The evangelical-mainline shell-game

Ellen Painter Dollar extends an invitation to young evangelicals exhausted and frustrated by their community:

While I am sympathetic to those who wish to bring reforms, of feminist and other natures, to the evangelical movement, I also want to remind those who are fed up with how women and their voices are welcomed (or not) in evangelical churches, publications, and conversations that there are many churches (that is, movements, denominations, and congregations) where women and other marginalized groups (such as LGBT Christians) don’t have to fight for respect, equality, and a voice. I think many frustrated evangelicals would be amazed (and breathe some huge sighs of relief) to discover that issues that are hot within their circles are non-issues for many other dedicated Christians. And that Christians of an evangelical bent can find a home alongside those other dedicated Christians, even in communities that don’t define themselves overtly as “evangelical.”

But if these young evangelicals have grown up within the evangelical subculture, then they’ve learned what “everybody knows” in that subculture. Everybody knows that evangelical churches are more theologically conservative and orthodox. And everybody knows that mainline Protestant denominations are liberal and heterodox.

Photo by Tim Wilson via Wikimedia.

Everybody knows this, but is it true?

Well, no. We don’t “know” this because it’s true, we think we know this because we’ve been hearing the claim for decades.

It goes something like this:

1: Find the most liberal theologians you can from mainline Protestant denominations — Tillich! Spong! — and then sketch caricatures of them that make them seem as outrageously liberal as possible.

2. Make these caricatures the avatars for mainline Protestant churches, always suggesting that they are typical, hugely popular and influential.

3. Cite this outrageous theological liberalism as the cause of mainline “decline.”

4. Contrast this mainline liberalism with the orthodoxy of evangelical churches.

5. Cite evangelical orthodoxy as the cause of the rapid growth of evangelicalism.

6. Lather, rinse, repeat. For years and years and years.

This is propaganda. It’s the shell-game that we evangelicals have been playing for decades now. And it’s a shifty, dishonest trick.

It’s a sleight-of-hand game of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. The trick is an inconsistent, self-serving, cherry-picking approach to who counts as “mainline Protestant” and who counts as “evangelical.”

Consider Anglicans and Episcopalians. These are liberal mainliners — boo, hiss! Their reprobate liberal theology can’t hold a candle to that of good, solid evangelical theologians like, say, N.T. Wright.

But wait, isn’t Wright an Anglican bishop? Doesn’t matter. If he seems to fit our ideas of “conservative” theology and orthodoxy, then he counts as one of Us and not one of Them. So it doesn’t matter if Wright is Anglican, we’ll count him as an “evangelical” instead. And we’ll count Eugene Peterson as an evangelical, too, even though he’s part of the mainline PCUSA. Clearly we can’t consider him Presbyterian, because everybody knows that all Presbyterians are post-Christian liberals.

And so on.

All of the thousands of orthodox pastors, scholars and theologians among the mainline denominations are disregarded. They don’t count. And all of the millions of mainline Protestant laypeople who share their views don’t count either. They may constitute the majority, but we refuse to regard them as typical. According to the shell-game, the majority of mainline Protestants are an aberration.

We pull the same trick in the opposite direction when we’re trying to prove that evangelical theology is more orthodox and conservative. Thus someone like John Stott or Richard Mouw counts as a “real” evangelical, and as evidence that evangelical theology is orthodox.

But we do not count Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Tim LaHaye, Ken Ham, Bob Larson, Bryan Fischer, John Hagee, Jim Garlow, Rick Joyner or Cindy Jacobs because including any one of those people would destroy the pretense of evangelicals’ theological “conservatism.”

According to the shell-game, the most popular and influential evangelical leaders, the authors of the best-selling evangelical books and the voices of the most pervasive evangelical media, do not really count as evangelical. They may constitute the vast majority, but we refuse to regard them as typical. According to the shell-game, the majority of evangelicals are an aberration.

Part of the trick here involves using different weights and measures depending on whether we’re on Step 4 or Step 5. When evangelicals are arguing that we represent the more orthodox and conservative theology, then it suits our argument to pretend that many branches of Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicalism do not exist. (Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn? Who are they? Rick Joyner? Never heard of him.) But when evangelicals are citing explosive church growth as evidence of the rightness of our theology, then the argument doesn’t work without counting every furthest fringe of the Pentecostal and charismatic world — including every faith-healer, prosperity-gospeler or self-proclaimed prophet who ever advertised a conference in the back pages Charisma magazine.

Now, by any meaningful measure, people like Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn cannot be called theologically “conservative.” Nor can Tim LaHaye, Ken Ham, Bob Larson, Bryan Fischer or Cindy Jacobs. But guess what? They’re all evangelicals. We can’t pretend they’re mainliners, that’s for sure.

The truth is that the mainline = liberal, evangelical = conservative framework is hogwash.

The truth is that both strains of American Protestantism include a huge diversity of theological views, with both strains including many people who can aptly be described as “theologically conservative” and both strains including many people who can aptly be described as — well, some are liberal, but even more are just kind of wildly idiosyncratic, Gnostic or freakishly freaky in their theology.

Ellen Painter Dollar is right:

I think many frustrated evangelicals would be amazed (and breathe some huge sighs of relief) to discover that issues that are hot within their circles are non-issues for many other dedicated Christians. And that Christians of an evangelical bent can find a home alongside those other dedicated Christians, even in communities that don’t define themselves overtly as “evangelical.”

  • Tricksterson

    One of my very few positive memories of my psycho grandmother was her singing “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” as lullabies to me and my sister.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    I think both groups  are finding it hard to communicate the Christian message to the unchurched

    I suspect using the word “unchurched” isn’t helping any. Doing so implies that “churched” is the default position, and if you are trying to convince someone that belonging to a church has benefits for them, assuming your conclusion is not very convincing. Furthermore, it sounds pejorative. Insulting either the person or the intelligence of the person you want to convince is usually not effective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CSULAguy Eduardo Ramirez

    The also voted Democratic ala  the black pentecostal churches (COGIC, PAW and others)

  • Lhsmoon9

    Silent contemplation, waiting in God’s presence, is the center of Quaker worship. There is a portion of every meeting where the business of the congregation is taken up, but the greatest amount of time is spent silently in the presence of God. If congregants are moved to speak from this silence, they may, and do. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.graf.73 Tim Graf

    But Reformed and Evangelical are not distinct. Conservative Presbyterians or Reformed Baptists would call themselves both Reformed and Evangelical. 

  • Carstonio

    Good sentiments. I’ll add that “unchurched” is an biased and invalid term because it treats not belonging to Christianity as wrong or bad, although not as noxious as “unsaved.”

  • Carstonio

    That was my thought, but you said it much better than I did.


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