What’s a Church For, Anyway?

What’s a Church For, Anyway? December 3, 2018

I recently wrote about a revelation of sorts that I feel I need to unpack a bit more. I attended a large Baptist church in an affluent community not too far from where I live and witnessed first-hand how sincerely some white evangelicals are struggling to understand why all their valiant efforts at winning the culture wars in America haven’t actually made anything better. In fact, things seems to be getting progressively worse every day.

To be sure, they’ve won a number of victories. Starting as far back as the mid-1970s,opportunistic lobbyists played matchmaker between white evangelicals and the Republican Party with impressive success. This marriage of convenience has produced a sprawling politico-religious empire that a generation later has finally begun to collapse under the weight of its own poor choices.

The most recent leader they picked rose to power on a disingenuous promise that he would “drain the swamp” of corruption in the nation’s capital. It never dawned on them how much they rely upon that swamp for any remaining cultural relevance, nor did they consider how high a price they would ultimately pay for this Faustian bargain. Now, after effectively forfeiting the moral high ground for the sake of expediency, it is only a matter of time before the whole conservative political machine respawns and moves on without the aid of the church’s quickly vanishing social clout.

It is fascinating to see the more conscientious evangelicals wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of a lifetime of work that only seems to have made things worse, not better. They’re left wondering why God hasn’t shown up the way they were led to believe he would if only they would “vote their values.” It never occurred to them that they were being played.

“It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” —Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell in 1981 [source]

I want to take a moment to elaborate on what they seem to feel they have learned from all of this. And yes, I realize huge swaths of die-hard Republicans have become so conditioned by conservative media that they cannot even see what’s wrong with the choices they’ve made. But it’s clear to me that at least some of the people around me are finally expressing a hint of buyer’s remorse.

Cutting Out the Heart of Christianity

The one consistent refrain in both sermons that I heard while visiting this affluent white church was that Christians shouldn’t look to improve the condition of the world around them because someday God is just going to torch it all and start all over again.

The man who spoke the second week I visited compared the coming apocalypse to a wildfire that obliterated large portions of Yellowstone National Park back in 1988. It was a remarkably callous comparison, not only because he was trying to put a positive spin on the hypothetical massacre of billions of human beings, but also because—at the same time that he was speaking—over in California, cadaver dogs were still rummaging through entire subdivisions that had been reduced to ash in search of the remains of those lost to the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

What a horrifying image, and yet he believes that God is going to do that to everything and everyone. So after a lifetime of trying to “take back America for God,” all these people seem to have learned is that you shouldn’t waste your time trying to fix the world’s problems because they won’t get any better until Jesus comes back.

In short, they have internalized a theology that absolves them of all social responsibility.

A quick glance through history reveals how they came to inherit a theology that excludes any practical engagement with the plight of those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. In case you didn’t know, the theological frameworks of today’s white evangelical churches were forged in the fires of a civil war fought over the abolition of slavery. And no, the theological forbears for Southern Baptists were not the ones trying to end the immoral institution. They were the ones trying to preserve it.

During and after the war, pastors of white churches in the Southeastern United States learned to conveniently overlook those places where the Bible enjoins God’s people to take care of those less fortunate, and in time they came to embrace a handful of apocalyptic expectations that only looked for the world to be incinerated as completely as their own hometowns had been decimated during Sherman’s infamous “march to the sea.”

Read:Evangelicals and the Whitewashing of Jesus

Today white evangelicals cannot even see the places where Jesus tells his followers they will be judged based not on what they believe but on how well they treat those in need (e.g. Matt. 25:31-46). What they see there instead is the theology of Paul overlaid onto Jesus and then filtered through the lens of the Protestant Reformation, at times making faith an end in itself.

It’s no wonder the thief on the cross became a favorite character for so many evangelicals: He only had to believe in Jesus and he got his ticket into heaven. There wasn’t anything else he could do. He was the original deathbed conversion.

What none of these people realize is how many different ways the version of Jesus we find in the gospels was tailored around the needs and struggles of the communities the apostle Paul founded decades after the events they purport to recount. Bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain how we know this.

Enemies of Straw

My first encounter with this bias in the New Testament happened in college when I minored in Bible at the little Baptist college I attended. I chose to write my senior term paper on the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. What I learned from formally studying that topic was that history paints a dramatically different picture of the Jewish faith during the time of Jesus.

The Pharisees we find in the gospels are straw men, two-dimensional cartoon villains whose only function was to serve as a foil for the message of Jesus. They were his favorite rhetorical punching bags because they were so obsessed with legalistic rule-following that they had blinded God’s people to the centrality of faith rather than “works.” Every time Jesus healed someone, he would tell them their faith had made them well. On the surface it appears that the theology of Jesus and the theology of Paul dovetailed together perfectly.

But hold on a second. After the violent destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans around 70 C.E. the churches that Paul founded became the norm for the rest of the religion. It was the communities he founded which eventually compiled the majority of the New Testament, in many ways making Paul as central a figure as Jesus in the formational years of the Christian faith if not more so.

Related:Paul, the True Founder of Christianity

Those communities struggled a great deal over the inherent contradiction between the theology of Paul and that of the original apostles. Reading the book of James, it becomes obvious that he and Paul never did see eye-to-eye about how to interpret key passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Where Paul valued faith, James emphasized righteous behavior. In time this conflict came to permeate the entire Christian community, but ultimately Paul’s way of seeing things won out.

After removing the Pauline interpolations about Jesus’s primary antagonists, it turns out the thing Jesus disliked most about the Pharisees was the way they did precisely the same thing that white evangelicals have done in our day: They developed and embraced a theology that absolved them of all social responsibility. They taught everyone to worry more about their own purity than about the plight of those marginalized by the surrounding culture.

The message of Jesus would not be well received among white evangelicals today. He would be quickly labeled a troublemaker. Or worse yet, a liberal. Surely God hates nothing more than that.

The Making of Jesus

Back in college and seminary I learned to poke fun at the Jesus Seminar‘s misplaced confidence that they and they alone could discover the true teachings of Jesus, and that even though they lived two millennia later they could still divine the real Jesus better than those who were alive at the time in which he was around. “If their ability to get to the bottom of things is that great,” I learned to ask, “then how come scholars today keep arriving at such wildly differing and sometimes mutually incompatible portraits of the man?”

The truth is that our picture of Jesus has always been a patchwork quilt of competing traditions from the earliest days of the faith. Different regions and communities independently shaped their understanding of who he was and of what he said, and in certain places I doubt they would have even recognized each other’s versions. Everyone was a heretic to someone. That’s why the Jesus we meet in the Bible reads like someone suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder.

Jesus is the product of a sprawling group writing project. He’s like a composite character blended together from decades of orally transmitted fan fiction. That’s why uncovering the various layers of tradition through form criticism and source criticism yield such widely varying portraits of the man (assuming he was an historical person at all and not just an invention of oral tradition). It’s not the fault of the historians, it’s the inconsistency of the source material itself.

Sorting out the “real Jesus” is a daunting task, but there are tools with which historians can do just that. What they find in the end generally paints a picture for us of a zealous preacher whose core message echoes that of the prophets before him: He wanted to persuade those around him to drop their obsession with their own purity and take back up their responsibility to help those in the greatest position of need.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

But that’s not what the evangelical church of today is about. Their theology was built around the needs of wealthy white landowners. In the place where concern for the poor should dominate their pastoral themes, there’s just a gaping hole—a silence that screams volumes about the values of the people who fashioned the way evangelicals think today.

This is what I call apophatic racism—discrimination through simply circumnavigating the entire subject for so long that your theology has nothing at all to say on the matter, which means such matters can never really become important to you. There’s no place to fit a social conscience into the mind of a white evangelical who is only waiting around for Jesus to come back.

Then what, pray tell, do white evangelicals think is the purpose and function of the church in the world?

What Does a Church Do?

As best as I can tell from what I’ve been hearing over the last few years of observing this culture from the outside looking in, the purpose of the church is to reproduce itself. According to them, the reason churches exist is to create new churches that go out and create even more churches who create more churches, and so on.

Last week’s speaker kept calling this “God’s Great Enterprise,” which any good Southern Baptist will recognize as a clever restyling of the “Great Commission” for an audience comprised of successful entrepreneurs and business owners whose professional skills could come in awfully handy in service of the church.

Evangelical churches are like a cultural franchise seeking to grow and expand itself into new markets and locations, complete with vision meetings, mission statements, organizational flow charts, planned financial giving, and let’s not forget highly stylized, marketable branding.

But what exactly does an evangelical church do? What is it for other than to reproduce itself in new places among new people?

Honestly I cannot see much external benefit beyond the enculturation of its own internal members. It’s like a club that exists for the benefit of its members but doesn’t actually contribute much to those on the outside (except for the occasional project designed to optimize the marketing of its brand). Or it’s like a store that doesn’t so much sell anything besides the selling process itself, which makes it behave more like a multi-level marketing operation than anything else.

For the record, I know some notable exceptions to this ethos. For example, my sister’s husband created and runs an inner city mission for the large (and otherwise very white) affluent Baptist megachurch in which I grew up. But the overwhelming majority of evangelical church activities around the country are about convincing members to go out and bring in new members. And what will they do with them once they’re in? Why, they’ll teach them to go out and bring in new folks, of course. It’s always about growing and reproducing the institution itself, no so much about making any significant mark on the rest of the world. Why bother if it’s all going to be torched anyway, right?

Helping outsiders and advocating for those less fortunate really don’t fit into that kind of framework. In fact, they are often viewed as distractions from what the church should really be about, which is just getting people into heaven by making sure they believe the right things about how that works.

Read:Having Faith in Faith Itself

For this reason I don’t imagine the current crop of white evangelical churches are ever going to take root in the next generation. Too many of them have grown up overloaded by advertisements promising whiter teeth, flatter stomachs, and six-figure incomes just from working a few hours from home every week.

Their lives are already supersaturated by self-serving solicitations, and they can smell a sales pitch from a mile away. They’re desperately looking for ideologies and traditions that actually do something that matters in the world. What they want is reality, not just words. But that’s about all the evangelical church really has to offer.

Jesus said you can judge things by their fruit. So they’re taking him up on that and saying goodbye to the evangelical church, because it doesn’t actually do anything.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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