The evangelical habit of bearing false witness against mainline Protestants

The evangelical habit of bearing false witness against mainline Protestants May 17, 2013

Brian McLaren shares a confession, and a personal testimony, about the pernicious and pervasive temptation to bear false witness against one’s neighbors.

Specifically, he addresses the widespread convention among white evangelicals — so widespread it’s an expectation, almost a requirement — that says it is somehow acceptable, and not vicious, to bear false witness against mainline Protestants:

I agree with Tony [Jones] that there’s a common rhetorical strategy among Evangelicals that I myself have indulged in, as has Tony by his own admission: trying to seize the middle ground as morally high ground. If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

One example: years ago, I spoke with disdain about a “mainline liberal” writer — my attempt to bolster my Evangelical credentials and seize middle-moral high ground by throwing “a liberal” under the bus. I had actually never read anything he had written, but people I respected thought he was dangerous. So I echoed them, needing to bolster my reputation to my right, a sign of my immaturity and insecurity on my part. Again, things I’m not proud of.

Some time later, I was asked to speak at the same event as this person. He was easy-going and gracious. I suppose he knew what I had said about him, but he didn’t throw it in my face. Anyway, at the end of the event, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to us and get books signed. His line was much longer than mine.

So when my line dwindled away, I had the chance to eavesdrop on what people said to him. Person after person said, sometimes tearfully, “Thank you. If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian,” or “Through reading your book, I became a Christian,” or “I left the church 30 years ago, but when I read book X, I came back.” That’s pretty moving for an evangelical to hear, you know? I realized that this fellow was actually an evangelist, reaching people for Christ who never would be reached by my more conservative friends, or by me!

… One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.

My guess is the other author was John Shelby Spong, the liberal writer unread but widely reviled by evangelicals as history’s greatest monster. But it could have been any number of other mainline Protestant writers. When it comes to liberals routinely condemned as “dangerous” by respected members of the white evangelical establishment — and thus supposedly fair game for disdainful, dishonest attacks — there’s no shortage of potential candidates.

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  • Nick Gotts

    Is that also true of Hinduism and Jainism? Also, which are “major” is rather subjective. If Judaism, why not Sikhism, which has more adherents (and many more than Zoroastrianism) and dates from the 16th century.

    I think it is closely linked to state-building, at least in the region I was talking about – although I admit this hunch stems from broad reading as an amateur, not professional scholarship.

    The new Persian Empire of the Sassanian dynasty (replacing the looser Parthian empire) revived and reformulated Zoroastrianism from the third century, and put down various “heresies” including Manichaeism. The new state was a far more formidable enemy to Rome. I think Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as effectively the state religion may have been a strategic response to this; and the Arabs, either during Muhammad’s lifetime as is traditionally believed, or somewhat later, got into the act with Islam. Even Judaism was adopted by the Khazar state in the 8th century – possibly to finesse having to choose between Christianity and Islam! So in brief, once one state discovered the utility of a doctrinally and administratively unified state religion, the idea was copied and adapted.

  • Nick Gotts

    I think the timing is wrong for your first paragraph to be right. The adoption of Christianity preceded the loss of the western half of the Empire: it looks to me like part of the response to the crisis of the late 3rd century, which stemmed in large part from the rise of the Sassanian Empire (see my comment above). Constantine also toyed with the idea of adopting the cult of Sol Invictus, but the Christians had a better administrative structure, which conversion to Christianity put at the Emperor’s disposal. Moreover, the East was much more Christian than the West in Constantine’s time (as well as richer and more cultured). I agree with your second and third paragraphs, though. Peter Heather, in The Fall of the Roman Empire, notes that replacing the cult of the divine Emperor with the Emperor appointed by Christ was straightforward.

  • Nick Gotts

    One quibble: the pagan Romans certainly regarded slaves as human. Manumission was common, and the manumitted slave of a citizen became a citizen.

  • See, whenever I see or hear them, I just — I don’t know where they got it. They should have heard my grandfather on the subject, or on the subject of equality for anyone at all (especially after my grandmother sat his butt down and told him this was a feminist family now, in the late 80s.) I was raised to believe that God created all of us equal — all of us. And to cast anyone out, was a sin.

    This caused me problems because I believed I wasn’t allowed to cast out assholes. But Christianity to me still means equality. I was taught that the devil can use scripture for his own ends, and that he always has. (And that the devil is metaphorical, and people saying otherwise are… confused, to be charitable.) From not allowing women to preach, to murdering women for being supposed witches, to slavery in all its forms, to discriminating against anyone: these (along with war) were all the truest, deepest sins of humanity. They were the reason Christ died on the cross, quite literally, since he died because he preached against these things.

    It’s the same old story, as it’s always been, but unless Fred and the Christians like him and my grandparents get a LOT louder, Christianity is going to keep losing people in droves.

  • It’s just a list of what he believes. People don’t write essays under every single point of their belief when they’re making lists like this.

  • Liberal Lutheran and a non-denominational liberal Mennonite-Baptist-Quaker church in Virginia. Most religious stuff is from my maternal grandparents and their group of Friends that met about every week or so. I once asked my mother what we were, religiously, and she said something like, “uh, your [paternal grandmother] is Lutheran and I think my parents are some kind of Baptist… whatever, we’re Christian.” Reading and discussing the Bible was paramount in both churches — actually really truly reading and discussing the thing.

  • Manumission was common. So was raping your slaves and working them to death. While someone was a slave, they were definitely regarded as less-than, especially less-than a citizen.

  • People still argue over when and why the Roman Empire fell. The entire time frame in my comment is somewhat… mushy. The Western Empire falling wasn’t a plummet so much as a saunter downward. I think Rome started to crumble a bit before people started to adopt Christianity in large numbers, and it definitely fell before they did so in large numbers in Northwestern Europe. I should have been more clear about the regions and timeframe there.

  • I’ve only taken two classes on the Eastern Roman Empire — all that were offered below the graduate level at my schools. The professor of the class I took a few years ago apologized for our “textbook” being such a hard slog, but there just wasn’t anything else written in English for us to use that would cover the same ground. You know that part of Alice in Wonderland where they all read something “dry”? It was written like that.

    Iirc, it was the first edition of this book:

    It looks like he’s substantially improved it, especially in writing style. So I think I can recommend that one.

  • I think the root of the misapprehension is that for the ancients, (unlike, say, the american form of slavery), counting-as-human was not thought of as something conferred by birth and immutable. Someone could earn counting-as-human, and they could lose counting-as-human. The fact that manumission was common didn’t mean that the romans regarded slaves as human; it meant they regarded them as eligible for promotion to humanity.

  • Yes, that is a good way of putting it.

  • Alix

    Is that also true of Hinduism and Jainism?

    I’m not actually sure, given that the only eastern religion I know much about is Buddhism. As for which are major – I was building off of your comment, but I wouldn’t usually count Zoroastrianism or Judaism myself, in the modern day, unless we’re using a definition of “major” that involves political influence.

    I think it is closely linked to state-building

    I don’t think you’re wrong, exactly, I just think it’s a lot more complicated than that, because late antiquity was not the only time of intense state-building and certainly not the only time of intense linking of a single religion to the state being built – the Babylonian Marduk cult and the rise of the Osiris cult in Egypt come to mind. (Actually, most of the history of religion in Egypt comes to mind, and while Egyptian paganism is effectively dead, it sure in hell lasted for more than 2000 years.) And there are plenty of other examples of state religions in antiquity.

    …I’m actually starting to wonder if the problem is more a matter of perspective than anything else. We have a really annoying tendency to lump all of paganism together, which makes it look like there was never a unified religion before monotheism, and we also tend to assume that 2000 years is exceptional for a religion. Neither is really true, and so I sometimes think we’re putting too much weight on the religions that are still major players now, when really they’re following pretty much the same pattern, over more or less the same span, as other religions. Like something has to be different/special about them because they’re still around, but the more I pry into things the less special/different they are.

    Constantine’s adoption of Christianity was … complicated. For one thing, it doesn’t appear he was actually a convert. For another, he didn’t actually give it preeminence; he just legitimized it, but he didn’t de-legitimize anything else to do so. Christianity just became one of many religions that were legal to practice in the Roman Empire.

    I know next to nothing about the Khazars – do you have any good starting points for learning about them? That sounds fascinating.

  • Alix

    That you are fearful of something doesn’t mean it’s actually likely.


    If he had, he’d surely have prepared his followers for it better than he appears to have done.

    There’s some really interesting evidence that some of his followers – the bit players who inexplicably drift on and off the stage of the gospels – were in on the act. And for what it’s worth, both canonical and noncanonical writings tend to portray Peter and his group of disciples as either stupid or chronically in the dark about things.

    I mean, none of this plotting is foregrounded in the gospels. But the explanation makes sense of a lot of little inexplicable bits that otherwise are just … weird.

    More likely, he either expected God to intervene on his side, or just miscalculated through ignorance of the big city and its politics.

    Both also perfectly possible. And of course all this is made even more complicated because it’s … really not clear who killed Jesus or why. The accounts in the gospels make no sense, really, once one pries into them.

  • Alix

    Thank you!

  • FearlessSon

    It’s the same old story, as it’s always been, but unless Fred and the Christians like him and my grandparents get a LOT louder, Christianity is going to keep losing people in droves.

    To quote theology professor Ronald J. Sider (himself an evangelical) from his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience:

    It strikes me as being incredibly tragic and, yes, hypocritical for the evidence to show that precisely at a time when evangelicals have more political power to raise the issue of moral values in this society than they’ve had in a long time, the hard statistics on their own living show that they don’t live what they’re talking about. And sure, I’m afraid that’s hypocrisy.

  • alfgifu

    I am a believer, but I identify with this because at times I wish I were a fundamentalist for the same reason. It’s disconcerting sometimes, being sceptical and acknowledging the limitations of the human mind.

    (As an aside, I’m beginning to wonder if this is one of those irregular verbs: I’m a believer; you’re religious; s/he’s a superstitious fool.)

  • I would probably disagree with at least some of Spong’s reasoning on many of those points, but this, this is something that I’ve been led to believe for the past couple years and it’s so refreshing to hear someone else say it:

    “11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior”

  • Sagrav

    Thanks, though it would be good to find a source of King’s theological thoughts besides Free Republic. That site’s a depressing cesspool of right wing propaganda and paranoia.

  • other lori

    It was Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity that convinced me that being a Christian was an intellectually and morally viable option, when I was in grad school in my early 20s. 10+ years later, I’m probably now a bit closer to NT Wright than Marcus Borg on the spectrum of Episcopal theology, a story I’m not sure these evangelical critics would allow for. It’s because of the work of liberal Christian theologians and authors that I can sit in services with my evangelical friends and worship with them.

    The idea that these authors destroy faith is absurd. I’m not aware of anybody who was comfortable and content with their evangelical and/or conservative faith who picked up Borg or Spong or Crossan and lost their faith. The people the works are intended for, and the people who are actually going to read them, are people who are already liberal Christians, people who are questioning their Christian beliefs and want an alternative so they can remain Christian, and non-Christians who are interested in a Christianity that makes some sense to them.

    I consider liberal Christian authors to be great evangelists, who make the Christian message accessible to people who are rightfully turned off by many of the loudest Christian voices in our culture. And, the fact that they are disdained just as much if not more by New Atheists than their conservative counterparts is a testimony, I think, to the fact that they are pretty effective evangelists, by presenting a Christian faith that is both intellectually tenable and morally sound.

  • other lori

    Campolo isn’t mainline.

    My guess would be Crossan.

  • lowtechcyclist

    Hell, it seems to be acceptable among evangelicals to bear false witness against anyone outside their tribe. For instance, bashing of secular liberals for largely imagined sins is just as common at evangelical pulpits as altar calls are.

    More so, now that I think about it, because generally there’s only one altar call per service, but hippies and libruls can be bashed multiple times in a single sermon.

    Basically, the Ninth Commandment is a dead letter among evangelicals.

  • other lori

    This is where the work of liberal Christian theology can come in very handy, because it’s not a matter of, say, disbelieving in Krishna or Allah or whatever. It’s a matter of seeing God as something/someone we cannot fully grasp, and that people have different ways of understanding that Ultimate Reality. For some of us, Christianity is the story that makes sense of it, that is most accessible; for others, it isn’t. It’s just false to say that most liberal Christians don’t believe in Krishna in the same way that atheists don’t believe in God. (Leaving aside it doesn’t really show much understanding of how Hindus understand their faith, which tends not to be literalistic.)

    A person could fully believe that Christian language and the Christian story is one way to approach the mystery of God that will never be fully comprehensible. Because of their culture or background or personal make-up, it’s the story that resonates most with them. But, they can also believe that, for other people, the Hindu story or Buddhist story or Muslim story is a way for them to approach the incomprehensible mystery of God. Just because they don’t worship Allah or Krishna or a Pagan deity doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that such worship or the language around it can be a way to access the Great Mystery.

    Now, I’m certainly not arguing that all Christians feel that way; many don’t. But, the idea that Christians are atheists about all gods except their own is just false. Many Christians believe that God is beyond human comprehension and that all attempts–including the Christian one–to understand it are partial and inadequate.

  • alfgifu

    You might be right that a lot of people agree with Spong but don’t put it so bluntly. On the other hand, I suspect a more people don’t put it do bluntly because they wouldn’t go as far as he would in rejecting the miraculous elements.

    You don’t have to be a Biblical literalist to find meaning in the creation story, for example – dismissing it as pure nonsense, post-Darwin, smacks of throwing out a baby with the bathwater. I’m not a fan of treating it as history, but taken as a myth I find it powerful and compelling.

    Dismissing miracles as impossible to accept in a post-Newton world ignores that they were impossible to accept in a pre-Newton world as well. By their nature, miracles don’t obey the observed natural law – that hasn’t changed, no matter how much our understanding of the natural world has developed. I can understand rejecting the miracles because they are, well, miraculous. It doesn’t make so much sense to me to reject them because of Newton, Darwin, or the progress of science.

  • seniorcit

    Right on! I started with CS Lewis and worked my way through Buechner, Nouwen, Merton and others until I came to McLaren and Borg. I’m still reading. And I still consider myself a Christian.

  • I prefer to avoid it. It implies that there’s only two states of being: Believing in Christianity (usually a specific denomination) or Not.

  • 12 is great too. “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity,gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

  • What he means is that as humanity masters the sciences, things which were previously inexplicable are suddenly no longer miraculous, forcing us to look back at things we previously considered impossible and to understand that there may (or perhaps must) be alternate, plausible explanations for the occurrence.

  • other lori

    In general, the debate among Christians would likely be more about what kind of resurrection we’re talking about, rather than whether or not there was a resurrection. (Although you would find some Christians, like classic Unitarians, who could deny the resurrection altogether.)

    Borg, for instance, believes in a spiritual resurrection: he thinks that the disciples really did have post-Easter experiences of Jesus–it wasn’t a lie or a delusion–but that if you had followed them around with a video camera, you wouldn’t have recorded Jesus.

    The debate is more over whether the resurrection was a spiritual event, where Jesus had some sort of spiritual existence post-Easter that wasn’t corporeal in the same was his pre-Easter existence was, or whether he had a fully-corporeal post-resurrection body. But I don’t think there are many Christians who would deny that a resurrection of any type took place, that after his crucifixion Jesus was just dead and done.

  • other lori

    I’ve come to believe in a physical resurrection as well, largely because I find NT Wright’s ideas about new creation so compelling, and it helped me to make sense of the idea. But, I don’t think the spiritual vs. physical resurrection issue is particularly central, and certainly Episcopalians have a diversity of views on the issue and are generally comfortable with that.

  • Which is really just a re-wording of Galatians 3:28. That this is considered scandalously left-wing is bemusing.

  • David S.

    I don’t think there is a reason why. The period was picked because it seemed special, but that’s problematic. If you throw darts at a wall, you can almost always find a few clustered and draw a circle around it, but it doesn’t mean that circle is special. 1st-7th centuries CE is seven centuries, so it’s not even a tight circle. Then the data’s cherry-picked. “Or extensively changed by it”, combined with seven centuries, is broad enough that you could say that Buddhism and Hinduism was extensively changed by that period, but I don’t think scholars of those religions would jump on that period. And what about Taoism and Confucianism? You mention Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but those are relatively minor religions demographic-wise. Sikhism and Shintoism both post-date that period and their adherents outnumber Jews, and Bahá’í, Cao Đài, Rastafari, Wicca and Scientology all have more adherents then Zororastrianism and post-date the period in question. You could say that they aren’t considered major modern religions, but part of the reason Judaism and Zoroastrianism are and they aren’t is their age, which messes with your sample.

    I don’t dismiss what Lliira says; there certainly are reasons why Christianity and Islam developed and flourished in the time periods they did, but I don’t think it’s something amazing in need of explanation. I find the connection to be artificial; I don’t see that there’s any reason it’s 1st century – 7th century besides the need to connect events six centuries apart.

  • Alix

    I think I basically agree with you, for all the reasons you’ve laid out. The more I think about it, the more the whole “these religions are special, so something clearly happened to make them special” thing … really doesn’t hold up.

    “Extensively changed” also has another flaw, which is that no religion is static, and they all change dynamically all the time. You can make things seem unchanged by emphasizing certain aspects over others, but that’s again selection bias.

  • There’s a bit in ‘Earth The Book’ where the hypothetical future alien reader asks why Judaism is considered one of the “Major world religions” (And, indeed, ranked ahead of Hinduism) given the relative numbers of adherents.

    The narrative voice makes an allusion to the holocaust and then “subtly” implies that the alien is antisemitic until it apologizes.

  • NYC Momma

    I was one of the professional choristers at the cathedral in Newark when he was Bishop of Newark, and although we only got to hear him on Christmas and Easter, he was a large part of my decision to be baptized in the Episcopal Church and to become a Christian. For me, in my early 20s then, he was eye-opening, and I am still an active member 30+ years later.