Exvangelicals before Exvangelicals

Exvangelicals before Exvangelicals January 24, 2020

In 2016 lots of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump — I’ve heard EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!! did. Since then many Protestants have wanted to distance themselves from evangelicalism. They go by the name exvangelical. They even merit attention from elite media (though the video in question is no longer on-line). Of course, a primary reason for separation from evangelicalism is the movement’s identification with the Republican Party and especially the President.

One of the bigger names to leave evangelicalism over politics was Josh Harris. This is old news now, but the author responsible for setting guidelines on dating throughout the evangelical world since the 1990s, is no longer an evangelical. The reasons have a lot to do with the perceived bigotry of evangelical Christians regarding sex and marriage.

Harris’ popular book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, came out twenty-two years ago. What Harris and people who have written about his deconversion may not understand is that around the time that his book on dating came out, other Protestants were leaving evangelicalism, not for unbelief but in search of something more substantial. Some like Thomas Howard in 1984 had already left evangelicalism for Roman Catholicism. Others like Robert Webber, a year later, had left evangelicalism for Anglicanism.

It took longer for Protestants in Presbyterian and Reformed circles to leave evangelicalism, but in the mid-1990s The Nicotine Theological Journal was one indication that evangelicalism was insufficient as an expression of Reformation era Protestantism. The lead article in the journal put it this way:

We believe that one of the besetting problems of twentieth-century confessional Presbyterianism is the huge disparity between faith and practice. Conservative Reformed folk have been very good (for the most part) about doctrinal fidelity. But they have not been very astute about maintaining distinctively Reformed practices, and we believe that without the “plausibility structures” of these practices, Reformed orthodoxy will die a slow and painful death, which is another way of saying, it will have nothing to say about the way we daily order our lives. Confessional Presbyterians these days are virtually indistinguishable from any garden variety evangelical. They are involved in the work of their local churches, both on Sunday and throughout the week, they listen to Christian radio, subscribe to evangelical publications, watch wholesome television shows, and listen to Christian music. The odd thing, however, is that confessional Presbyterian theology is markedly different from the lowest-common denominator theology that holds evangelicalism together. Yet, conservative Presbyterians behave in remarkably similar ways.

Then in the first decade of the twenty-first century came the Federal Vision, another attempt to think outside the box of pietism and moralism that figures like Josh Harris had cultivated with his books and church. Here is how one former Federal Vision proponent described the new group of exvangelicals:

The more prominent topics of discussion, viewed from the FV perspective, were the role of the visible church and the ordinary means of grace in a Christian’s spiritual nurture and identity, the place of children in the covenant, and the way to understand cases of apostasy as they invariably occur. The relationship between God’s eternal decree—a matter on which all FV men agreed, and they agreed with the traditional “Dort” understanding of it—and the covenant, by which they meant the visible expression of the life of the Church, was really the primary topic of conversation. The central thesis of the initial FV message was that Christians ought to form their spiritual understanding through the ordinary means of grace and life together in the visible church, rather than waiting for a pronounced and often unusual subjective internal transformation of affections. Thus, they were arguing against what they saw as a “Baptistic” or “pietistic” life of faith and for a more churchly variety.

In most of these cases, whether turning to Rome, Canterbury, Edinburgh, or Geneva, the reason for leaving evangelicalism was the nature of the church and worship. Evangelicalism had too many praise songs, too many celebrities, too much moral posing in the culture shouting matches. The reason to leave wasn’t politics. It was religious figures like Josh Harris.

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