Churches Gone Resistant

In 1994 a historic moment in the American church (purportedly) occurred: a rapprochement between major evangelicals and Catholics. The signed statement of the Evanglicals and Catholics Together, about “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” as Ross Douthat observes, was a unity but “ultimate unity against a common threat” (see his book Bad Religion, p. 114).

What led to this supposedly historical connection? “By contending together for Christian principles in the public square, they had discovered how much theology they had in common” (115).  Well, this one hits home: politics leads to theological unity. Is this what we are observing here? Is it politics or theology? Douthat thinks not. He thinks they had found unity, not in accommodation, but in resistance. Not so fast, I want to say. I wonder — here aloud — if resistance in the public sector is a species of the same accommodation. What say you?

What has become of the impact of the resistance? Which way is forward?

James Davison Hunter’s “faithful witness”? Jonathan Merritt’s “third way”? Douthat’s return to orthodoxy?

Roe v. Wade cracked open a new world for many Catholics: prior to the landmark Supreme Court (reckless) decision, Catholics and Mainliners were on the accommodation road together; the abortion decision turned many Catholics — like Michael Novak — away from accommodation and toward resistance, and led Catholics to cooperation with evangelicals. The same path was traveled by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI): an early leaning toward accommodation became a mature resistance. Instead of redefinition of the church and its theology, John Paul II reiterated and reaffirmed the ancient faith of the Catholics, while also having an amazingly effective pastoral presence on issues of great concern, like the church’s relationship with Jews. Many Catholics have rallied behind this resistance.

And they joined evangelicalism’s political turn in the 70s and 80s.

Evangelicals mobilized into resistance postures: against abortion, public school sex ed, gay rights and the ERA. Douthat notes the significance of Francis Schaefer who adopted a co-belligerency posture alongside Catholics. With this one Douthat irons a deep, ironic crease into the fabric of evangelicalism’s sense of power: “From the Reagan era onward, Evangelical voters became the Republican Party’s loyal foot soldiers” (123).

Douthat observes the social justice concerns of many young evangelicals and their rediscovery of 19th century evangelical social activism.

Evangelicalism entered a period of reconsideration, including inerrancy (Rogers, McKim, Lindsell). Packer’s openness to evolutionary readings of Genesis 1 — these were trends of pushing away from fundamentalism. The result: evangelicalism replaced the mainline churches as the most significant religious voice in American culture.

ECT — Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  In this Douthat sees the shift. John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson. Douthat thinks evangelicalism’s pietistic and revivalistic, that is to say it’s personal faith, was deeply influential on Catholicism. The Pope’s World Youth Days. Etc.

But where the cultural impact? Where the presence?

Then the revelations in the Catholic churches among priests … all the way to the Vatican. Horrific coverups and moral failings. And the revelations among evangelicals … Jimmy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard. The slow bleed of attendance decline occurs during the surge of both the rise to the public sector and the sordid revelations.

And George Bush’s presence in the White House, which was the “victory” the cultural warriors wanted … what did it accomplish for those very issues? Where, as Mark Noll has observed, was the evangelical mind in all this? He quotes David Wells, too. It has become a “para” movement, not an ecclesially-formed gospel theology. So Douthat observes that evangelicals are searching for their “next godly Evangelical come to save the republic from itself” and he mentions Palin, Bachmann, and Perry (141).

For too many evangelicalism is the Republican Party at prayer.

We now sit in a county with too many “nones.” What has become of the impact of the resistance? Which way is forward?

James Davison Hunter’s “faithful witness”? Jonathan Merritt’s “third way”? Douthat’s return to orthodoxy?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    I really think that as we move into what becomes a “post-Christian” world, the things that divide us will start to become much less important than the things which unite us. Already a lot of mainline churches are dropping any emphasis on denominational distinctives. I am also noticing that a lot of more mainline churches seem to be returning to a high view of scripture – albeit often coming to differing conclusions than a lot of more conservative denominations. But as the world becomes more hostile to the claims and teachings of Christianity in general, I think we will see more of a “as long as Christ’s life, death and resurrection is preached, God be praised” attitude at work.

    I know that a lot of Christians find the idea of a “post-Christian” world alarming and want to fight it. However, I think that this shows a lack of faith. In a post-Christian world, people don’t associate with Christian beliefs and morality as a default position. It’s a deliberate choice. God says that he would prefer us hot or cold and there’s not a lot of reason for the luke-warm to remain nominally or habitually Christian. In the short term, I think it will appear that the church is on the decline. However, as time passes, those Christians who are left in the church will be those who are most committed and therefor most effective.

    God takes what we give and multiplies it. I think there is revival like we have not seen before coming. The world is really broken and getting more broken by the day. The church is changing and I think that many people will be surprised at the power of those who remain committed to it. If we really believe in the power of God and that Jesus is the only real solution to the broken hearted, the prisoner, those captive to the world and the rest, we should expect that as those in spiritual need increase, the work that only Christ can do will become more and more powerfully evident. But first we’re going to embrace the reality that what divides us is not nearly as important and powerful as what unites us. Division helped to parse out a great many things, but in the end, Jesus’ prayer for us was that we would be united. I think that circumstances will result in just that happening. There will always be disagreement in the body, but probably never the level of disunity as before. It’s a luxury we can no longer afford, imo.

  • Mike M

    It’ll take a total break from the traditions of the catholic church and a return to what the Bible really says. Just a continuation of what Luther started and then ended himself when he joined the German princes in their exploitation of the German people. A TOTAL break back to the future. The advances will be guided by God’s holy spirit so I have no doubt of the outcome.

  • Scott Gay

    There are three main parts to the mind-set trajectory of post-Cartesian people.(1) An assertion of free personhood, (2)an affirmation of the goodness of life in this world,(3) and an awareness of the reality of process and change.
    Traditionally the church approach was (1)ancients could scarcely see any exalted meaning in human freedom, encouraging a philosophical climate of predestination and determinism.(2) Love of neighbor meant his soul and body (3) static models( implying underlying unchanging).
    A contemporary approach considers (1)absolute autonomy gives relativism, chaos, nihilism, so in the future authority must arise out of experience( the reason for Lewis having Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief as foundational).(2) Support of neighbor means the church must incorporate ecology, which if this was thought of as being spearheaded by church, rather than green groups, would give impetus for direction.(3) A heuristic model to church is psychologically, philosophically, and influencially important in a scientific age. It is the bridge between the scientific and hierarchial approaches.
    These three evolving mind-sets define the way foward. Traditional determinism, exclusivism, and hierarchial decision making is not the way or the places we should be expending energy. The real frontier is with the subjectivistic, humanistic, secularistic bent of culture. It is the thought world that man now finds himself in. Experiential, ecological, heuristic church is not so much a resistance movement. Rather it models autonomy, creation, and change as good, with genuine authority, love, and integration.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Wow. What a thought provoking post. I wish I knew more so I could give a formed opinion to your question. But somehow, as perhaps you’re hinting in the post, we need a move ahead in terms of what we really are as church and in Jesus. Of course speaking God’s voice and being God’s servants in Jesus to the world as it is.

    We were at Maranatha Bible Camp near Muskegon at the end of our trip. Amazing the legacy and ongoing strength of the evangelical movement. It feels so strange to me. I feel at home in some ways with them, indeed a part of them. But in other ways I don’t feel at home at all. We settle into these groups, or some kind of category. I think part of the answer is that we’re always going to have to be moving in the sense of emerging, changing, growing, becoming, etc. There has to be that element in our faith, while at the same time we remain true to the one faith that has been entrusted to us as God’s people in Jesus.

  • Mike

    Hey Scott Gay, any good reading material around your comments? Would live to understand it better

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Wow Scot, that is amazing. I hope you realize that your perspective on these type of issues is needed by everyone. It seems you don’t typically go into this fray, but the fray needs you. You have the wisdom, experience and groundedness in faith for this.

    God is calling you!

  • Mike M

    Ted: any chance you’ll be passing by Milwaukee? You and yours our cordially invited to our farmette for totally organic and kosher (in the real sense of the word) food and Jesus Creed hospitality. Email me. God bless you!


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