The evangelical habit of bearing false witness against mainline Protestants

Brian McLaren shares a confession, and a personal testimony, about the pernicious and pervasive temptation to bear false witness against one’s neighbors.

Specifically, he addresses the widespread convention among white evangelicals — so widespread it’s an expectation, almost a requirement — that says it is somehow acceptable, and not vicious, to bear false witness against mainline Protestants:

I agree with Tony [Jones] that there’s a common rhetorical strategy among Evangelicals that I myself have indulged in, as has Tony by his own admission: trying to seize the middle ground as morally high ground. If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

One example: years ago, I spoke with disdain about a “mainline liberal” writer — my attempt to bolster my Evangelical credentials and seize middle-moral high ground by throwing “a liberal” under the bus. I had actually never read anything he had written, but people I respected thought he was dangerous. So I echoed them, needing to bolster my reputation to my right, a sign of my immaturity and insecurity on my part. Again, things I’m not proud of.

Some time later, I was asked to speak at the same event as this person. He was easy-going and gracious. I suppose he knew what I had said about him, but he didn’t throw it in my face. Anyway, at the end of the event, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to us and get books signed. His line was much longer than mine.

So when my line dwindled away, I had the chance to eavesdrop on what people said to him. Person after person said, sometimes tearfully, “Thank you. If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian,” or “Through reading your book, I became a Christian,” or “I left the church 30 years ago, but when I read book X, I came back.” That’s pretty moving for an evangelical to hear, you know? I realized that this fellow was actually an evangelist, reaching people for Christ who never would be reached by my more conservative friends, or by me!

… One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.

My guess is the other author was John Shelby Spong, the liberal writer unread but widely reviled by evangelicals as history’s greatest monster. But it could have been any number of other mainline Protestant writers. When it comes to liberals routinely condemned as “dangerous” by respected members of the white evangelical establishment — and thus supposedly fair game for disdainful, dishonest attacks — there’s no shortage of potential candidates.

"The fact that the atheist(ahem, nonreligious) channel is thrivingSo far. The purge has just begun."

If it’s good enough for Andre ..."
"It's still a yoke, and still a burden. It isn't a lounge chair by the ..."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus
"That reminds me of when I heard the pastor at my parent's church use the ..."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

    This is the manner in which epistemic closure happens…

  • Slash

    RE the lines of people at book signings: You mean most people are more receptive to welcoming messages of love than hateful messages that tell them they are worthless sinners? Get the f____ outta here.

    What’s most amusing to me (now, with the benefit of age and perspective) is how the hateful message people actually think they’re smarter. They actually think they have the superior arguments. Or, I guess, they claim they have the superior arguments. Whether they actually believe it or not is another matter. I think some of them do believe it. Again, amusing. Kinda sad, if you’re inclined to feel pity for them, which I’m not, usually.

  • I doubt it is so much that they think that they have the superior arguments as much as they think that they are morally superior. To them, the strength of an assertion lays not so much with the argument itself but with the perceived righteousness of the person who makes it. Everything is tiers of authority with them, and a higher authority overrides a lower authority. In the case of mortals, more orthodox, more pure and “uncontroversial” people are closer in spirit to the highest authority, and thus trusted more than those who are more divergent or challenging. Unfortunately, those who are highest up the chain of perceived authority are the ones who get to decide what that righteousness is.

    Sadly, for many people like is just easier when you do not have to self-examine and evaluate arguments on their own merits rather than just accept them from a trusted source.

  • seniorcit

    Several years ago I left a large conservative Baptist church where I had been an active member for over 20 years for a small mainline denomination church. Meeting a former Baptist friend one day I was questioned about where I was attending church. When I confessed to being a member of a local mainline denomination church I was told that the church was so “liberal” because that was where many of the teachers in the local school district attended.
    By the way, when I mentioned to my Baptist pastor that I had read many of C.S. Lewis’ books he confessed that he had never read any of Lewis’ writings and the Lewis quotes he inserted in his sermons came from a book of quotations. C.S. Lewis, evangelicals’ claim to Christian intellectualism, evidently is not part of their day to day reading.

  • MaryKaye

    Years ago my pagan ritual group did a vision meditation in which we ended up talking to the Hierophant from the Tarot. He said to me, roughly, you can go off the route I show if you choose. But then you are on your own, and I won’t be able to help you. You’ll be choosing your own route and of course you may get hopelessly lost. Don’t come crying to me if you do!

    I said to him: Each man holds the keys to heaven; they also open the gates of hell. There’s no escaping that. Even if I were to follow you it would still be *my* choice, right or wrong. So since I can’t be safe anyway, I’ll choose the route that strikes me best.

    He just smiled and wished me luck. I liked him better than I thought I would, actually. But it is hard for a real-life person to play his role and be so cheerful about it. Authorities tend to want to retain their authority.

  • Jurgan

    This seems remarkably similar to the centrism practiced by the Very Serious People in the media. They want to criticize the political right, but can’t bring themselves to do it unless they can claim there’s someone on the left just as bad.

  • Mark

    “1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

    2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

    3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

    4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

    5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

    6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

    7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

    8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

    9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

    10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

    11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

    12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

    –John Shelby Spong

    I don’t agree with everything he says, but I do think that he falls much more squarely into the realm of secular humanism, as far as his teachings go. I think a lot of the anger (although I think it’s an overreaction to say that evangelicals widely call him history’s greatest monster) comes not from his actual teachings, but from the fact that he used his position as a bishop to spread them. Perhaps I’m just biased, though, since my dad has had a few run-ins with Spong, and that was more of my dad’s problem with him (my dad’s greater beef was with the Episcopal leadership that did not rebuke him for his statements). In either case, his theology does make that of most liberal or emerging Christians look tame.

    Again, take my reaction with a grain of salt. I agree with much of what your blog says, Fred, and have become a faithful reader, but Spong probably still has too much personal meaning for me to be able to step back and look at him objectively.

  • VorJack

    ” I do think that he falls much more squarely into the realm of secular humanism,”

    Spong would freely cop to being a humanist, but secular? He’s spent far to long laboring in the mines of sectarian theology to be considered secular.

    ” … his theology does make that of most liberal or emerging Christians look tame.”

    I suspect that it’s not so much his theology as the straight forward way he presents it. I remember he once said that he’d rather be screamed at than ignored, so he doesn’t bother to couch his claims in careful language.

  • Dash1

    Now I really am wondering who that author was. I’m guessing Spong would be way too liberal. I’m guessing Tony Campolo or Ron Sider. (It’s a “him” so that narrows it down a bit.) Maybe even Jim Wallis (although I think Wallis is one of those convenient evangelicals who allows other evangelicals to claim that evangelicalism does indeed care for the poor because Wallis is taking care of it).

  • From this, I think if I’d found Spong during my doubting period, I might possibly still be Christian. I’m glad I didn’t, but I bet he gets a lot more converts than all of the “YOU ARE A HELLBOUND DEVIL-CHILD now come to my church where we will love you, so long as you stop being EVIL DEVIL-CHILD :D” assholes combined.

    Calling him “secular”, however, doesn’t make sense. He’s a bishop in a church and believes in some kind of God, and spreads that belief.

  • Albanaeon

    Considering how often their one-and-only-never-wrong-and-always-perfect King James Bible is never actually read by so many Bible Believing Christians, are you truly surprised?

  • If it’s not too personal to ask… do you ever have regrets that you’re not? I keep having these weird feelings of “I almost wish but I absolutely couldn’t now”…

    I blame Fred. If I’d met him a lot sooner, I’d probably still be Christian. At this point, though, it’s impossible for me to ever go back. It’s not a matter of “I don’t believe, but someday I might change my mind” — I’m at the antithesis of belief: apathy. I’m not an atheist, I’m a nontheist. It makes no difference to me whether it’s true or not, so I have no interest in speculating.

    Sometimes, though, I still wish I could. I have no idea why. Maybe just to be one more good Christian in a sea of ones with which I find myself wanting to give some loving with Unmentionable Device of Gentle Correction.

  • AndrewSshi

    I do not get why Fred feels a need to snidely mock people who point out that Spong writes in his own words that he believes that the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth rotted in the ground. To say that Jesus died and didn’t rise again is many things, but it’s sure as f*ck not Christianity.

    (And yes, I’ve read Spong.)

  • Speaking of pagans and tarot, and since you are local to the greater Seattle area, do you know Dave from Eyes of the Wolf Tarot in Bothell? I spoke to him at a party once, and he associated me with the King of Swords, since I was apparently the most “sword” person he has ever met. I still struggle with emotional understanding, but am getting better at it.

  • seniorcit

    Why read the whole Bible? Selective reading, selective hearing, selective preaching. We can skip over the gospels and Christ’s teachings, and concentrate on the judgment narratives of the Old Testament and the rules of the Epistles.

  • AndrewSshi

    My vote is Campolo. Last time I was actually in the evangelical subculture (a while back, granted) Campolo-bashing was a quick and convenient way to shore up one’s political bona fides.

  • Really? Christianity utterly hinges upon the resurrection of Christ? It’s a great deal more relevant than whether or not the Flood literally happened, but it’s certainly not what I reach for when I fight to be Christic.

  • AndrewSshi

    Um, yes… There’s that whole business of “If Christ isn’t raised then our faith is in vain.”

    “A long-dead religious teacher had some neat ideas about social justice” isn’t Christianity.

    Or, to illustrate: I think that Muhammad had some neat things to say about the power and love of God and also about personal morality. But I don’t believe that he received any supernatural revelations nor do I believe that he was the seal of the prophets. So I can occasionally draw on things that a long-dead religious leader taught, but that doesn’t make me a Muslim.

  • Interesting. I respectfully disagree, but think it best not to pursue it into an argument.

  • AndrewSshi

    Fair enough.

  • stardreamer42

    Each man holds the keys to heaven; they also open the gates of hell.

    I really like this phrasing.

  • stardreamer42

    I have to agree with AndrewSshi on this one. As I was taught, the Resurrection is THE central mythos of Christianity, the foundation upon which everything else rests. At the very least, it’s an extremely widespread viewpoint in the Christian community — one that unites people from the left-liberal to the extremist-Evangelical. They fight like cats and dogs over everything else, but that one thing is just unassailable.

  • I think Spong begs to differ. ^^;

  • Alix

    Um. Not true – there have been and still are many forms of Christianity that don’t think Jesus bodily rose from the dead. And on the other end, there are those who think he was never crucified, because he never had a mortal body.

    Hell, there’s still at least one branch of Christianity that doesn’t think Jesus was the savior, but a treasonous con man who stole the spotlight from the real messiah.

    Christianity: more varied than you think, despite many, many attempts at wiping heresy off the face of the earth.

  • Nope, no regrets. I am very glad not to believe in any religious or supernatural stuff. There’s a famous quote by an atheist saying he just doesn’t believe in one more god than monotheists believe in. I never believed in Krishna or Frejya or all the dozens of other gods, I knew about. So not-believing in the god I used to believe in is just one tiny little addition.

    I’m a better and happier person for it. I consider atheism Good News.

  • I’m glad you don’t have the same weird feelings as I do. It’s not as bad as cognitive dissonance, but it does leave me feeling unsettled from time to time (usually after having to give someone a whap from said Unmentionable Object and inform them that not all Christians are bastards)…

  • Altemeyer, yet again:

    Since fundamentalists insist the Bible is the revealed word of God and without error, you would think they’d have read it. But you’d often be wrong. I gave a listing of the sixty-six books in the King James Bible to a large sample of parents and asked them, “How many of these have you read, from beginning to end? (Example, if you have read parts of the Book of Genesis, but not all of it, that does not count.)” Nineteen percent of the Christian High fundamentalists said they had never read any of the books from beginning to end, which was neatly counterbalanced by twenty percent (but only twenty percent) who said they had read all sixty-six. (I tip my hat to anyone who put her head down and plowed through the first nine chapters of Chronicles I. Look it up.)

    On the average, the high fundamentalists said they had read about twenty of the books in the Bible–about a third of what’s there. So they may insist that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches, but most of them have never read a lot of what they’re so sure of. They are likely, again, merely repeating something they were told while growing up, or accepted when they “got religion.” Most of them literally don’t know all that they’re talking about. (But they are Biblical scholars compared to others: Most of the non-fundamentalist parents had not read even one chapter.)


    The answer appears to be that, while they may tell everyone the Bible contains God’s revealed truth to humanity, so everyone should read the Good Book, in truth they–like an awful lot of their parents–don’t know what’s in it because they haven’t read much of it either.

    I’ve also asked parents who do read the Bible how they decide what to read. Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on. Very few bother to read all the infallible truth they say God has revealed. If you only get into heaven if you’ve been devoted enough to read the whole Bible,there’ll apparently be no line-up before St. Peter.

  • If ancient memory serves, the every reliable Pat Robertson said that Mainline Protestants were the spirit of antichrist.

    But then, if memory still serves, Frederick Douglas said that the Black Methodist denomination (and I suspect, Christianity in general) which had ordained him, consented to the spirit of slavery which kept his brethren in bondage.

    I sort of feel that way about Christianity and Gay people. Christianity in general is guilty, with denominations bearing various degrees of culpability.

  • gpike

    I kind of feel the same way… But I’ve still got a long road of recovery ahead of me, and frankly worrying about whether or not God exists is just not useful in the process.

  • Yeah, I don’t do that. That part is irrelevant to me. It’s more wondering how my life would be different if I hadn’t had the bad experiences I did which caused me to lose my faith early on.

  • AndrewSshi

    From a straight, comparative-religion POV, sure, you can classify anyone from a Bogomil to a Gnostic to a Manichaean as a (heterodox) Christian. But if you’re a Christian in any since of the meaning that it has in the major creeds–as Fred is and the fellow in the OP are!–then no, a Christianity that lacks the supernatural and a God isn’t Christianity, anymore than an Islam claiming that Muhammad wasn’t a prophet is Islam.

    And this post got started on the basis of evangelicals saying that main-liners don’t believe in God. In the sense that Fred was talking about in the main post, John Shelby Spong is indeed a mainline Christian who doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural.

  • hapax

    Stealers Wheel Syndrome: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you…”

  • I can agree with this. I freely admit that the fact that I find the supernatural aspects of the Bible to be preposterous nonsense to be one of the reasons that I cannot in good conscience call myself a Christian. I believe in God. I believe in the moral value of the teachings of Jesus Christ as I understand them. The rest of it has as much relevance to me as Ovid talking about which poor girl Zeus was sexually assaulting this week.

  • Interesting. So the things Jesus said about how people should live their lives only have relevance because of the provenance given them by a supernatural event. If Jesus didn’t rise from the tomb, then The Golden Rule is worthless and we should all be utter bastards to each other. You know, the way most self-styled Christians are whether Jesus rose or not.

  • Baby_Raptor

    “One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.”

    Calling BS on this one. Wisdom does not come with age. It comes with living life, maturing, growing as a person. None of those things are directly tied to how many years you’ve managed to exist…They tend to result from what life throws at you and how you act in response.

  • I didn’t stop being Christian because of bad experiences caused by others. If anything, the fact that so many Christians were complete and utter assholes led me to hang on longer than I would have otherwise; I wanted to try to reclaim Christianity, as Fred seems to be trying to do. But I realized that, no matter how much I loved my grandparents or how troubled my parents would be, I couldn’t pretend any longer to believe something I did not believe. Plus I had some bad psychological experiences within myself that were caused by my Christian beliefs.

    Are you maybe feeling bad because you feel that you were somehow forced to lose your faith by these bad experiences? I always feel much worse when I feel I wasn’t able to come to a decision about something on my own, but was forced to it by others.

  • Sometimes, though, I still wish I could. I have no idea why. Maybe just to be one more good Christian in a sea of ones with which I find myself wanting to give some loving with Unmentionable Device of Gentle Correction.

    I can actually identify with this, despite not being from a particularly religious background myself (my family went to a Baptist church regularly until I was about four, my memories of it are distant and vague.) Mainly our attendance there was due to my father’s influence, which was in turn was mainly due to his mothers influence on him. My grandmother was a very devout woman, who had read the Bible cover-to-cover several times (when she finished one read through she would start back at Genesis 1:1 again and repeat.)

    We stopped going for reasons which are incidental to my point and I was too young to understand anyway. However, my father once told me that he did miss church somewhat. It was not because he was ever a particularly devout believer himself, though I doubt he is an atheist (I never asked and it never came up, though he is convinced that God must be a woman.) What he did say he missed about church though was the sense of community he got from it. Going to the same place, seeing other people you know, bonding over shared experiences. Most humans desire that, to greater or lesser degrees, and find comfort in it.

    Heck, like you I am a nontheist by way of empiricism rather than conviction (makes no observable difference and is beyond all but cursory speculation so why bother getting worked up about it?) But even I sometimes feel that tug. Not so much that I feel the need to believe, but in my case like I feel the need to be judged. Not to assert my righteousness but to be tested, evaluated, and possibly condemned. I do not know if I am a good man, if I pass muster being as “damaged” as I worry I am, and there is some sense of comfort in knowing that you will be concluded by some ultimate wisdom, rather than exist in a broken state. At least if some God judges me, I can stop judging myself.

  • Alix

    Since when does the mainstream dictate the definition, though? Just because the major creeds hold to one definition – largely due to concerted efforts to destroy any others – doesn’t mean that other definitions are or were invalid. This is sounding very similar to “if I like them, they’re a religion; if I don’t, they’re a cult.”

    And while we’re at it, when the hell did I say these definitions of Christianity lacked “the supernatural and a God”?

    You know what? We heretics can identify as Christian if we want to, if we feel we are, and our self-definition is perfectly fucking valid, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. The major creeds don’t get to boot me out of Christianity any more than I get to boot out Fred Phelps.

  • Sounds like you are reading from the Jefferson Bible.

  • My take is that Jesus was killed because of his alleged sins…which should make us very careful about accusing others of sinning.

    Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, had an interesting thought for everyone thinking of the Resurrection. ‘Easter is the symbol of hope resurrected out of a tomb of hopelessness.’

    From the book I’m reading, A Stone of Hope by David L. Chappell…which I’m too lazy to copy myself. But Gale wasn’t.

    “Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble, but even crucifixion could not
    get rid of Him. ‘Easter in every age . . . recalls the imminence of the
    impossible victory, the power of the impotent weak.’ Rustin took the
    opportunity to note that Jesus’ followers ‘need to be reminded that
    Easter is the reality, and that the awesome structures of pomp and power
    are in the process of disintegration at the moment of their greatest
    strength.’ He was surely aware that he was echoing the Prophets’ scorn
    for human institutions. But he could not have known that he was
    prophetically anticipating a key phrase in a new prophet’s greatest
    speech: ‘Easter is the symbol of hope resurrected out of a tomb of

  • Memory sort of served. The Douglass quote is “I attached myself to a small body of colored Methodists, known as the Zion Methodists. Favored with the affection and confidence of the members of this humble communion, I was soon made a classleader and a local preacher among them. Many seasons of peace and joy I experienced among them, the remembrance of which is still precious, although I could not see it to be my duty to remain with that body, when I found that it consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains.”

    My Bondage and My Freedom
    by Frederick Douglass
    Chapter 22

  • The Pat Robertson quote. “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the
    Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing.
    Nonsense. I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can
    love the people who hold false opinions but I don’t have to be nice to

  • baronsabato

    Spong believes in the resurrection. He just doesn’t think the resurrection means physical resuscitation of a dead body. You can argue about whether he’s right or wrong, but as he identifies as a Christian, and believes in Jesus enough to write books about him and apparently follow his teachings, then I think he’s a Christian.

  • I was taught that the central point to being Christian was the Golden Rule. The other points were related to it: love thy neighbor, God loves you (his love is infinite, and so is his disappointment in you), and you must always put others before yourself.

    Believing that Christ literally rose from the grave in the same body he had when he was crucified… I can’t remember it being talked about.

  • “Some neat ideas about social justice” is an incredibly dismissive way of treating the teachings of the son of God. I was raised to believe living those teachings were what was central to being Christian. I don’t believe Jesus was divine any longer, and I still think “some neat ideas about social justice” is incredibly dismissive.

  • baronsabato

    For what it’s worth, I’m a progressive Christian (UCC) who happens to believe in a physical resurrection. I’m honestly not always sure what I mean when I say that though, but I do prefer the language of physical resurrection over the language of a spiritual, metaphorical resurrection. But the essence of my beliefs and the essence of John Spong’s beliefs aren’t particularly different.

  • I sort of feel that way about Christianity and Gay people. Christianity in general is guilty, with denominations bearing various degrees of culpability.

    Another Altemeyer:

    You can find other examples of such a backlash. Attitudes toward homosexuals have become markedly more tolerant and accepting in North America in a very short period of time. When I asked students what had affected their attitudes toward gays and lesbians, personally knowing a homosexual proved the most positive influence (as I reported in chapter 2) and the scientific evidence indicating sexual orientation may have biological determinants (as mentioned in chapter 3) finished second. But in third place came, “I have been turned off by anti-homosexual people.” Virulent opposition to homosexual causes may, in the long run, backfire and hurt the opposers and benefit their intended targets, especially when the attackers claim they are acting on moral grounds and actually “love the sinner” they are smiting.

  • SisterCoyote


  • SisterCoyote

    Heh. “His love is infinite, and so is His disappointment in you,” is a great way of capturing the doctrine. I think I might steal that one, if you don’t mind – I’ve never seen a way that so handily illustrates the Christian doctrine while also explaining how it can be used as a guilt-complex catalyst.

  • Alix

    OT, but:

    There’s a famous quote by an atheist saying he just doesn’t believe in one more god than monotheists believe in. I never believed in Krishna or Frejya or all the dozens of other gods, I knew about. So not-believing in the god I used to believe in is just one tiny little addition.

    The kind of hilarious thing about this, for me, is that I went exactly the other way. :P