voters weren’t even considered important.

    As an aside, has anybody gotten a copy of Generous Justice (Tim Keller) yet?

  • smcknight

    Robin, yikes, I think the story is there but not as overt. We’ll see.

    Yes, I’ve got Generous Justice and I will either do a series (not as likely) or a review (and someone has asked to do that). I’ve got a goodly stack of books to work through for the blog … but Keller will be discussed.

  • Robin

    I’m not sure what part of my comment “yikes” was in reference to

  • TJJ

    Scott, as to the Caesar point, agreed.

    But when one political party embraces moral positions as political planks, as the Democratic party did, that evangelicals find morally offensive, as in the case of abortion, and that party, if it wins elections, can then appoint Suppreme Court Justices for life, who can make those moral positions the law of the land and shape the culture and society, well, one can understand why the move to vote a certain party and support the elcetion of a certain party comes about. And all with the best moral and theological intentions, of many, at least.

    The same thing happened in the 1860s, by the way, with the issue of slavery. It was moral issue of a great many Christians in the north, the end slavery, and when the Repulican party threw it’s hat with the abolitionists, Christian groups and churches all across the north aligned with the Republicans.

    The same thing happened again with the prohibition party, which was largely a evangelical christian woman’s movement, which also aligned with politics to pass prohibition.

    The point being, that when moral issues become political agendas, those to whom those moral issues are important and even sacred, will align politically with those political movements/parties which offer the best promise to either resist or push that moral agenda.

    I don’t know that in and of itself is good or bad, in a democracy.

  • smcknight

    Robin, Yikes in that the media wasn’t obsessed with the faith-based orientations of these voters. For a long time they were saying the Tea Party movement was all about faith-based stuff but they seem to have recognized that’s not true.

  • T

    Scot, I agree with you that the legalisms you describe have been a negative that has splintered, weighed down and limited evangelicalism. But I also think evangelicalism’s positive, unifying energy for mission that centered on conversion (to its gospel) has lost steam for even stronger, deeper reasons.

    It’s easy to lose steam for evangelism just naturally in the best environments. But I think the combination of the general shift away from modernism and modern approaches and certainties along with the (welcome) push to make the evangelical gospel more robust and holistic has created the perfect storm. There is a lot of energy for neo-calvinism right now, enough to overcome/overpower many of their legalisms, at least partly because they have a clear gospel that has, for all the talk of calvinism’s intellectual rigor, very simple working parts. Neo-calvinists do not struggle with a lack of vision, or lack of clarity to their gospel, and therefore for how to do evangelism. They have vision in spades, often with somewhat disturbing levels of certainty. I can’t say the same for those who have become convinced that the evangelical gospel of yesterday needs to become more robust, that something has been missing. Knowing there is something missing does not energize, certainly not for mission, definitely not for evangelism.

    “If I had to choose one requirement for evangelicalism it is the born again experience.” As our gospel has become more robust and people are realizing that not everyone has a “born again experience” that matches the advertisement, this requirement has blurred. As we broaden our questions from “have you been born again?” to at least include “do you follow Christ?” and related questions, we are hesitating to take the well-worn paths of evangelical mission/evangelism.

    In a nutshell, evangelicalism has an identity crisis that is deeper than its political ties, though that is part. It goes to our core, our gospel, which defines our mission. As that shifts, evangelicalism hesitates and is up for grabs to be redefined by a clear, powerful gospel. So far, it’s the neo-calvinists that are providing that, whatever else they add with it notwithstanding.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot — yes! No! What?!

    Not a lot of time today but let me pick up on one thread, which is your holding up of the Lausanne Covenant as a model. Ok, yes — it is a very fine statement, with some excellent balances. But OTOH — it very much reflects, doesn’t it, a model of missiology that is problematic? There is that line about evangelization of the nations as the necessary spur to Christ’s return — really bad theology and praxis, IMHO. And while there is great social justice stuff, it is always subordinate to “evangelism,” not seen as part of what it means to bring the Kingdom of God to bear. There is nothing in it whatsoever about scholarship, study, and exploration; nothing about fellowship and joy and stillness and contemplation; nothing about the mystery of the Church or the communion of the Saints; nothing about art and music and imagination and poetry; it lays all the responsibility on us to do and seemingly very little on what God is doing.

    I have no wish to participate in a resurgence of the missiology of the 1970’s. There are good things we can learn from it, and maybe some zeal and commitment to unity we can recover, but its vision of what the Kingdom of God represents remains impoverished.

  • Brandon Blake

    @TJJ–yes, nothing occurs in a vacuum, theological, political or otherwise. I think much of what we see going on here is in part a garden full of different species of flowers (Robert Brow) and a young child still “growing up. “

  • smcknight

    You’d be surprised how many Big Tent evangelicals there are. As long as we’ve got Packer and Oden’s One Faith in our hands we’ll be fine.

  • smcknight


    Fair enough. My statement was not intended to hold it as an ideal statement for all time, and I can see how you read it that way, but as the way the coalition was able to come together, cross lines and form a unifying statement (for the 70s it was powerfully unifying). Today we can’t get unifying statements.

  • smcknight

    T, I chose to avoid the gospel issue today. It was touched on Monday and it is a deep issue in my writing: my next book, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, works with that theme and the book after that, a book on the apostolic gospel, will take that issue on directly.

    But this political piece is huge for what is going on too, and we are seeing it in the forms of legalism that are arising.

  • T

    Scot, fair enough. I look forward to the next post and your book(s). This discussion reminded me of the point you made about the Democratic party, namely that they needed a strong unifying story to succeed. I agree. Evangelicals are used to having that story, but it has slipped (for some good reasons) and we’re open to being redifined. I pray the Tent that emerges is bigger and better than before.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot, here’s my other concern: I don’t want to do “big tent” for pragmatic purposes. Pragmatism is one of the core issues that led to the fragmenting we’re seeing today, I think. Maybe it’s not really a bad thing that, instead of grand coalitions, the model is moving towards smaller modular networks organized around community and truth. The trick here is that where folks in different networks disagree on questions of truth, there must be an over-arching commitment to maintain the basic bond of peace in the Spirit.

    Now in #27 you cite Packer and Oden’s “One Faith.” Again, I can’t really agree. The documents collected in that book try to ossify conservative evangelicalism’s penchant for “Statements of Faith” that go way behond the Rule of Faith — including detailed statements about plenary inspiration and inerrancy and all sorts of other 1970’s-1980’s Shibboleths.

    If we all have 1 Cor. 15:3-8 in our hands, we’ll be fine – or at least we’ll really all have what is Biblically of “first importance.” Any other requirement for basic unity is a form of legalism.

  • T


    Is cooperation for mission merely pragmatism? Though I agree with you that modern statements of faith don’t seem to be very helpful.

  • faith

    Good definitions of legalism… i see it in complementarianism in a big way… more than seeing it I feel it intensely as rejection from God and God’s people.

  • T


    One of the things that I think is going on here is, IMO, to the extent that evangelicalism’s gospel gets more robust, not only does the fixation on the born again experience wane, but there is also openness to seeing our mainline brothers and sisters who were never fixated on that experience in the first place as more genuine partners and allies. (This is part of what happened with many emerging folks, for example, at least to start.) This is a blessing but also coming with anxiety, especially as the mainlines are having issues with approving homosexuality on top of all the other historical differences of faith and practice. As the opportunity to embrace many folks who were conservative, but to the left of the “one requirement” of evangelicalism has come, evangelicalism has lost it’s own gravitational pull and is in danger of being divided into more extreme “right” and “left” versions. With Scot, I think there’s still plenty of folks in the middle, but it seems that as/after the emergers headed left, many headed right to neo-calvinism, I think partially in reaction to the first “defection” to the left by most of the visible portions of the emerging movement.

  • Stephen Mook

    Brother Scot,

    Honestly, where do you stand within this tradition, today? Or does yourself and even someone such as your friend Tom Wright desire to stand above the fray of these fracturing forms of evangelicalism (which you both have been able to do).

    Mohler cleverly engages with a significant reality. People are moving away from embracing emergent theology and forms of emergent ecclesiology, and many other forms of evangelicalism, so where will young pastors to be/preachers like myself find a unifying home? I gain a great deal of biblical insight from Calvin’s exegesis and theology, along with his disciple Jonathan Edwards, and his disciple John Piper (Even as I will go with Wright over any other Reformer). Yet, I want to be defined as a follower of Jesus not a New Calvinist, or even a Wrightian! This is true for many within the New Calvinism, however in reality many become more defined by the movements they lead or the movement they’re apart of, over the simply Christian movement of following Jesus and taking the whole Word of God seriously. Convolution happens when we put Calvinistic categories (though many biblical) as the creedal entrance for unity. To the point where if I speak of God’s sovereignty or God choosing us before the foundation of the world (both truths), I’m a New Calvinist, rather then a follower of Jesus who is trying to understand the truths in the Word of God through the inspired interpreter, namely Paul!? Or on the other side of things, if I say that we need to root our Christian hope in the resurrection, I’m Wrightian rather then preaching Paul in 1 Cor:15, etc.

    The reality is, reformation is again happening. Wright, yourself, and many others are biblically reforming our understanding of the gospel, the Kingdom, discipleship, Paul, the role of Women in the household and church, eschatology, etc. While many within the “gospel coalition” are doing the same. The starting point for division is the clear divide within evangelicalism over the gospel. The divide is over the fullness of the gospel (grace alone, or grace alone and the Kingdom of God), along with a variety of important issues (which we can’t just throw to the side as secondary issues).

    The difference is in the fact that there isn’t a “gospel coalition” or network of conferences organized between yourself, Wright, many others of biblical agreement, and I would even through in Bell (who people can easily underestimate, or overlook. Even though young Christians if they aren’t reading the “New Calvinists” are reading Wright, yourself, some others, and more then anyone, they’re reading and listening to Rob Bell).

    So, when the question arises about where do young pastors or churches gravitate to if they prefer a more full expression of the gospel that many of you advocate and preach for, they’re left without a unifying answer. I believe a big reason for the shift to New Calvinism is not just because of theology (which is central) but because they’re training young pastors, planting churches, teaching doctrine, and militantly organizing to further the gospel (even if its a sub-gospel) and a mission that is becoming more of a new form of religious tribalism then simply Christian.

    So, where do i go brother (besides to God and my local church)? Or are you and Wright creating a more robust “gospel coalition” anytime soon? Because when it comes to organization, networking, and doctrinal training, church planting, etc, the “New Calvinists” (even in its sub-gospel, and unnecessary Calvinistic categories) are doing a great deal of good things for young pastors and church planters.

  • Having a center point in Evangelical theology does not also include the need for a circumference. A circle will indeed have a center, but no one ever claimed that Evangelicalism is a circle, only that it has a center, and that the center point is illustrative of those beliefs that we hold to be of greatest importance. Some of these have been outlined already.

    A boundary is not necessary in such a context. One is considered ‘more’ Evangelical by their closeness to the center; by their belief in and relationship to those ideas considered significant by the majority of those under the tent. There will no doubt be variety in the details of some of those beliefs, but enough of the core is maintained to establish ones position to the center. Ones distance from the center is dependent on their relationship to core beliefs.

    As Roger Olson ad others have pointed out, who determines what these core beliefs are exactly? Some under the tent may consider a certain set of beliefs of central significance, while others will no doubt hold to a slightly different set. Context plays a significant role here. Methodists may aspire to maintain entire sanctification, while Pentecostals may wish to emphasize Spirit baptism.

    Someone once said that theology is a matter of emphasis. If this is true, then what one particular group emphasizes in their theological systems is often deemed to be of special significance to them, and therefore worthy of being held close to the center.

    With this in mind, I’ll ask the question again: who determines what beliefs are core and which ones should be moved a little further away from it? If Evangelicalism does not have a central ruling magisterium, as Roger and others have stated, who makes the decision as to what constitutes core and peripheral doctrines? If that right has not been given to one group (and it hasn’t), then who decides? Neither the Open Theists, Arminians, or Calvinists. All three have to in some way or another contribute to the discussion. Each group should have an equal voice at the table. In this type of scenario, a degree of theological hospitality has to be given by each voice, as each also recognizes and appreciates the theological emphases of the other.

    In the end, we (as Evangelicals) get to decide. Not Arminian Evangelicals, or Calvinist Evangelicals, or otherwise. No one group has been appointed as the official spokesperson and theological determining body. For a group to assume such a role, for whatever reason, would be a prideful and arrogant tactic. It reminds me of the question posed to Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom of God! His response was, ‘certainly not those who assert themselves to the front of the line.’ We refer to that move as rude.

    The center of Evangelicalism is determined by us – those who call this place home. There will be some degree of theological variety because of our varied emphases, but it is possible to gather around those things we hold in common and are deemed to be of greatest significance. On those areas where we differ, we continue to discuss them in a spirit of charity and grace, realizing that we are all en route and equally need increasing clarity for the journey ahead.

    In the end, I need my Calvinist family, just as much as I need my Openness relatives. Like a family, there will be disagreements, but we don’t disown members for disagreeing with one another. No, we take the time to listen more attentively and love each other anyway, despite our differences. For those who differ more greatly than the others, we love even more; in the hope that love will eventually bring them closer to home, the center of a family’s existence. As Stanley Grenz once wrote, we need to “renew” the center.

  • dopderbeck

    T (#32) — no I didn’t mean to say that. What I mean is that it’s too easy to say or imply that “all that really matters is that we reach the lost.”

    I’m grateful that I’ve been part of missions-minded churches for the past 30 years. I’ve served on missions committees and participated in countless “missions conferences.” While all this is good, I did pick up from it a deep seated and very wrong kind of reductionism: all that really matters is that we reach the lost; and all that really matters in any person’s life is that they “get saved.” What a miserable, impoverished picture of creation, the Kingdom of God, and the missio Dei!

    In my experience, it’s this sort of reductionism that stitched together the coalition Scot wants to recapture. Reductionism about creation, the Kingdom, and the mission of God is central to the Evangelical coalition of the 1970’s and 1980’s, in my experience. Not interested!

  • dopderbeck

    Stephen (#35) and Jeff (#36) — very, very well said.

  • AHH

    I think there is a hole in your list of “theological legalism” where your examples are “complementarianism, Calvinism and young earth creationism”.
    You left out what seems to me to be the biggest of all in this category, which is “inerrancy”.

    I would also say that (in spite of people like Mohler) there is (perhaps grudging) room for an old-Earth position in most parts of Evangelicalism. The real line-in-the-sand addition to the Gospel in that area in most circles is the denial of biological evolution.

  • Josh Mueller

    Great post, Scot – I couldn’t agree more!

    One question though: wasn’t the groundwork for political legalism already laid in the early 50’s with Graham’s strong anti-communist message which seemed to open the doors to both the White House and much wider media exposure (thanks to William Randolph Hearst)?

  • rjs

    I don’t see in the Bible – or in any robust evangelicalism – a retreat to “all that really matters is that we reach the lost.” But perhaps the problem is that when we move beyond this we fracture. We need to obey the command to “make disciples” but can’t even begin to agree on how to accomplish this task.

    This doesn’t happen by handing out an answer book with solutions to toy problems. It happens by meeting and interacting with committed Christians of various perspective and listening and wrestling. We need more doctors of the church and fewer answer book pundits.

    My problem with the “new Calvinism” as a solution to the absence of intellectual depth in the church is that it is often only a step into a slightly more sophisticated answer book mentality.

    This doesn’t mean that Calvinism is wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all Calvinist positions are wrong; but I do think that the answer book mentality is in its very essence deeply flawed.

  • smcknight

    Josh, the anti-communism stand was important, yes, and it’s not something that I’ve spent much time studying. And the prohibition, etc, so American evangelicals have always been politically active … something new however happened in the years of Reagan.

  • T


    You and I are very much on the same page, I think. I echo your sentiments in 37 almost exactly. That’s why I’ve been saying the real issue is the gospel (of evangelicalism and beyond it). We need a new, fuller story and gospel. Until we get it in a way that is clear and compelling the “gospels” to the right and left (and from other directions) will continue to pull from evangelicalism’s old center.

  • I, too went through a time where I questioned why so many protestants wrapped up their faith and their politics to the point where the two couldn’t be separated. I, too, want to see this stopped, because Christians fighting Christians about whose politics are more Christian is, um, not Christian.

    But as much as I love these calls to stop the madness, I don’t think it will work. As long as political liberals hold and defend the party line on the two big moral issues (abortion and gay issues), there will always be a backlash from those Christians on the right.

  • T


    I can’t tell you how many times I heard exactly that sentiment, if not very the phrase, expressed and emphasized in church. Maybe it was growing up SBC, I don’t know. But I will attest with David that it was prevalent and real. We even looked down on folks who didn’t see that ‘obvious’ reality.

  • RobS

    Great topic!

    I’m conservative on most issues, but am thankful for a great experience in college (~1994 time) when someone claiming to be a “staunch Republican” made comments that were anti-Christian. That really helped open my eyes to the fact that the Republicans are not the Savior of the world & relying on them to fit that mold is a false expectation. I vote for them more than not because I believe that (although flawed) the local candiates typically express and align with me on more social and economic ideas.

    That said, the follow-up challenge one I see is that many “Moral Majority” Christians do spend a lot more time focusing on the politics of things and the message they pour out daily on political matters really seems to hurt their ability to be effective in the Great Commission. This is a challenge and travesty I believe. If they instantly alienate and push-away someone over worldly issues and that hurts their ability to share the Good News of Jesus Christ — then they might be better to bridle their tongue.

    Tons more, but I think I’m #43…!!

  • Josh Mueller

    Scot, I wasn’t aware of this link myself until the recent PBS series “God in America” (you can check the transcript of the 5th hour) but it makes sense. Using religious revival to secure votes started long before Reagan. I was rather shocked to find out that Graham along with Norman Vincent Peale had met with influential Protestant leaders 1960 in Montreux to discuss how they could prevent John F. Kennedy from being elected president.

  • rjs

    Wolf Paul (#11),

    Great question – one that would be worth discussing on its own. I think whether it is legalism or not would hinge on the nature of membership – what does membership entail and what rights does it grant? This is likely too far off topic for the current post though.

  • Matt Edwards


    I love the definition/explanation of legalism. Thanks for that!

  • DRT

    Wow. Wish I was feeling better for this one, off work today, but if you don’t mind I want to register a hit and run for now.

    It seems to me (and this was raised in thread) that the evangelistic message gets conflated with the requirements for church membership. Clearly no one wants someone that has destructive views to be a church rule maker, but people hold the direction of their church in a privileged position, particularly in evangelicalism. Baptism is required? For what? For church membership? That’s a misnomer.

    Many churches have become country clubs for like minded people. This country club mentality creates the legalisms for membership and therefore group pressure and elitism.

    Again, sorry for the hit and run, off to bed again.

  • dopderbeck

    T (#43) — amen bro!

  • The way the abortion has evolved in this nation has a lot to do with Evangelical politics. With Roe v. Wade, the court exerted its authority to set policy on a profoundly controversial issue.

    This quickly galvanized support and opposition to abortion consolidating camps within both parties. Evangelicals, believing that something profoundly evil occurs when a baby’s life is terminated, sided with the Republicans.

    The public never got to have the debate it needed to have on abortion, and evangelicals never got to have input into that discussion. Add to this the fact that the abortion rate spiked sharply after Roe v. Wade, and there was a sense that the murder of unborn children was part of an inexorable rebellion against Godly values.

    This reached its zenith in the early 1990s, when anti-Christian sentiment was at it’s highest. Hillary Clinton foolishly declared that homeschooling was tantamount to child abuse, Jocelyn Elders opined about masturbation in Kindergarten. Bill Clinton was quickly (and accurately) perceived as a philanderer.

    Add to this a crime problem that seemed destined to sweep that nation, and an increased acceptance of homosexuality. It seemed like the end times, or something like it.

    Having allied with the Republicans on the abortion issue, evangelicals had a vehicle to fight back. Homeschooling coalitions formed to protect HS rights, just as a discussion about the failure of our public school system began entering the lexicon.

    As it turned out, evangelicals were (and still are) with the majority w/r/t gay power issues and sexual integrity. They were certainly in the majority on the crime issue. Deficits and taxes? Not at the top of the list, but it was clear that welfare programs weren’t having their desired effect.

    So 1994 happened, and evangelicals became real power players in the mainstream.

    So, while the religious right might seem antiquated in today’s political landscape, it isn’t as though Jerry Falwell arbitrarily commanded the troops to join Reagan into a bold new era. The Democratic party had given in to some of it’s cultural excesses, and it was not only wise, but pragmatic for evangelicals to keep it in check.

  • Maybe those like Billy Graham and CT were and are more concerned with theological issues that pertained more to the Church Universal, than with the tribalistic battles we are witnessing today. Maybe this is one of the fundamental differences between ‘their’ reaction and contemporary Evangelical responses.

  • Josh Mueller

    Scot, one other question – you said to Mark’s comment:

    “One is accepted in Christ but one must get “into” Christ first.”

    If I understand the thrust of the New Testament’s emphasis correctly (by both Jesus and the apostles), this “getting into” is by faith.

    Faith on the other hand is the acceptance of and reliance on something that was already true before the individual’s personal response as such. So I think Mark has a point if the common evangelical perception of a “personal decision” as the pivotal ingredient to what makes us acceptable to God is seen as a condition rather than the appropriation of a free gift.

  • Dana Ames

    Dopderbeck and T,


    My exodus from Evangelicalism began in the late 1990s, as I pondered the question, “What is ‘the Gospel’ – and in particular, what did Jesus say ‘the Gospel’ is?” I focused on Jesus, because there were so many arguments about what Paul meant, but hardly any disagreement about what Jesus meant. I was shocked to find out that, as I read the gospels again, Jesus’ Gospel was so different from what I was taught and had believed- even from what I had previously believed Jesus was saying because of the paradigm in which I had lived and thought. Also, there simply was not the urgency to *do* – to “get people saved”.

    I think you are right, Scot, to help us think about what it means to be “in Christ”. As helpful as you have been and still are, as generous and kind as you are, there is still in your theology a view of God as somehow adversarial, as not quite 100% “for us”. I do believe that sin is a big problem, but I don’t think the solution to that problem is to be explained in terms of God “accepting” us. There’s too much of a two-storey view of God and reality in that explanation. I was also looking for an integrative theology that began with, in Willard’s words, a God who is “a *lovable* God – a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible, and totally competent being”. Willard says if the God presented by a theology is not one that can “be loved, heart, soul, mind and strength”, then “we need to look elsewhere or deeper”.


  • Josh Mueller

    Well said, Dana! Christ and the cross is a demonstration that God is and always has been 100% for us. How else can we understand Romans 5:8 and John 3:16?

  • Dana Ames

    I also have to say that something “clicked” in my understanding when I read Irenaeus’ “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching”. I figured he would know what the apostles preached, since he was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. That and “On the Incarnation” showed me that the early Christians did believe in a lovable God who is 100% “for us”. They showed me so much more as well. Now, where was I to find a group of Christians who were constituted by this view?


  • smcknight


    Are you saying that only universalists have a God who is 100% for us?

  • Josh Mueller

    “We are our own adversaries, and if we don’t enter into Christ we find ourselves outside.”

    In other words: being outside of Christ is something WE do to ourselves, ignoring that God has already reconciled the world with Himself.

    Or is that a misread?

  • Dana Ames

    Forgive me. I wanted to be clear that it is a theological problem. I don’t think you personally see God as adversarial, but you hold to a theology that, at rock bottom, does – if Anselm holds any water for you. Perhaps I misunderstand.

    Yes, we are our own adversaries. Yes, we need redemption and restoration. We have the capability of turning toward death rather than Life, and we do it quite frequently.

    Yes, there is judgment. Scripture and my church teach it, and I believe it will occur. I also believe that mercy triumphs over judgment. Though not the majority view, my church allows for that option, once we have “seen him as he is”.

    God is so much more kind than he is portrayed in Evangelical theology. It is his kindness that leads to repentance. I think it is recognition of his kindness that quells legalism of any kind (and it’s all over the place, not only in Evangelicalism).


  • Dana Ames

    I am saying God is 100% for us. Period.

    In the words of St John Chrysostom, the Trinitarian Godhead “did not cease to do all things, until [he] brought us up to heaven and endowed us with [his] Kingdom which is to come….things of which we know, and things of which we know not.”


  • Josh Mueller


    Don’t you think that someone like Brannon Manning would be able to fit under the kind of larger evangellical tent Scot was refering to?

    If C.S. Lewis can be one of the heroes of evangelicals for decades and could describe judgment as a problem of the perception of the lost rather than God judging them for not seeing the truth, I don’t see why we should equate evangelicals necessarily with the “angry” young reformed crowd and the angry god John Piper can’t stop talking about.

  • Albion

    Dana: where does God’s wrath fit in with the kindness of God you describe? Not a snarky question, just wondering.

  • Dana Ames

    Re Manning, sure. But some in the tent would be uncomfortable, to varying degrees, because Manning is RC. Similarly, I think there is much of Lewis that evangelicals ignore, and God’s “final dealings” seen in terms of a person’s perception is one of those things.

    God’s “wrath” is one of those perception things. St Basil and St John Chrysostom both speak about how God’s dealings are described in scripture in language that people are capable of understanding, because we cannot fathom the judgments of God or rightly explain, at times, what we see happening around us. In terms of judgment when the Lord returns, see here:


  • Josh Mueller


    Does God show wrath towards those He loves (and loves eternally!) or does He show wrath towards everything that destroys life and love BECAUSE of that love He has for his children? I think that is the key question.

    I would support what Mark hinted at, at the end of comment #2:

    To the extent that evangelicals have projected a picture of God that gives people the impression that they first have to do something to change God’s attitude from wrath to acceptance (likea prayer of committment), they have been legalists and perverted the good news into bad news, essentially preaching a different gospel.

    I know that sounds harsh but whether Paul argues against circumcision as a add-on in Galatians or fir-and-brimstone preachers in their warnings of what God will do to you if you DON’T accept Christ, is to me essentially the same thing. It turns faith into a human work.

  • albion

    Dana: Thanks. I can’t square the view that this is a matter of perception with words like wrath, fury, tribulation, distress and eternal punishment–all words spoken by Jesus and/or Paul. If we cannot fathom the judgments of God because our language is inadequate, then the same logic could be used to say that we don’t understand what God’s “love” really means either. It could mean that God’s love, far from tending toward universalism, might be headed in a different direction.

    But not trying to argue the point, just noting that the perception argument isn’t very persuasive (at least to me). Thanks again for the clarification.

    Josh: Seems that wrath is reserved for those who don’t confess that Jesus is Lord and then follow him. I can’t make sense of Mt. 25 otherwise. (Marcus Borg can, but that’s a diff. matter.) And that those who follow him do so by God’s grace.

  • DRT

    One observation not touched on in this thread (I believe), is that legalism can be an is, for many people, an end unto itself. As Mohler discusses in the video, many people are out there looking for rules and regulations to follow so that they feel good about themselves. Mohler doesn’t describe it that way, he views it as a robust and solid foundation. But the reality is that there are many people for whom satisfying the all powerful and potentially wrathful father is an instinctual move that they *need* to do to feel good about themselves.

    The preacher stands in front of the congregation whipping them with rhetoric of sinfulness and so they can feel guilty and have paid the price for their disrespect to the father. They need that. Legalism gives it to them.

  • I’m really enjoying these posts. Thanks Scot.

    My two cents is that the legalism within evangelicalism is the outward symptom of a very deep and profound insecurity. The need to draw a line and declare who is out and who is in is felt most strongly, I suspect, by those who are not sure if they themselves are in. Those that need to claim they alone are faithful are those that in the very core of their being believe themselves to be separated from the Father–or, as Dana put it, they are unable to believe that God is 100% for them. Hence the constant self-flagellation, forced humility, and generally defensive posture that pervades evangelicalism.

    In my opinion, this is a grow up or get lost moment for evangelicals. If the thoughtful voices prevail, then we might see a revived movement which will be capable of contributing something positive to the wider culture. But a movement that continues to posture itself according to its insecurities isn’t likely to be around for much longer.

  • Josh Mueller

    Great insights, Chris! I think the root of that insecurity is part of the human condition in our current distorted way of thinking, going all the way back to the false judgment of “not good” what God judged good (Genesis 3:7). As long as we perceive ourselves as evil junk that is under God’s wrath, the attempt to scare people into heaven will continue.

    Scott Bailey had a great post on hellfire preachers recently with a series of video clips from the 70’s and 80’s that illustrate this kind of “evangelistic” preaching that has led so many to leave evangelicalism behind for good.

    Here is the link if anyone is interested:


  • dopderbeck

    Chris (#68): “this is a grow up or get lost moment for evangelicals.”

    Yes. A bunch of forces have burst open and they can’t be put back in the bottle.

    Dana, thanks for those comments. I do agree with Scot that we can richly undstand that God is pro nobis without having to be universalists. But absolutely, that God is for us, that God is already and always actively at work reconciling the world to Himself, that we live in hope and not fear, in patient confidence and not frantic activity — these are the sensibilities we need to cultivate in this moment.

  • Dana Ames


    “that God is for us, that God is already and always actively at work reconciling the world to Himself, that we live in hope and not fear, in patient confidence and not frantic activity”

    – This attitude is displayed by many Evangelicals, and they won’t make the news. They probably don’t even read blogs… It’s easy for me to regard them as family in Christ, and I’m sure they are better Christians than I.

    Without insinuating that you are calling me such, I don’t believe I am a universalist, if the definition of universalism is that “everyone gets into heaven Scot-free”.
    Though I wouldn’t want it to be Scot McKnight-free 🙂


  • Josh Mueller

    Albion, (#66)

    I made an attempt to look at part of Mt.25 in a different light here. Not sure if it will make sense to you or not:


  • DRT

    Dana Dana Dana. Good stuff. The “Scot free” is priceless. The “don’t even read the blogs” really hits home too. In my last church they thought I was a heathen, or at a minimum someone gullible for “reading the blogs”…

  • smcknight

    Dana, let me give you a little poke in the shoulder … wink wink, nudge nudge.

    If you took a poll of Eastern Orthodox folks, not theologians and not priests, I’m willing to bet their view of God is higher on the Authoritative scale and lower on the Benevolent scale than Evangelicals.

  • Ben Wheaton

    Scot et al.,

    You condemn complementarians for making views of gender first-order, but egalitarians do the exact same thing. Thus today’s article on Sojourners from Mimi Haddad:


    So legalism is hardly confined to the right.

  • smcknight

    Ben, did I say it’s confined to the right? Did you read this piece?

  • Dana Ames

    I’d actually like to see such a poll, Scot, and I’d like the data to be correlated with frequency of church attendance, and with whether people are “cradles” and “converts”. I suspect you’re right about the Authoritative category. I wonder about the Benevolent one though; if people attend services frequently and are constantly hearing “….for You are good and love mankind, and to You we send up glory…” and “…O only friend of man…” then that constant hearing actually might make a difference in how people view God.


  • Ben Wheaton

    Well, no, Scot, but you did say that it’s the newest form of legalism.

  • Robert Neville

    It’s human nature to begin piling on the rules and it has nothing to do with politics. The first thing any group does is generate norms, both written or unwritten.
    That isn’t to say there isn’t some kind of moral framework underlying the political and religious spectrum, just that pointing to some kind of vague legalism as having to do with it is silly. You would be better off comparing birth order to religious preference.
    Just because the norms for some hippy dippy emergent or liberal group don’t seem as obvious doesn’t mean they aren’t present in equal measure.

  • Josh Mueller

    Both “benevolent” and “authoritative” are highly inadequate categories to describe what’s being argued here. I believe that God incorporates both aspects and that His love is a holy love, not the caricature of someone who will never resist us, never let us suffer and never hurt a fly.

    The real question is whether God’s love and acceptance of people is conditional or not. And if it is conditional, you can’t help ending up in some form of legalism.

  • smcknight

    Ben you’re misreading me again. I placed that kind of legalism with a progressive kind of legalism. It is “a” new kind of legalism. I don’t mind you giving me some grief for pushing against the NeoReformed too much, but I’d appreciate a fair reading of what I did say … and I pushed in both directions here.

  • Alex

    Scot, have have you read James K.A. Smith’s take on the book Hipster Christ He has a different take on McCracken’s book: http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1034&header=perspective. I would be interested in your thoughts. Thanks for the great blog!

  • Alex


  • Interesting. Yes, I find the video disparaging of all other Christians except those who line up with them. That can subtly end up being legalism, or at least having a legalistic spirit.

    I just think there needs to be a largeness of spirit which sees clearly the unity we have in Jesus and from that sees everything else to be worked out and more like worked on never giving up that first priority and primal reality: that we are all one in Jesus through the grace of God in Jesus.

  • pam w

    Scot – Thanks for this post. It is bold and resonates with my experience in many ways.

    T and David – As usual I was agreeing with your comments as well. When I was in Seminary in my mid-twenties, I was on staff at an EPC church. With regret I remember our missions committee meetings as we evaluated different organizations for funding. We had a formula: 70% of our budget went to “proclamation” ministries, 30% to “presence” ministries. The former went to foreign cultures to preach the Gospel, the latter to feed, clothe, teach, train, etc (World Vision even fell under this category). People talked with almost a level of disdain for these latter organizations, “but they were doing some good work.”

    On the Big Tent possibility, and our in/out thinking: I have to laugh and wonder as I watch what is going on with the Presbyterians right now. The music is playing, they are shifting tents. Right now I have many friends and folks I have coached through the years in the middle of this strange ecclesial dance around the country. PCA churches going to RCA to be able to have women in leadership, but stay away from the PCUSA issue with gay ordination. PCUSA churches leaving for EPC to avoid the latter, and EPC churches moving to PCA because they don’t want to be influenced by the influx of all the PCUSA ordained women!! From its inception, EPC policy was that each congregation would determine their position on women’s ordination (“liberty in the non-essentials”), but until recently no women had been called to Pastoral positions in the denomination.

    If we’re all in the same tent, we’re spending too much time arguing over the layout and structure of the tent!!!

  • I believe that judgmentalism and legalism are a natural byproduct of the traditional “gospel” of acceptance/exclusion. As you noted Scott @3, “There is an inherent acceptance message to the gospel and our faith; one is accepted in Christ but one must get “into” Christ first.”

    The traditional “gospel” affirms that God ultimately accepts some people and excludes/rejects others. If we believe this then we will naturally seek to identify those who are accepted “with us” and those who are and will be excluded from God and us. We naturally question whether or not we and others are accepted, and we come up with a list of rules, requirements as to whom we believe to be accepted by God and thus by us. The rules might be as simple as confessing faith in Jesus, praying the sinner’s prayer, or as specific as taking several steps.

    I was raised in a group which taught that no one was really saved until they actually made it into heaven because a person could fall from grace at any time if they… We didn’t know for sure we were saved, but we were pretty confident that others were not!

    This judgmentalism and legalism flowed from a lack of faith in the atonement of Christ for ourselves and others. Thankfully, I came to have faith that salvation was by grace alone, and not based on my rightness in beliefs, attitudes, or actions. Jesus died for all my sins – past, present, and future, sins I’ve repented of and sins I’ll not repent of until I stand before Him in judgment. And since He died for my sins, I’m assured I’ll live with Him forever. He has redeemed me and is and will set me free from sin and death! This was a revolutionary change in faith for me that cost me the respect and fellowship of many in my group.

    I’ve recently come to have faith in Christ not only for my salvation, but for the salvation of others also, all humanity, believing that He not only died for my sins, but for the sins of the whole world. I’ve come to trust that the revelation of His love for me that set me free, will ultimately set everyone free when they receive that revelation, if not in this present evil world, the world to come (Evangelical Universalism).

    This faith in Christ and faith in the grace of God has freed me from legalism and judgmentalism. Instead of seeing others as not being accepted by God, I see everyone as family, “us”, whether they believe as I do or not, whether they’ve been born of the Spirit as I have or not, etc. I see them this way because 1) they are created in the image of God (an idiomatic phrase that speaks of relationship), 2) Jesus died for their sins, and 3)God loves them/us and love never fails. Jesus does not fail to save any whom He loves, and He loves all humanity!

    Judgmetalism and legalism are natural byproducts of the tradtional “gospel” of exclusion. And note that I put “gospel” in quotes; I did so to highlight that this “gospel” is not really “Good News” at all, but is “bad news” for all who believe they are excluded or are judged by believers to be excluded. No wonder most Christians are not active in sharing the traditional “gospel”; no one wants to be the bearer of “bad news”.

  • JAYG

    I call it being co-opted when one political party consistently gets one party’s vote rather than more of a randomized 50/50. It is clear that Jesus was neither a Republican nor Democrat and espoused views that could easily be applied to and adopted by either or both party platforms. Among the German church in the ’30’s about 3,000 pastors out of the 18,000 or so refused to comply with Hitler’s demands and became the “Confessing Church” (at great peril we might remember). So just about 85% of the German church accepted the state’s mandates and I find it interesting that about 85% of American Evangelicals accept the Republican Party’s platform. The German Confessing Church created the “Barman Declaration” in 1934 and among the declarations therein is: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

    The Barmen Declaration drew a sharp line between the German state and the church for ecclesiastical matters in so doing clarified to their church members the primacy of Jesus over State. Though in the end Bonhoeffer and others eventually determined it fell short of standing against Nazi atrocities, it begs the question today, where are the Evangelical pastors who will clearly tell their congregations that Jesus is neither a Republican nor Democrat and to make no mistake, their church will not stand by while its members are co-opted by a US political system. Will American Evangelicals make these same declarations today or has the US Evangelical Church truly become an “organ of the State”?”