When finding out why there is an apple on the ground, it is generally best to look for an apple tree and not Isaac Newton. Sometimes the great scientist is around, but generally all you need for an apple on the ground is a tree.
The apple does not fall far from the tree.
And so it is when people complain of “liberal” moves in contemporary evangelicalism. I do not like them either: the retreat from sexual ethics, political quietism or leftist activism, the loss of Biblical authority.
This is all very bad and I write about it often, but I am cynical about the causes oft cited for why folks leave (young and older) . . . they are a bit too convenient and overlook the complaints I hear when I talk to (actual) evangelicals or former evangelicals. What makes it hard to stay for those who do? Why do people leave when they do leave? What is the solution?
I wanted to leave the church, but I could not. Why? My pastors (including my Dad) never did the following. They modeled the opposite of what so many of my peers experienced. I have never had a bad pastor, have never known one, and am thankful for all of the leaders I have known.
Here is the bad I have seen with the good I have known:
Authoritarianism in leadership.
Too many churches and religious structures “protect the leader” or are about the pastor/guru/star. This situation is contrary to the Christian ideal of checks-and-balances in a fallen world. Too often my generation is a weird combination of rebellious separatism, leaving any authority that might balance us out, and religious authoritarianism. Having left mild denominational control for some sect, we ended up with local popes, patriarchs, and prophets of our own.
Leaders without national (and hopefully international) accountability are always in trouble.
Instead, my father and mother always taught me: servant leadership unafraid of criticism. Read C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. Find your MacPhee and keep him close.
Obsession with personal peace and affluence combined with racism.
Francis Schaeffer was correct when he argued that a desire for “personal peace and affluence” and messing up the argument on race were the chief weaknesses of the evangelical church in America.
We lost moral authority by sitting out the Civil Rights movement. Any evangelical opposition to change is now compared to that mistake. American Christians oft forget that our racism was an American deviation from the thrust of church history. The moral change of the Civil Rights movement could be applauded by mainstream Orthodox and Catholic leaders because they were the global norm.
This is why Western sexual deviance is nothing like the Civil Rights movement, but nobody can hear the argument.
Instead, my pastors taught me that racism was a sin and that many of us had missed some important truths. My Dad sat and listened to African-American pastoral leaders and changed his mind. He submitted his opinions to their reality.
My pastors sacrificed for the sheep and were shepherds beyond reproach.
Christians started sounding like “American Christians” and like nobody else in the world. We developed a media style that makes almost everyone but a tiny minority of us want to gouge out our media eyes. We keep doing this.
Dad and Mom kept bringing Christians (normal ones) from all over the world into our home. We learned from Indians, Argentinians, Kenyans, and Texans. We learned new ways of talking from those folk. Mom once tried to make us spend a Saturday learning about Japan . . . this failed, but we got her point. It is a big world.
Silence about bogus leaders or endless nitpicking.
For most of the eighties and the nineties the two main options an evangelical could find were Christians so straight they could see down a straw with both eyes or Christians whose mission was to provide a place “where Christians can say the b-word” (an actual quote from an interview in my office). Disagree on the age of the earth and some Christians named you a heretic . . .meaning C.S. Lewis to give just one reductio example.
Simultaneously, Christian media was (and is) flooded with leaders with extravagant lifestyles, dubious morals, and crazy to non-existent theology. It isn’t nitpicking to point out phony healing claims or anti-Trinititarian ramblings as disqualifying.
My pastors were a diverse lot. One had a doctorate in anthropology from Oxford. Another had a psychology degree and vice-presidential level business experience. One was my Dad. All of them sounded in private like they sounded in the pulpit. They lived without jargon or cant.Failure to teach theology dialectically.
Orthodoxy must be taught, defended, and passed on, but the best way to educate is the way Christ did: dialectically. We need honest questions, room for doubt, and communities where failure is not encouraged but does not cast the Christian out.
My pastors made us memorize the creed, taught us church history, and let us argue in Sunday School. My mom (in particular) would spend entire weekends wrestling through issues with me. We were a team on an intellectual journey.
Awful Christian textbooks in homeschool and Christian school movements.
ABeka and Bob Jones University Press represent a fundamentalist fringe of the evangelical movement, but have been allowed to dominate the “Christian” textbook market in much of American society. These books are riddled with errors, overly sectarian and narrow, and frequently racist. They are badly written and make bad arguments (even about good ideas). They are published by schools that are not diploma mills, but schools that are seriously lacking in oversight and intellectual depth.
Few called (or call) this out and those few are labeled “liberals” as if the mistakes and errors of secular books somehow justify the mistakes and errors of Christian books.
My Dad and Pastor George Osborne founded a Christian school and did two key things. He used the best texts and books even when they were “secular.” He admitted a diversity of students and worked hard to make sure cost did not prevent people from coming to the school. We never used the bad Christian texts because they were . . . bad.
My school (New Covenant!) taught every point of view, but did not pretend to neutrality either.
Incomplete views on chastity and the body.
Chastity is “not having sex.” Purity is for girls and women. My sin is her fault. These ideas are heretical, yet on the right of the evangelical spectrum these messages were dominant.
On the other hand, smarmy “sex positive” messages from pulpits (often TMI) did not produce a theology of human sexuality. Instead of a theology of the body (start here) we promoted an unrealistic “prosperity” doctrine that if one does what is right, then God will reward the chaste with great married sex. This is false. Oft we replaced the Romantic lies of secular movies with new Christian Romanticism that equally doomed the listener to frustration.
My pastors taught me a theology of the body and refused the Christian or the American “party line.” At the same time, they did not try to precipitate a sexual counter-revolution out of their own heads . . . a move that any conservative knows will do more harm than good.
Doctrinal imprecision or Doctrinal hyper-precision
We built churches with statements of faith that were either a paragraph or sixty pages long. We veered between hyper-sectarianism and Gantry style Americanism. Some churches would let any “decent person” join who would say a few right things and did not rock our expectations. Other churches had a definitive answer to every question . . . as if the church had thousands of councils and not merely seven.
My pastors (including Orthodox priests) were ecumenical even when it irritated me. They liked mere Christians and drew proper lines. We worked with our Catholic neighbor where we could and, as a result, my Dad was accused of being a Jesuit agent by a local church. (His two children were viewed as “cover.”) Dad was not afraid to disagree with the local priest . . . or theological liberals. . . but he made common ground where he could.
Some sowed the wind, we are reaping a whirlwind while mostly blaming the people uprooted by the storm. There is no excuse for theological liberalism: it has met history and failed. The justification of sin is vile, but this generation is not the first to do it. The apple does not fall far from the tree. And until I stop being this kind of tree or letting this kind of tree grow in my garden, I will keep facing bad fruit.
Why am I still evangelical and proudly so? The evangelical pastors I knew were nothing like the ones so many of my friends and former students experienced. That is no credit to me . . . I turned out worse, especially in my twenties, than they deserved, but their good ministry still helps me every day. When I did not want to be a Christian, I was stuck with two problems: reason and my experience of these people.
It was too much for me and so I remain a happy evangelical unwilling to blame people who grew up in a very different Christian world.