Dr. Scot McKnight is a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary near Chicago. He has been one of my closest friends for nearly 29 years. Scot is intellectual, gregarious, witty, and has authored perhaps a hundred books.
Scot McKnight is also a lifetime evangelical who knows many, American, evangelical leaders, especially those in the academy. Today, he pens the following, needed, and sobering critique of American evangelicalism in his “Scot’s Newsletter” at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Evangelicalism has lost credibility. It can only blame itself. We are watching its unmasking.
Evangelicalism is a disorganized, ecumenical alliance of Christians with traditional beliefs, the necessity of a personal experience with God in Christ (new birth), and as a movement it (previously) had a strong commitment to evangelism.
But, evangelicalism has become a noisy cymbal with a pestering “look at me” call for attention. What it wants others to see is not what they see, and what it doesn’t see the rest observe. It’s ugly.
Theology is never meant to be a set of beliefs disconnected from a serious life, but evangelicalism’s claims to possess final truth about the Lord Jesus Christ is systemically denied by the immoralities and inconsistencies of its confessors. It is deconstructing.
There was a time when evangelicalism was carried along by a deserved, general social and even some political respect: Americans were “Christian” and respected the various Christian denominations. Priests got hat tips, pastors were asked to pray at high school gatherings, and churches had social honor. Evangelicals were part of that social world.
Now all Christians are in the dock, all churches are called before the judge, and they are now being asked to prove themselves innocent, and they can’t. Evangelicalism has been unmasked. That social respect was raptured and all that it can do is commit to a Jesus-shaped authentic life, which takes lives and time to reveal. If undertaken, it will take time for social respect to return. A generation of watching a living theology may work the change needed.
For now, the old advantage evangelicalism had in society through its heritage has evaporated under the scorching heat of undeniable evidence of its corruption.
Beginning with pastor and priest failures. Many of them power abuses. Many of them money-grubbing. Many of them sexual predations. The reports of priests in the Roman Catholic Church in the USA, with noteworthy tellings in Boston, morphed into widespread suspicion of intentional duplicity played out on Sunday mornings but unmasked behind closed doors. The stories sicken. Southern Baptist pastors and deacons were unmasked in The Houston Chronicle and everyone could see the mendacity and hypocrisy of the pastors, and churches protected their names instead of offering healing to the wounded (mostly) women. Because of systemic corruption of power and sexual predation, no SBC pastor today can assume the general respect once reserved for a “man of the cloth.” Add to this the failures of well-known megachurch celebrity pastors, like Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, and James Macdonald, exacerbated the suspicions and generated scorn and cynicism.
To use a fishing term, the jig is up, evangelicalism. Time to hand in the keys. You’ve been unmasked.
Alongside pastor failures is a widespread, unacknowledged, unrepented complicity in various forms of racism. At times evangelicalism’s racism breaks forth into hideous displays of ethnic and racial claims to white supremacy, at other times into insensitive, intentional acts of condescension, and at all times there is a system at work that props up power at the expense of African, Asian, and Latin Americans.
Unmasked yet again. Many evangelicals deny complicity while Southern Baptist leaders as well as theologians like Owen Strachan want to deny the use of academic disciplines designed to unmask complicity.
The gospel opens the door and welcomes to the table for all, not just our type, our race, our ethnic group, our economic group, and our educational achievements. It is not just colonial America or Jim Crow that were complicit. No. Our system was built on the backs of the marginalized by the powers that were and that be, and those most benefiting from those powers are called to acknowledge complicity and work to end it. However they work at it, work they must. (Tweets and social media are not the work we have in mind.)
When the mask of obsession by some with Critical Race Theory is removed we discover powermongering white men, men stained by an incomprehensible insensitivity to sexual abuse of children and women, met in the establishment by either a refusal to investigate the allegations or a rigged investigation that determined in advance a face-saving no matter what happened. Those claiming moral superiority and theological integrity cannot justify the moral contradiction of despising discoveries of racism while defending male sexual predators.
Speaking of power, evangelicals have accommodated themselves and their integrity to the Republican party. The commonly repeated number of 80% is no lie. The alignment, made visible to the whole world when southern Democrats swung from Carter to Reagan, is a mask that when lifted reveals a Christian faith more shaped by politics than its theology. The 20%, that is, those who vote for the other candidate, sense a dis-welcome in the 80% churches. The gospel claim for “all” is unmasked as a gospel for “all who vote like us.” Ryan Burge’s The Nones has now shown that evangelicalism is more a politics than a theology, and Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne pulls down the mask far enough for us to observe that evangelicalism is led too often by too many as a masculinist culture and not a Jesus-life shaped culture of tov or Christoformity. Beth Allison Barr, in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, shows that the claims by complementarians, who ride on the masculinist wagon, can be challenged both by church history and by the Bible itself. The disgusting treatment by masculinist males of Aimee Byrd, who unmasked – or un-wall-papered – a cultural script, deepens the case against the white male powermongerers of masculinist evangelicalism. See her book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Cheap trick and ad hominem and scare-tactic reviews both fail to convince and unmask the reviewers.
The unmasking pains anyone who cares about the vision Jesus gave us. It’s not about wokeness. It’s about Jesus and it’s about discipleship.
It’s hard to see how such persons can be called followers of a Jesus who eschewed money, who turned from power and against the powers by revealing the power of self-denial and the cross, and who taught the way of life was to find the broken and bind the wounded and restore such persons to the table with him. His cross was for others, a cross that unmasked the powers and absorbed it in order to redeem.
Powermongerers are not following Jesus. Using power for others is the way of Jesus.
Then there’s the annual charade called the Southern Baptist Convention, this year made densely duplicitous by the leaked information about the “Executive Committee.” Power and racism and politics emerge with force in this annual parade with some peacocking and strutting around in hope of election to more power. It all makes one wonder if all the emperor’s clothes have not already been burned up by those who want control.
They will get their power and control but their churches will need more than social distancing to occupy their vast rows of pews.