Stop the presses! I just spotted this post by Ed Stetzer and we need to talk about this. See, folks, Ed Stetzer feels very sad these days. In fact, he says he’s in a season of deep lament. (How Jesus-y is that? IT’S ALL THE JESUS-Y.) Right now, Christians in a lot of different flavors of the religion feel the same way. But don’t pull out your sympathy tears of peanut butter quite yet. First, let me show you why Ed Stetzer feels very sad lately–and what his big sadness means for his end of Christianity.
Everyone, Say Hi (Again) to Ed Stetzer.
Ed Stetzer used to head up the LifeWay research department. LifeWay is the publishing and propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There, he struggled with his denomination’s tainted brand and tried to get a grip on why so many young people were leaving the SBC. He never did manage to figure it out, but bless his little cotton socks, he sure tried hard.
Then, about a year ago, he slid into the gig he has now. Now he works for Wheaton College, a noted fundagelical outfit. Someone there decided that he’d make a mighty fine dean of their School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership. Considering how bad the SBC’s membership tanked while he worked for LifeWay, it’s downright weird that he’d get an even bigger, more influential job doing the same stuff for someone else. But that’s the world Christians inhabit.
As we recently saw, Stetzer also hangs out on social media, writes for various Christian publications, and shills his very own (epic failure of a) leadership class. One wonders what on earth he’s doing for Wheaton, with all these side gigs. But again, that’s the world Christians inhabit.
A Quick Christianese Lesson.
Ed Stetzer tends to write in pure, unfiltered Christianese. From the very title of his post for Christianity Today, you know you’re in for a wild ride. He titled it “A Season of Deep Lament: Heroes and Legends I Knew as a Child.”
For those not steeped in Christianese, here’s what the title means:
- a season = a super-formal, super-Jesus-y way to say “a time”
- deep lament = a super-formal, super-Jesus-y way to say he’s sad; has connotations of religious-inspired mourning, as for someone who’s died (you’ll see what’s died here though, and it ain’t a person)
The rest operates about as you’d expect. He’s making a huge tragedy all about himself. And I guess to some extent, we all do that; it personalizes something vast to us and brings it down to a level we can understand better. But you’ll soon see that in this context, this attention-grab goes far beyond crass.
His subtitle dogwhistles a great deal of Christianese as well. It runs thusly: “I don’t know that I have many answers, but I know what is true and I must keep holding on.”
- I don’t have many answers = a humblebrag reminder that he’s not omniscient (but guess who he thinks is?)
- I know what is true = another humblebrag as well as a virtue signal; he thinks he’s latched onto exactly the right flavor of Christianity out of the 40,000+ variants and the right religion in the first place out of many thousands in the world past and present (and his tribe will like seeing the reminder)
- and I must keep holding on = a third humblebrag; he won’t let whatever this post is about shake his beliefs at all
The Christianese waters don’t get shallower from here, I’m afraid.
What Made Ed Stetzer Sad.
Ed Stetzer appears to have finally recognized that most–if not all–of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are massive hypocrites if not outright criminals.
It took him long enough, right?
See, when he was a young whippersnapper himself, he loved attending this one ultra-Christian rah-rah festival called Jesus Orlando. As he got older, he thought it’d be grand to speak at an event like that. A similar event’s leader, Harry Thomas, even talked to him once about speaking at a music festival series that he’d founded called Creation Festival (in the post, Stetzer calls it “Creation Fest”). Such a speaking engagement would have been quite the feather in Stetzer’s cap, considering that Thomas had been named only last year as one of America’s 100 most influential evangelicals (in fact, he was #85, but still).
Well, Harry Thomas recently got convicted of child molestation. The court sentenced him to 18 years, which effectively functions as a death sentence for the 75-year-old abuser. One victim told him via a statement that she hated him; another victim’s father called him “a ravenous wolf” and “one of the greatest hypocrites–a child molester masquerading as a pastor.”
This news really rocked Ed Stetzer’s world.
Skittering Right Up To The Edge.
Unbidden, thoughts of other hypocritical pastors and leaders swam into his mind:
- The unnamed pastor of Calvary Assembly of God Church in Orlando, who resigned in 1981 after an affair. (Stetzer almost certainly means Benny Hinn’s father-in-law Roy Harthern, who died in 2013 shortly after the faith healer issued requests for prayers to magically heal him.)
- David Sills, who “quietly” resigned in June from his professor position at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Nobody’s saying why, but he’s one of a great many SBC leaders doing the same thing right now. Stetzer doesn’t serve us any tea, though, saying instead that he “rightly resigned.”
- Christian George, another professor at SBTS, who resigned around the same time and with similar vague reasons given about “a moral failing.”
- One of his personal heroes, Bill Hybels, who obviously made big news recently for his ongoing sexual abuse of women under his control.
- Frank Page, one of his self-professed “closest friends, and a key part of why I stayed in my denomination back in 2007.” As we saw recently, Page resigned from his lofty position over “a morally inappropriate relationship.”
Though he concedes immediately that all of these scandals involve different kinds of sexual hypocrisy, he notes that their common thread is that he personally knows all of the men in his list. Weirdly, he doesn’t mention Andy Savage, Paul Pressler, or Paige Patterson, men he almost certainly met and likely admired (and especially he’d have admired Patterson, who focused similarly on evangelism and missionary stuff), but maybe he doesn’t need to. That list is damning enough all by itself.
But then, having made this list, he takes a hard right turn into Christian Bizarro World.
The Made Man Suffers Conscience Shock.
Ed Stetzer writes, of this never-ending string of sex scandals in his denomination:
They keep coming and I want to scream, “Stop!”
He tells us that he felt downright overwhelmed by “how many examples I can easily name.” I wonder how his head would a-splode if he reflected on how many of these crimes have gone on for years right under his nose, with no “Jesus” to tweak his spidey senses about it.
As heartbroken as he might feel, though, Ed Stetzer is as close to a made man as can exist in the SBC. Ever hear that term? It means someone who’s been fully initiated into a family of the American Mafia. Once someone gets initiated, he’s expected to be completely loyal to his crime family. And for the most part, it sounds like most of them are.
In similar fashion, Ed Stetzer finds himself in a thoroughly impossible place. He’s hitched his wagon to the SBC’s star. As the SBC flourishes, so he flourishes. And yet the crimes he outlines in his short list of offenders would shame a rock into tears of contrition for associating with a group that allowed such people so much power.
What to do, what to do…
He Screams “Stop!”
Confronted with this impossible situation, he retreats into his favorite form of thought stopping:
Suddenly we veer into the most WTF stream-of-consciousness coping mechanisms I’ve ever seen.
He doesn’t agitate for justice. Nor does he reach out to the many victims of the men on his list. He clearly has more intel on what happened with some of them than the public does, but he doesn’t demand changes to the system that put them in power and let them prey freely upon women and children.
Instead he listens to music. He cites a Styx song lyric:
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay.
You might notice a few Christianese ideas in the quote (fallen; idols; clay). From what I can see, Styx leans fairly Republican (though they did get into a verbal slapfight with Ted Nugent in 2014). Consequently, I’m not surprised to learn that they wrote lyrics alluding to Christian ideas.
And the lyrics soothe him a little.
Then It Comes to Him.
These “fallen” men simply weren’t Jesus-ing hard enough. That’s how they “fell” to “idols of clay.”
The solution to that imagined problem must come unbidden right afterward. To avoid what happened to them, Stetzer must Jesus harder.
But how can Ed Stetzer possibly Jesus harder?
This is the nutter who gave the world the idea of convictional Christians and cultural Christians. In his Bizarro version of reality, literally the only way people could possibly ever want to leave TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches is if they’re “cultural Christians.” In other words, they grew up around church culture and never got serious about it. They never became TRUE CHRISTIANS™ themselves; they just warmed the pews with their bottoms and sent who-knows-how-much money into the church as donations and tithes. A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is totally serious with the faith–it is a conviction for them, not only a cultural exercise.
He doesn’t mention this distinction in his post today. However, those ideas permeate his writing, which makes them worth mentioning.
Hating the Players, Not the Game: Christian Edition.
So Ed Stetzer has heard about a slew of SBC and Christian leaders who have committed grievous crimes against the powerless people in his tribe.
In response, he does not do what any reasonable person would do, which is to question the system that allowed all of this abuse to happen. That’d be too difficult. Remember, he’s a made man. The system that put David Sills, Frank Page, Bill Hybels, and Christian George into power also put him into power. For all his hinting about what he’s seen, and for all that his move to Wheaton was almost certainly prompted by him proving too hot for LifeWay to handle, he can’t reject the system benefiting himself so richly.
The SBC has always been all about enshrining white male privilege into transcendent power. It’s always been a deeply racist group; lately it’s become more and more misogynistic as well. We’ve covered its leaders’ single-minded focus on power more times than I can count, too.
So a leader in this group will be singularly unlikely to seriously examine or challenge the group’s structure. That structure is how they got the outsized amount of undeserved power that they have now.
The rank and file might be examining and challenging the group’s structure. We’re seeing a little of that in Catholicism lately, and I’ve seen more than a few evangelicals saying they’re withdrawing from their churches in the wake of their current tsunami wave of scandals. They’re starting to perceive the clear lines between that kind of unwarranted power and the roughshod, rampant abuse of those stripped of power.
And most of all, they’re starting to ask how much of that lopsided power dynamic came into being specifically because their leaders needed a system that would let them operate with the leeway they wanted. That is a dangerous question, for the leaders at least.
And for all his self-glorification as That Brave SBC Lad Who Totally Challenges Bad Ideas And People, Ed Stetzer isn’t that kind of brave.
How Ed Stetzer Is Going to Totally Jesus Harder.
Instead of asking those hard questions, then, Ed Stetzer decides that he needs to double down on raising his Jesus levels to maximum.
The SBC’s very good at pushing this idea on its members. They tell members that a huge, systemic flaw comes from individuals who just “sin” too much and thus aren’t Jesus-ing hard enough.
The flaw comes from those “sins.” (I’m scare quoting the term because I don’t think they’re even using the word in the traditional Christian sense. Also I do it because I think the term is not only meaningless from a moral standpoint but also blitheringly arbitrary and self-serving.) The fix for the flaw won’t come from fixing the system itself; it will come from inspiring the flocks to Jesus harder. When everybody is Jesus-ing as hard as they can, then the flaw will vanish because nobody will be sinning enough to make the flaw pop into existence.
This idea comes from the (false) teaching that people have a set amount of Jesus Power they can hold. The more Jesus Power they have in them, the less room will exist for “sinning.” When they are totally topped out in Jesus Power, no room at all exists for “sins.” They won’t even be tempted to do anything that might offend their god.
How a Convictional Christian Can Totally Jesus Harder.
Here, then, is Ed Stetzer’s personal list for how he is going to make absolutely sure that he doesn’t molest children, rape church secretaries, or engage in any other “moral failures” as his heroes did. Indeed, he’s asked the invisible man in the ceiling to give him “wisdom” and is “walking a path of lament.” This is pure Christianese drivel; it means he’ll feel very sad and eventually hopes euphoria will lift him up again.
- First, he’s going to ask the invisible man in the ceiling to “show areas in my own life where I’ve not guarded my heart.” I’d be surprised if his invisible friend shared any with him.
- Second, he’s set up accountabilibuddies for himself. Because that obviously worked very well for all those other leaders, who presumably had the same setup, and because nobody ever fools an accountabilibuddy. Ever.
- Of course, he’s “dug deeper in my spiritual walk,” which could mean literally anything. He might be reading the Bible more. Or he might be talking to the ceiling more, or attending church more often. It’s nonsense.
- Fourth, he’s reminding himself that people are very flawed. This reminder neatly gets him off the hook in examining how the SBC, as a system, keeps putting such deeply-flawed people into positions of sometimes-dizzying power.
Notice, please, that most people wouldn’t need to set up convoluted plans of action to avoid raping women and children.
But if someone really wants to do that, the SBC’s system does absolutely nothing to stop that person.
It Must Seem So Easy!
Oh, but it gets worse.
Ed Stetzer’s plan of action does nothing whatsoever for anybody except himself. And what it does for him is make him feel more Jesus-y, and thus better-protected from falling into what he views as grievous sin. But if these action plans don’t work to protect women and children in the SBC, then he’s only making matters worse.
I’ve sure never seen any indication that zealotry and fervor prevents abuse. To the contrary, most folks discover that the further into zealotry and fervor they travel, the more abuse they encounter. When I find a church that actually does respond to abuse complaints and accusations with compassion and justice, it’s never been a fundagelical church (or a Catholic one).
Then Ed Stetzer finishes his post by quoting some more song lyrics that help him stop thinking about the terrible stuff going on with the SBC and the leaders he idolized.
Modeling for the Fundagelicals in the Back Rows.
Ed Stetzer’s been pushing the SBC party line for years now. Even before the SBC unveiled their big push to get members evangelizing more often, he was out in front testing out the ideas needed. That Easter post was about him pretending to write to non-Christians, but in reality he was writing to his fellow Christians–to give them the courage to invite non-Christians to church for Easter.
In similar fashion, I’ve no doubt that his post today is actually aimed at his fellow leaders. Here, he pretends to be writing about himself. In actuality, he addresses men in ministry all the way down to the laymen expecting to be lords and masters of their little castles at home.
He’s doing nothing less than modeling how he thinks they should structure their own individual lives. If they will do what he does, then they will never be tempted to rape women and children. Ta-da! Tra-la! See how easy that is? He must stand simply amazed every single day that more fundagelicals don’t amp up their Jesus Power, considering all the benefits it would confer.
Why It Won’t Work.
But those men won’t change. They are made men in the SBC just like he is.
He’s demanding that they relinquish some of their hard-won, difficult-to-guard power. Any man in the SBC currently using his position of power to abuse the denomination’s many powerless members isn’t going to pare any of it back. If they could live without abusing people, they would likely not be fundagelicals in the first place.
(And all that said, I bet Stetzer would still leap at the chance to speak at a Creation Festival concert. Let’s face it: that’s what kids today really want to hear when they go to a concert: a middle-aged dude in a hopelessly-regressive denomination blathering at them about Jesus-ing harder.)
NEXT UP: Back into the saddle! Let’s look at some hilariously cringeworthy evangelism efforts put on by a denomination that has got to be scrabbling-frantic by now to score some wins. But are these efforts really going to turn the tide for that denomination? (Spoiler: OMG LOL, JUST NO.) See you soon.
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