Opinion and relationship: the two American evangelical idolatries

Opinion and relationship: the two American evangelical idolatries April 17, 2012

Everyone else is writing about the “crisis” of American Christianity so I figured I’d add my own two cents. Andrew Sullivan wants us to cut up our Bibles and follow “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity.” Ross Douthat writes that the problem is we’ve been overrun by heresies. Christian Piatt claims that young adults are “leaving the church to follow Jesus.” I think that underneath the prosperity gospel, the ideological echo chamber, and the shallow, therapeutic Jesus-as-boyfriend theology considered by all three of these writers are two basic idolatries  — opinion and relationship — which have filled the gap created by the loss of a sacramental understanding of Christ’s body within popular American evangelical Christianity.

I. Opinion

Idolatry of opinion is how I would describe the basic misconception American evangelicals tend to have about “orthodoxy,” the measure we use for determining whether someone is legitimately Christian or not. The Greek word doxa has two meanings. When Aristotle used the word, he meant “opinion.” But the translators of the Septuagint Greek Old Testament used doxa as their translation for the Hebrew kabod, which means “glory.” This etymological distinction is useful for illustrating the problem in contemporary pop evangelicalism: our “orthodoxy” is built from the wrong doxa. We say that people are legitimately Christian if they have the right opinions about a set of propositional claims, such as whether Jesus was really born of a virgin, whether He was really resurrected from the dead, whether I can do anything to earn my ticket into heaven, etc. Evangelical teaching and preaching is built around instilling the correct theological opinions in our listeners.

One of the most important roots of this phenomenon is the way evangelicals understand what it means that we are “justified by faith in Jesus Christ.” When we make “faith in Jesus Christ” equivalent to “agreeing with a set of ideas about Jesus Christ,” then Christian faith becomes about opinions instead of discipleship (which is what it’s about when faith is understood to mean “trust”). Bible study becomes about finding the passages that support the talking points that will successfully defeat those who have the wrong opinions about Jesus. We avoid wrong opinions by refusing to associate  with people whose perspectives have been corrupted by their immersion in the parallel universe of “secular humanism.” We protect our children from these wrong opinions by homeschooling and sheltering them. To negotiate or compromise with our ideological opponents is to put the purity of our own opinions in jeopardy. In this way, the pursuit of an
“orthodoxy” understood as ideological purity prepares a whole bloc of people for complete enclosure within an ideological echo chamber that views its opponents with hysterical hyperbolic paranoia.

The idolatry of opinion also creates a serious hurdle for Christian evangelism. To share the gospel with other people in terms that will resonate means learning and caring enough about their perspective to address where they’re coming from. If we see non-believers’ opinions as hopelessly reprobate rather than fertile with the seeds of God’s continual revelation to all His creation, then our evangelism will cease to be a serious effort to understand and share God’s love with another person. Those who idolize their own opinions will likely be more aggressive in their evangelism than those who don’t, but they will also be less invested if the whole exercise is about self-affirmation and proving their fidelity to God.

What if on the other hand we understood orthodoxy as the “right perception of God’s glory” rather than the “right opinion about God”? What’s the difference? Orthodoxy as “right-glory” does not see “correctness” as the end in itself. Rather, “right-doctrine” is useful instrumentally in the pursuit of a full experience of God’s glory. Because doctrine is finite and God’s glory is not, two different Christians can have different opinions on a theological issue and perceive an equal portion of different dimensions of God’s glory. Someone who seeks to experience God’s beauty more fully rather than to win every theological debate is going to be a much more compelling evangelist, because they share God’s truths with others not in order to win another argument, but to help another person see God, drawing upon the insights God has already revealed to that person. To one who is orthodox in this kind of way, others don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. All truth belongs to God, which means that it’s okay if non-believers or Christians with theological differences have truths that God wants me to learn from them.

Paul writes to Timothy that “false doctrines” are those things which “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith” (1 Tim 1:3-4). “The goal of [true Christian teaching] is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (v. 5). What strikes me about this passage and so many others in the Pauline epistles is that heresy is usually identified with that which destroys Christian unity and promotes schism. The basic Protestant heresy is that being “right” is more important than “advancing God’s work” by collaborating with people whose theological differences might nonetheless “come from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Right doctrine is not inconsequential; it’s indispensable in our journey to experience God’s glory; but God’s truth does not organize itself into a neat set of logical propositions that I can perfect and defend to prove my fidelity to God. And it’s often the case that those who have encountered God’s glory most deeply are the least strident and self-assured about the correctness of their own opinions. “Let God be true and every person a liar” (Rom 3:4). Reverence inherently emasculates opinion in the presence of true orthodoxy.

II. Relationship

When Jeff Bethke posted his viral video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” it was shared on our church facebook page by a young adult who hasn’t been to church in over a year (presumably to explain why he doesn’t need to come anymore). I don’t think Bethke anticipated how many “likes” he was going to get from “spiritual not religious” Millennials who love (a projected therapeutic BFF) Jesus, but hate (the discipleship of being part of a) church. He thought he was following the anti-sacramental polemical tradition of evangelicalism (“It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship!”) but his polemic viralized because it was co-opted by those who prefer “relationship with” to “discipleship of” Jesus Christ. Many of my fellow young adults have been driven out of church by the repercussions of the idolatry of opinion discussed above, but the reason they have felt okay with themselves about leaving church is because of a theological poison pill that they likely received in youth group in a particular account of “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” The “personal relationship” concept is how it becomes possible to leave the church in order to follow Jesus.

I’m all about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but not the disembodied, individualist adventure starring me and him that it’s been marketed to be. When the Christian youth experience is about “making Jesus famous” in huge praise stadiums filled with hype and energy, then the “relationship” youth are taught to have is basically a relationship with a supernatural form of Ryan Gosling. The difference is that Ryan Gosling Jesus actually answers every single piece of fan mail he gets in the form of prayer. He responds to my prayers (I think and hope) because he gives me goose bumps (which means that he’s listening) when I sit in the dark and pour out my heart to him. Going to church makes me “feel close” to Ryan Gosling Jesus because it gets my heart all churned up. That’s why I would never consider going to a church that doesn’t get my heart all churned up. But sunsets and poetry get my heart all churned up too, so I start to wonder if maybe I can “follow Jesus” without having to sit through all the angry opinions that get spewed out during the message time at church.

I really believe that evangelicals have created the means of our own demise by making Jesus a sort of phantom celebrity figure who we’re supposed to try to “feel close to.” We are absolutely supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus as the head of the body in which we are all parts. Exchanging the inherently corporeal nature of Christianity for an individualist, “personal walk” gospel is what lays the groundwork for “following Jesus out of church.” Paul captures the journey of incorporation that we are supposed to be taking as Christians in Ephesians 4:14-16: “Let us no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

We cannot have the personal relationship with Jesus Christ into which He has called us unless we center our worship around the goal of becoming the body of Christ. Communion is not just a ritual we do because Jesus said so. It should be the climax of every Christian gathering because it provides the framework for understanding our relationship with the Savior whose broken body has become both our food and our body at the same time. If worship is understood as nothing more than flattering a phantom “personal” celebrity Christ with songs and testimony about how great he is, then our congregations’ commitment level will be contingent on their ability to stay perpetually enthusiastic. The real test of whether worship attendees have incorporated itself into Christ’s body is how people behave when the momentum plateaus and starts to sag. Will they jump ship and go to a place with better hype? Will they figure out they can get their Jesus fix from Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer without leaving their couches? If a personal relationship with Jesus doesn’t involve incorporating ourselves in His body, there’s no reason not to substitute televangelist broadcasts for membership in a brick-and-mortar congregation.

III. We need the Body

When Christians try to live by opinion and relationship alone, we drive other people out of the church and give ourselves permission to leave. The body of Christ is our true sustenance both in the physical wafer or chunk of Hawaiian bread that we put in our mouths every time we take communion and in the community that is created through the celebration of this sacrament. It’s time to dial back the polemic against “religion” within popular evangelicalism, because the sacred practices that the Holy Spirit has cultivated in God’s people over the centuries provide the basis for a much richer personal relationship with Jesus than any Christian pop love song could as well as an experiential orthodoxy that emerges from an authentic encounter with God’s glory rather than the flat orthodoxy of propositional opinions. Let us hunger for more than correct opinions and a warm and fuzzy relationship. Let us hunger for the eternal life that comes from eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man (John 6:53).

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This has been very thought-provoking for me. (Or will be…as it has time to settle in.) My background does land more heavily on both the “opinion/doxa” and the “BFF Jesus” side of the scale.

    A question regarding “opinion:” What doctrines do you consider “non-negotiable” when it comes to being a Christian? For example, I know that LDS folks would call themselves Christians because they believe Jesus the son of God died for their sins, but they wouldn’t put Jesus in a trinity. Your answer would help me fully understand the depth of your point.

    Regarding “relationship,” this will be something to chew on for a while. A lot to search out inwardly–something I’m always excited to do. (Just today I noticed the “Q & A” of Jeremiah 17:9-10: “The heart is deceitful above all things, who can understand it? I, the Lord…”)

    Thanks for the post.

    • Morgan Guyton

      I definitely think there are non-negotiables but the reason they’re non-negotiable is because the wrong belief causes us to have a false encounter with God. It’s not just something that God just “approves” or “disapproves” independent of its instrumental purpose in our quest to know God. Jesus has to be fully human and fully God for Him to have the power and empathy to deliver us from sin. God has to be Trinity both because it says so in scripture and because that’s the best way to understand who we’re relating to. There are things that happen to us which make the most sense to identify as the work of each member of the Trinity. If Jesus didn’t die for my sins, then I lose the basis for my freedom. If He wasn’t raised from the dead, the I have no hope beyond this life. So yes, there are non-negotiables but not because God is grading us and saying okay, you got 6 out of 8, that’s a D+, so I guess I’ll let you in. The trust in Christ is what saves us, and that can exist whether or not the right opinions are there, though too many wrong opinions can kill the trust itself.

      • Wonderful. Thanks for the response. Very refreshing change in perspective.

  • Simply brilliant! Thank you.