Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Suicide of Evangelicalism

Truth is true.  You can believe it like the dismount in the crunch position in a fall from El Capitan in Yosemite.  There isn't going to be a nice landing.  It's true.  It's not kinda true.  The Bible is true like that, even more so, if it were possible to be more true.  Truth is what Christianity has going for it.  It's the truth.  If or when Christianity gives that up, it isn't Christianity anymore.  It might be something called Christianity, but it isn't actual or true Christianity, and since the truth is what makes Christianity, it isn't Christianity.  Evangelicalism has given that quality up.  They aren't claiming that any more.

Conservative evangelicals mock the idea of your choosing your own gender.  In her first day of a psychology class at local junior college, a student asked how many genders there were.  The teacher said three:  male, female, and whatever you want to be.  You may not think this is where evangelicalism is, but it is.

In evangelicalism, you have infant sprinkling and believer's baptism, amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism, young-earth and old-earth creationism, and both cessationism and continuationism.  You have rapped worship and total psalmody.  In conservative evangelicalism, those are all acceptable, all true.  You can nail the landing off of El Capitan  on two feet or stick it in the accordion position, where your ankles join your throat.  The placebo or the actual cure are the same.  It's whatever you want.

I'm calling this the suicide of evangelicalism.  It is.  It's worse than suicide, but it is at least suicide, not because I want it to be.  It just is.  This is what evangelicalism has been for a long time, because it is a slow death suicide.  It's already gone.  It's the proverbial chicken with its head cut off.

In evangelicalism, you can have the dark auditorium with a theater lit stage, rock drum trap set strategically placed up the middle under a spotlight, the pastor with a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, and jumpers lining the children's area, or the old hymn accompanied by the solemn chords of a majestic pipe organ, pews filled with members in their Sunday best.  Neither is superior to the other.  One or the other is not to be judged.  The worse thing you could do in evangelicalism is to say it matters.

The world knows what I'm writing too.  In 2003, Alan Wolfe wrote, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith. A secularist, Wolfe is no sheep --- he does not believe in God and he has no faith.  He wrote his book for his friends, sociologists and psychologists, soothing their fears for the encroachment of evangelicalism, the pressure from the religious right, the worry that evangelicals might take over society.  Wolfe tells them that they don’t have anything to worry about with the evangelicals, nothing to fear, because in an effort to be relevant they are abandoning all their tradition and all their doctrine.   Among many other things that he nails on evangelicalism, he writes:
Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members. Mainline churches lack doctrine because they want to hold onto those declining numbers of members they have.
This is akin, albeit in an even stronger and also happier way to the series of books authored over a decade ago by David Wells, starting with No Place for Truth.  Jeffrey Riddle, in a review of Wolfe's book, writes:
In his discussion of worship, the author notes the movement in both Protestant and Catholic circles away from formalism and reverence in worship toward individualism and narcissism. Wolfe calls attention to the shift toward contemporary worship music over “imposing and distant” classical sacred music and the doctrinal minimalism of power-point sermons in church-growth oriented congregations. He notes that liberals who fear the rise of strong religious belief in America “should not be fooled by evangelicalism’s rapid growth." Religion, he adds, like “Television, publishing,
political campaigning, education, self-help-advice—all increasingly tell Americans what
they already want to hear."
He continues:
Moving on to doctrine, Wolfe describes what he calls “the strange disappearance of doctrine from conservative Protestantism." American fundamentalists no longer care about dogma but about pragmatism. If fundamentalists are weak in this area, we can just imagine the assessment given to evangelicals: “By playing down doctrine in favor of feelings, evangelicalism far exceeds fundamentalism in its appeal to Christians impatient with disputation and argument."
Evangelicalism claims to stomp its brakes at the gospel, as if there is some scriptural basis for leaving this solitary category in a sacred position.  It also allows options on the gospel as seen in the wide divergence on this subject between lordship and free grace.  Even if the gospel could be kept sacrosanct by evangelicalism, which it isn't, the gospel can't be separated from the truth.  You can't preserve a true gospel when you won't preserve the truth about God.  It can't be preserved either by doing so.  Truth can't be dealt with in that way, which is how evangelicalism deals with the truth.  Even while they are protesting the erosion and destruction of the truth, they are the cause.  They don't treat the truth as the truth, that is, like the ultimate effects of gravitational force at the bottom of El Capitan.  Like those consequences, you really can't have it both ways.  By attempting to, evangelicalism, its churches and leaders and other institutions, have committed suicide.  Yes, I mean you evangelical, if you're reading.

Suicide isn't nice.  It isn't pretty.  It isn't better.  Evangelicals treat it like it is, as it relates to the suicide they commit.  While people are dying all around worse than a Jim Jones compound, they are more concerned and then upset about those trying to stop them.


Tyler Robbins said...

The solution is to actually be creedal. You can do so by formally subscribing to one of the traditional confessions of faith. However, this immediately silos you off from the broader current. This is why, for example, the OPC is a very small denomination. They're explicitly confessional, and they'll likely remain small. In a world that is, as you say, increasingly averse to doctrine, a confessional denomination is less and less palatable to folks.

On a similar basis, Kent, you're basically maligning the lack of doctrinal conviction. In some fundamentalist circles, there is a defacto creed - although this is usually more informal and assumed, resulting in a much looser organizational framework. This is why, for example, I believe some folks within the FBFI are so alarmed at what's happening in their particular corner of the fundamentalist sub-culture.

Evangelicalism is a loose movement, and it will always be rather shallow. It only exists as a big-tent movement. You'll only find some measure of meaningful doctrinal unity in some sort of confessional denomination. This is why the GARBC is a mixed bag; it has articles of faith but nobody cares. The same with the SBC. The confessional framework allegedly exists, but no one cares. There aren't many groups with a true confessional heritage. Those that do exist (e.g. the PCA, OPC, etc.) are rather small.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Tyler,

Each pastor and church should be concerned. I'm speaking to any evangelical reading, which I believe they do (they would never say, but they are still responsible), and for our type of churches, so they will be warned and understand. People just need to have the right view of truth too. I just started a mini-series, at about two sermons person month on Sunday night in 2 and 3 John. I'm already preaching through John on Sunday mornings. Men need to think right about truth. This is how serious it is.

I agree that some type of remnant of premodern type of thinking in certain creedal denominations is an anchor for them, because they have a God-centered theology. I agree with you, and I see the attraction to that. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth and has been given all the teaching it needs to fulfill that responsibility.

Joanne said...

After reading and thinking through your blog faithfully yet commenting very little, I think perhaps this is the post that is the overreaching issue to questions I've had along the way. Yes, "what is truth" is foundational even as the church runs around like children in a playground tossing what they think is true like a ball. That is, until a bully shows up to demand truthiness or a hero shows up to remind people what is truth.

As I have time and you have patience, I would like to work through where this leads in relation to application. If you ignore me, I'll understand. But here goes.

First, so I am understanding your terms: How are you defining evangelicalism? In what sense of the word? Evangelicalism is equivalent/interchangeable to the term Christianity in your article?
And then, are you saying there is a perfect solution/resolution in this world?

I do hope you'll have follow-up thoughts on "what do we do now" as believers, as churches, as pilgrims in this world. I think the last election was like a report card on not so much the state of the nation as the state of the church. I knew it was bad, but maybe I realized what danger the bad could lead to unless we all got back to the issue of truth.

Thank you for your faithfulness and ministry here.

Tyler Robbins said...

Here are two real-world examples:

1. A man I know is an associate pastor. He cannot teach. He just cant do it. Thus, he is not qualified to be a pastor. He was put up for a vote to be a pastor at his church after the pastor left for other opportunities. The congregation recognized he cannot teach and was not competent to lead, and overwhelmingly voted against it. Add to it, he is very weak doctrinally and has no real dogmatic convictions beyond the Gospel. He also has an MDiv from an evangelical institution. He left his church and got hired on as an associate at another church. I am fairly certain this church did not grill him on doctrine because, if it had, it should have rejected him. Both these churches are in my regional association, and allegedly share doctrinal convictions, so I'm aware of the details.

2. My church is searching for a pastor. I spent two hours interrogating an applicant this past week. He's a PhD candidate in systematic theology from a fundamentalist institution., We talked about theology at length, at far beyond a graduate level. I, along with the other two Deacons, are having a joint interview with him for a few more hours this coming Saturday. Doctrine and philosophy of ministry is important to us. We want somebody who knows the Bible, knows theology, knows why he believes what he believes, and is committed to leading our congregation to use our individual and corporate gifts for the Lord, and preach the Gospel.

There is a world of difference between these two approaches. They come from two different worlds. One doesn't care about doctrine, or the right application of it. It's pragmaticism. The other tries to care about doctrine. I'm not trying to make myself look good. I'm just pointing out the massive difference in philosophy between these two approaches. I think more churches follow the former, than the latter. Very sad. The result speaks for itself.

Kent Brandenburg said...


"What is evangelicalism?" is a good question. In a technical sense, which is how I'm using it, it is a movement of those who would claim to believe salvation by grace through faith. In a general way, fundamentalism is a sub category of evangelicalism, a separate movement that practices a kind of separation to preserve fundamental doctrines. As I said that this is technical, evangelicalism differentiates itself from fundamentalism as non-separatist, so not practicing separation over false doctrine.

In a general sense, anyone who believes salvation by grace through faith is an evangelical, because the evangel is the gospel; however, that's not what the word means in a technical sense. Evangelicalism is very inclusive, the boundary being a very blurry gospel message. Fundamentalism is less inclusive, separating over a few other things that fundamentalists would say relate to the gospel.

I'm using Christianity in a biblical sense, that is, all the true followers of Jesus Christ through His churches. One could use evangelicalism and Christianity interchangeably, if the gospel is the essence of Christianity. I'm saying you've got to have more than the gospel to keep the gospel and, therefore, Christianity. Evangelicalism won't preserve Christianity. Neither will fundamentalism. They are both flawed and in the foundational way, about truth itself, which is this post.

The solution is in the church, the pillar and ground of the truth. Each church needs to believe and practice scripture. Each church can have the biblical belief or view of truth. They can have it right. That's where it is kept though, is in the church. That is also the solution. However, churches need to see the problem and take it seriously. Within churches, individuals, then families, and the church leadership must take it seriously and practice biblically.

If you read our book, A Pure Church, which essentially exposes passages of scripture, you will see what scripture teaches on this.

I do think that what's happening in the whole world is a reflection of what is happening in churches, and that the solution is in churches. If churches won't think and do right, then we can't expect the world to do that.

Kent Brandenburg said...


What you are explaining reads like the symptoms of the problem manifesting themselves. The church has become a kind of false front city, keeping up all its structures but nothing behind. Many would argue there is something, but when you give up on all the truth, you give up on truth.

Tyler Robbins said...

Thanks for the tip about Wolfe's book. I'll read it this year.

Alex A. Guggenheim said...

Creedalism exists in plenty of "Evangelical" churches which have practically abandoned their own creeds. Secondly, creedalism only covers minimal doctrines and does not offer the necessary theological value system of guarding all truth, emphasized here.

Pollutants from Piper's spiritually and theologically injurious "Christian Hedonism" to Keller's neo-social gospel along with Russell Moore/Anthony Bradley/The Gospel Coalition and company's Race-Based Special Interest theology and in-between, have all easily entered through the gates of creedalism to inject theological misjudgment and ultimately, wreckage.

What is being advanced, here, is more than who may perform surgery rather, precisely the sickness and cure.

It will take pastor by pastor, with grace, love, conviction and power via God's Word and Spirit to guard the truth at each local church, first and then, identifying spiritually and theologically mature companions in ministry to increase such efforts.