I write about the Southern Baptist Convention a lot partly because the SBC is the largest white evangelical “denomination” in America. And partly because it’s the whitest. Maybe not demographically, but theologically. I’m not suggesting that Southern Baptists are worse than other white evangelicals, just that they’re the evangelicaliest — and thus they become unavoidable and irresistible for those of us trying to understand what evangelicalism is, and where it has gone wrong.
The last bit of that sentence is contentious. Some would adamantly disagree that white evangelicalism has, in any way, “gone wrong.” (It’s those liberal mainline Protestants who went wrong, doncha know, with their fancy seminaries and their Darwinism and whatnot.) But the more important and more interesting disagreement is among those who perceive that, yes, white evangelicalism has gone wrong, but who approach what that means in two very different ways.
One understanding of “gone wrong” is that evangelicalism has betrayed its noble heritage and is no longer embodying the real, true form of evangelical Protestant Christianity. This is the 2 Chronicles 7:14 approach (reading that verse “literally” as applying primarily to white 21st-century goyim in North America). In this view, white evangelicalism needs to be corrected and reformed — it needs to get back to its roots and its pure, original essence. The particular form of correction or reform required varies widely among the many who hold this view, with a host of suggestions about what it is that needs to be eschewed or reclaimed. You can find all their various prescriptions for such reform on the shelves of your local Christian Family Wholesome Bible Gift Center.*
The other understanding of what has gone wrong is that white evangelicalism has no pure, original essence — the idea that what has gone wrong with white evangelicalism was the creation of white evangelicalism. In this view, the problem is not a “stain” marring the surface of an otherwise sound structure, but the structure itself. In this view — the one I hold — there’s no use tinkering about with minor reforms or corrections to try to restore that structure to its original, pristine form. Its foundation is unsound. It needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the bottom up, on solid ground instead.
That’s a larger subject and, of course, a larger project. For now, let’s just note one data point in an endless series of such confirming that, yes, something has gone wrong — very, very wrong — with white evangelicalism. This is from a Pew Research Center survey measuring attitudes toward Trump’s (illegal) proposed refugee ban, and attitudes toward refugees period.
Three quarters of white evangelicals approve of a ban on refugees. The American Christians who insist that they are uniquely and especially “biblical” are the same American Christians least likely to accept and internalize the relentless biblical command to welcome the stranger and to assist those fleeing danger.
This is a crisis of moral formation. This is such a massive failure of discipleship that it constitutes a kind of anti-discipleship. It is evidence that white evangelicalism hasn’t merely failed at the task of moral formation, but seems to be a source of moral mal-formation — a source of immorality. Of sin.
This is iniquity as identity. It’s a depart-from-me-you-that-are-accursed level indicator of just how very, very wrong white evangelicalism has gone and/or intrinsically is.A few years back, our friends the Southern Baptists contemplated changing their name. They wanted something that would express that they were a national and international association of Christians, and not just a regional one. And they wanted to gloss over the history and enduring legacy entailed in that regional adjective. The leading nomination for the renomination of the denomination was “Great Commission Baptists.”
That’s a nicely biblical name. And it’s utterly evangelical — referring to a Bible passage beloved by those devoted to spreading the good news of the gospel. The “great commission” refers to Jesus’ words in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew**: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The SBC chose not to formally change it’s name, but it adopted “Great Commission Baptists” as a kind of unofficial alternative, a motto of sorts. To their credit, they were not thereby suggesting that they constituted some ideal embodiment of the Great Commission — “not that they had already obtained all this and been made perfect.” The new name was aspirational — identifying the kind of people they desired to be as they press on toward that goal.
But if that is the goal — the teaching of “everything that Jesus has commanded us” — then it would seem like the failure indicated by that Pew research should be setting off alarm bells.
“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Something has gone wrong. So very wrong that those subscribing to the 2 Chronicles 7:14 perspective should be donning sackcloth and ashes. The crisis this indicates is so severe — such an obvious and extreme indicator of such obvious and extreme wrongness — that maybe these folks might even start to entertain the possibility that the problem lies with something deeper and more intrinsic than a stain on the surface of a solid, noble structure.
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* Or whatever they’re calling Christian-brand bookstores these days, provided you can still find one that carries actual books. Last I checked they still had some in the back, somewhere past the rows of Thomas Kinkade prints, Testa-mints, witnessing-tool jewelry and plastic Matryoshka fetuses. Count all of that as further evidence demonstrating that, yes, something has gone wrong with white evangelicalism. (For further evidence, try reading some of those books.)
** Luke’s Gospel saves this “Great Commission” for his sequel, Luke 2, better known as the book of Acts. He has Jesus saying something similar-ish as he departs from his disciples, but Luke’s version of the Great Commission isn’t really recorded in Acts 1:8. It’s recorded in Acts 2:1 – Acts 28:31. The whole book, in other words, which is one long saga of embracing the other — “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs …” and Samaritan sorcerers and queer Ethiopian officials and Roman centurions and slaves and Philippian jailers and Greek politicians and pretty much every kind of everybody everywhere.