What the H is Wrong with Evangelicalism?

There have been lots of conversations recently drawing out strong evangelical statements and, in the process, revealing exactly what might be wrong with the whole darn thing.

And let me say straight away, I consider myself an evangelical. I know there are some who would question that identity, but that is precisely the point. Something has gone awry in the conversation around evangelical passion, mission, and faithfulness when it begins to mirror the polarizing, culture-war conversation in American politics. Which is exactly what has happened. In short:

Evangelicals are fast becoming a party of theological single-issue voters. [Tweet This]

Like abortion and gay marriage in American conservative politics, there are two similar “single issues” that routinely dominate the theological conversation to draw an absolute line in the sand between evangelical and non-evangelical, orthodox and heterodox, Christian and faux-Christian. And, as it happens, both single issues start with “H.”


And, Homosexuality.

Having the “right” stance on these two issues has become something of a master signifier in modern evangelicalism, such that stepping to the “left” just a tad will earn you a swift excommunication from many established evangelical voices. Of course, these signifiers are part and parcel of a larger one – belief in the inerrant Bible (with a strictly soterian hermeneutic). It doesn’t matter how orthodox one may otherwise be on, say, the atonement, resurrection, Trinity, etc. And it most certainly doesn’t matter if the content of one’s life is reflective of a deep work of the Spirit, a commitment to the church, and a passion for following Jesus and inviting others to do the same. No, to stop short of an Eternal Conscious Torment perspective on hell and a Perverted Sinful Choice perspective on homosexuality is to deny the faith itself.

In my own reflection (yeah, go ahead, subjectivism and emotionalism and yada yada), it certainly seems that this kind of stance is a suicidal one, especially since there is a growing theological tide of nuanced opinion on both of these topics among people who, like me, identify as evangelical. And, there is a desire on the part of those who have typically been cordoned off as “mainliners” to fellowship and co-labor with brothers and sisters in evangelical streams. And it further seems that the unity of the church itself as we see it playing out before our very eyes may hinge on whether or not we can embrace each other as passionate followers of Jesus – evangelicals even! – despite differences on these single issues.

And strangely, that’s where what’s wrong with evangelicalism is just so wrong. Conservative evangelicals are quite fond of playing the persecuted victim card when opposing “progressives” who supposedly want to take away their rights, but that is all to distract attention away from the reality – that they have already deemed the progressives to not be real Christians. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a progressive evangelical make the same claim toward a conservative. Sure, there is disagreement and it might get ugly at times. But I think there is a desire among those deemed progressive to somehow find and affirm a common faith with conservative brothers and sisters (if they’ll have us).

Functionally, though, that’s going to be impossible if these two master signifiers continue to polarize the evangelical conversation, creating a party of hellfire and homosexuality gatekeepers defending the faith from nuanced heretics.

So, what the H?

When are we going to stop being theological single-issue voters and start getting on with passion, mission, and faithfulness for the sake of Jesus and his good news?

Neo-Calvinism, the Nonelect, and Planned Parenthood: a Grand Kind of Farce
Some More On Progressive Evangelicals
We're Never Gonna Survive Unless...We Get a LOT More Jesus-Centered
Goldilocks Theology and God’s Power - Thomas Oord
About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is an author, preacher, and binge-watcher who writes and curates here at The Apocalypse Review. You can also catch him at his author blog, zhoag.com.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice Morgan Guyton

    Ideology is the new discipleship.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag


  • http://ryanrobinson.ca/ Ryan Robinson

    I’ve definitely experienced progressives who want to distance themselves as a different faith than conservatives. The profs did a good job of keeping it in check usually, but at my liberal seminary – that’s liberal/unorthodox theologically as well as liberal politically – the general trend was to emphasize similarity with other faiths (especially Islam and Judaism) but to pretty exclusively talk about conservatives as those crazy people we have nothing in common with. I’m not sure if I ever heard the words “they’re not real Christians” but it was definitely pretty similar lots of times.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    could there be some nuance here around the difference between “liberal” and “progressive”?

  • Guest

    I believe that hell exists. I also believe that homosexuality exists. Just thought I’d throw that in there. :-/

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    You are right on, @zachhoag:disqus. Evangelicalism, for me, is a location that demands too much cognitive dissonance for me to remain.

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    There certainly should be. I’ve taken “liberal” religiously, to primarily signify the liberal side of the early 20th century divide on the “how to deal with Modernism” question.

    But, we’ve moved on from those defining questions and I tend to see progressives as post-liberals and (some?) post-conservatives that have been informed by the liberal/conservative trajectory but have moved onto differing assumptions / questions, etc.

  • http://ryanrobinson.ca/ Ryan Robinson

    Yes, I think so, at least how you’re using “progressive.” I would have called most of my classmates both. Maybe there’s a difference there, but I feel like a lot of non-liberal “progressives” still would have similar attitudes whether they are as blunt in their words or not.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I hear you bro.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Not sure what you’re getting at?

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag


  • Elexa Dawson

    I was told yesterday, by my AoG minister father, that I have a reprobate mind and Christ is not in me because I shared the Rachel Held Evans piece about second-mile service and ‘religious freedom.’ I’m hurt. I’m Presby, so Evangelical or not is not an issue… It’s my status as a “saved” person that’s been called into question. I’m exhausted.

  • http://www.redemptionpictures.com/ Micah J. Murray

    I’ve experienced this too. We can disagree on Calvinism, women in ministry, pacifism, even evolution… but hell or homosexuality? You’re a rob bell heretic. Sad

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    CT calls that a “Bellitic.” It’s a new term they’ve created for “Hip” heretics.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    seriously? oy.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Elexa, I’m so sorry to hear that. This kind of rejection from pastor-parents is painful. I am familiar. Prayers.

  • Katie

    I had a good friend die last year and I shared with the church my husband and I were attending and serving at that he had passed. They did not know him, he lived in a different part of the country. One person in the church found out that my friend was gay and complained loud enough that my husband and I were deemed no longer trustworthy. Which the pastor worked to settle with talking about it with half of the church before coming to us. My husband was banned from ever serving again at the church and all those the pastor talked to wanted nothing to do with us. So we were forced to leave. All because we called a someone, who they knew nothing about a Christian and they don’t think he deserved to be called that. Then again, this was in a Nazarene church which still uses the term “wrath of God” in their manual in regards to what the LGBT community deserves.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    oh my. i’m so sorry.

  • http://about.me/paulpastor Paul Pastor

    Indeed. Tony Kriz said this well earlier this week in “Seven Lies Christians Tell”:

    “…we are disingenuous when we claim all of our dogmas with equal veracity.
    To put it another way, on a scale of one to ten, not all Christian
    beliefs are a “10.” Do I believe in the historicity of a floating zoo?
    Yes I do. Do I hold to the specific details of that historic event with
    the same “lay my life on the line” conviction as I do the historical
    death on a cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? No, I do not.
    The details of the zoo are not a 10 for me. Jesus is a 10.”


  • Kenneth Ferguson


  • http://davidmschell.com David M Schell

    You may have left out Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If you don’t think that Jesus took the punishment for our sins from God the Father, you can’t be a Christian.

    I’ve gotten that once or twice. They were at least nice enough to try to pull me back into the light rather than push me away.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    thanks for the link, paul!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    yeah there are definitely other “single issues”, the two H’s just seem to be the biggest ones.

  • JenellYB

    Doctrines of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Hell are inextricably bound together, aren’t they? So the one would stand or fall with the other? if Hell falls, a whole lot is going to bust loose within the whole traditional dogmatic/doctrinal complex of this religion.

  • JenellYB

    We are all rising up to stand on a battle line such as none before in our lifetimes, possibly much longer, even centuries, you know.

  • JenellYB

    then, not the least to some, we’d not have a place to send the homosexuals, after all! ;)

  • R Vogel

    It seems to me whenever you want to take apply a label on yourself you then have the burden of defining what that label means, and perhaps having your definition conflict with others who want to use the same label. At base this is simply people arguing over who gets to own and define the label ‘Evangelical.’ I would be more interested in understanding why you feel the need to ‘identify’ as any label. Isn’t being Zach Hoag enough? Labels created divisions, division create disagreements, disagreements create scape-goating. Isn’t that what Girard identified at the heart of mimetic theory? It is not our differences, but our desire for the same things that result in violence?

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I think I understand your point here, and yet labels are a necessity, at least to an extent. We identify with families, communities, and tribes, not to exclude others but express ourselves. So there is evangelical identity and expression in my bones. It’s a bit of who I am. But I’m Zach Hoag, too :).

  • Animal

    Oddly, this obsession with homosexuality and hell only seem to be an anomaly within the American evangelical church. You can’t find this anywhere else in the world. Morality and wrath seem to be the bigger issues here. And, these are mere ideological leftovers from America’s puritanical roots. Religious zealots came to America hoping to create a Christian utopia where its adherents either acquiesced to their moral law or you suffered damnation, both earthly and eternal. Sadly, today’s LGBT community have been targeted much like yesterday’s witches of Salem.

  • bingle

    Well said Henry… Micah, please put me on your Heretic list. http://www.unheardwordz.com/2012/12/heretics-needed.html

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored


    “If there’s no Hell, then what is the point of being a Christian?”

    I have people praying for me to believe in Hell. Really. And that is their reply when I say I don’t believe in in their Hell-centric dogma.

    And thus they turn Jesus into a magical fire insurance talisman, ignoring his ethical teachings, and tell him to: “Get up on that cross and give us our goodies, boy. Now shut up, you long-haired hippie.”

    I think it is why Jefferson labeled such Hellish dogma as “Demonism.”

    “I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, January, 8, 1789

    “I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    Hell is a pagan Nordic goddess of the underworld, not found in any literal translation of the Bible.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    Heresy just means choice. I’m a choicetic. ;)

  • R Vogel

    So there is evangelical identity and expression in my bones.

    There is a set of beliefs and symbols that you and your faction collectively label ‘evangelical.’ They use a different set of symbols and beliefs (which apparently includes ECT and Homophobia) to define the label. The battle is over the label and what it means. Labels are convenient because they are a short-cut to listing all the things that they signify. But if they become contentious and inconsistent, they no longer serve any purpose. I, and I suspect many others, have no idea what evangelical means. In fact, if push came to shove, I think they won the battle and more people would acknowledge their definition over yours. What is really lost? Just a label. You are still Zach with all the same beliefs about G*d and how you should work in the world. Instead of the label ‘evangelical’ call yourself a ‘super fabulous kingdom of G*d furtherer’ (doesn’t really roll of the tongue, but you get what I mean) They can have their label, and in a generation or so they will disappear, and we will all call ourselves SFKGFers.* They can dance around on the edge of the volcano trumpeting how they got their ‘precioussss’ back and…..well you know the rest.

    *well, not me – I eschew labels and refuse to apply them to myself. If someone wants to know what I am about they can ask and I will tell them. If they don’t have the time or desire to listen and would rather apply convenient labels, that is their business but I don’t have to help them. I realize I am bit on the fringe on this point.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    I think the “persecuted victim card” is more played by leaders who wish to keep the flock inline. It gives the flock an “us against the world” sense of significance and loyalty. And when you combine that with the fact that we appear backwards with our attitudes toward science, the environment, and tolerance in society, we end up with a perfect storm.

  • Tim

    I’m guessing what Guest is getting at is that Hell is not a concept found in scripture, its a conflation of ideas found in scripture taken too literally and bound up in a poor translation move involving four words: Hebrew Sheol, Greek Hades and Tartarus, and Aramaic(?) Gehenna (Ge Hinnom). The Old English word Hel, from which we get the modern word Hell and a few other words, doesn’t really have anything to do with what we find in scripture.

  • Nimblewill

    Jesus’ discussion on Gehenna (hell) seemed to be toward those who wanted to leave most of humanity out.