An entry in an occasional series on my post-2016 relationship with Evangelical Christianity. All entries are listed here, if you’d like to start at the beginning. (Entries on that page are listed with the most recent first.)
As I’ve explained elsewhere, I didn’t mean to leave Evangelicalism….it just sort of happened when I wasn’t looking. Once Trump was elected in November of 2016 with overwhelming support from Evangelical Christians, I metaphorically burned my “evangelical membership card” and didn’t look back.
I’m not here to tear down Christianity; I consider myself a Christian and someone who adheres to the historic creeds of the Faith. But if anyone asks where I go to church, I’ve stopped saying “I’m looking for a new church home” — because I’m not trying to do that right now. (It was my original intention.) I’m not “deconverted” either, though I have interrogated many of my beliefs in the past 5 years as the fog lifted and I could see more clearly.
Looking back now with more distance and perspective, I can see a few key wedge issues broke Evangelicalism for me.
One is the total rejection of power for women in conservative churches. I came to the conclusion during the initial push of the #MeToo movement that women (and children) are most endangered in organizational structures where they have been sidelined and shut out of holding power. And that perfectly describes the governing structures of every single church I’ve attended throughout my life, in both Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. The few bright lights (such as the women deacons ordained into service at New City Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga, TN) do not overwhelm an entire system built to lock women out of having any say over how churches are run. Evangelicalism is primed to be rocked by horrific sexual abuse scandals. (The SBC is probably winding up for that storm right now. Even Beth Moore has walked away from the SBC and recently apologized for supporting complementarianism.)
But the issue that probably slapped me in the face first and hardest was the question of how the Church should respond to its LGBTQ+ members.
I’m going to use “Evangelicalism” as short-hand for conservative, non-Catholic churches (primarily in America for this post) that believe in individual salvation through a memorable conversion experience and a very literal approach to understanding and interpreting the Bible. In America, I think Evangelicalism also now assumes a Republican alignment to conservative political values, including an anti-abortion stance, anti-gay rights, anti-trans (in every way) — and a cult of individual responsibility which rejects systemic understanding of social ills like racism or poverty, moving the failure away from social structures and usually into the laps of the people experiencing poverty or discrimination. Oh, and an absolutely uninformed “understanding” and hatred of Critical Race Theory, socialist approaches to market structures, etc. That’s probably a separate post. lol
In the mid-2000s, I was teaching at a small Christian school and loving my interaction with students. I was also growing by leaps in my perception of issues I had never before confronted, including suicidal ideation (my students, not me), mental health, and supporting LGBTQ youth. I couldn’t shove aside key questions like “How does Jesus want me to think about gay people?” or “Is it ok for someone to ‘feel same-sex attraction’?” because I had people in front of my face right there who desperately needed to find adults whose first reaction was not going to be an attempt to scare them straight, tell them about how much they’re going to Hell, or try to “love the sinner and hate the sin” (which is the most bizarre gnostic bullshit I think I’ve ever seen people use to avoid having to make an actual decision).
It’s funny how our minds collapse time. Before the Obergfell decision in 2011 legalizing “gay marriage,” even President Obama was on record (in 2008, I think?) saying he couldn’t see himself supporting a definition of marriage that wasn’t defined as one man, one women. Three years later, a battalion of anti-gay marriage laws were beaten back by a single SCOTUS ruling.
Now it’s 2021 and I don’t personally know anyone who’s trying to overturn gay marriage. (I’m sure it’s a plank in the GQP/Nazi platform, but I don’t run into those folks if I can help it.) Most of my Christian friends at least pay lip service to LGBTQ rights, usually with a shrug that says “live and let live.”
But the battle over what the Church can and should do with LGBTQ issues rages hot in American Evangelicalism still and has widened to include a fear and loathing of trans or non-binary people as well.
Whom should I love?
If you’re reading this and you didn’t grow up in a conservative religious household, it might be weird to think of desperately attempting to carve out any intellectual footing for non-discrimination. But that’s where I stood in 2005-2016.
I knew my friends and students were people I cared about, people I wanted to love in a biblical sense (show care, concern, selfless service). But a literal interpretation of Bible passages slammed most doors shut and locked them. It’s hard to read the favorite “clobber passages” through a literalist lens and walk away with anything other than the idea God hates gay people. Thousands of gay Christians who sobbed out their hearts before God, begging him to “take the gay away” would agree.
I lived with the cognitive dissonance for many years. I am thankful for a psyche that can hold two contradictory ideas for a while if I cannot find a way to reconcile them, yet both are equally critical for me. Such was my need to believe that individual Bible passages needed to be taken at face value, but also that my central response to other people, grounded in the Gospel of Grace, should be love.
The more I met LGBTQ+ folks who were living fulfilled lives in healthy partnerships, the argument that non-hetero sexual attraction is an “abomination” got more and more impossible to believe. I have friends who are lesbian, gay, bi, non-binary, or transgender. Their stories were aligned in that they had all knowns from a very early age, usually well before puberty, who they were attracted to (or in the case of my trans friends, that they felt “out of place” in their gendered body). I could not throw them away to maintain allegiance to a theological position which was beginning to show cracks of being not as certain as people were making it out to be.
Still, I had an “inspiration” problem — to walk away from “clear Bible passages” would cost my faith something. I was familiar with the work of Matthew Vines at the Reformation Project to recast the “clobber passages” in new ways. Seen from within a literal hermeneutical framework, Vines’s interpretations were a worthy attempt, but they fell flat for me.
Around 2014, I became aware of a little book by a pastor in the Midwest, Ken Wilson. In A Letter to My Congregation (here’s my Amazon affiliate link straight to the book), Wilson speaks from his heart to explain one of the most common-sense positions I ran into from an Evangelical. Wilson concluded after much soul-searching that he needed to love the people who came to his church. If they were gay, so be it. If they were following Christ, who was Ken to bar them from communion or from fellowshipping with fellow believers? How could he, as a pastor to his people, cut people off from the body of Christ?
If conservative theology is correct about homosexuality being a sin, is it not the Holy Spirit’s job to “convict us of sin, righteousness, and judgment”? I’m not being snarky – that’s an obvious flaw in conservative attitudes toward the Gospel. Some “sins” we let slide; others bring out pitchforks and torches to burn people alive. LGBTQ folks get burnt; sex outside of marriage by women is a close second; but a lot of pastors with sex scandals get a free pass because it was probably the woman’s fault. And hey, who cares if Karen gossips in the corridor about the pastor’s wife, even though the Bible has way more to say about not gossiping than it does about not being gay.
I found a lot of value in Wilson’s stance. He noted that the Church as a whole probably needs to conference in a medieval council kind of way to work on some broader statements, but his take as a local pastor was that God had called him to take care of his people, so he was going to do that and let God sort out the rest of it later.
I’d go to Ken Wilson’s church. And I could send my LGBTQ friends there, unlike any church I’ve attended.
An unlikely rescue: Karl Barth
Around 2015, I took a course at a local (conservative) seminary from Richard Burnett, one of America’s scholars on Karl Barth. Barth was probably the 20th century’s greatest Christian theologian — if you aren’t an Evangelical and haven’t been scared away from his works as heresy. (I speak from experience there.)
My journey through Barth that semester was incredible. It was one of the best graduate courses I have ever taken (and I have an MA in theology and plenty of other seminary and theology credits). I developed a deep appreciation for Barth’s own journey out of an ineffective and shallow academic understanding of the Bible into his own nuanced, personal, careful study of the theology of the Church. His Church Dogmatics (in multiple volumes) is considered a hallmark of 20th century theological writing, and anywhere outside America, he’d be hailed as a bedrock of a faithful approach to Scripture.
I can’t recreate for you a coherent explanation of Barth’s view on inspiration. It took me a couple weeks of reading and thinking and wandering around inside my own head to get there myself. I’d describe the experience as climbing an intellectual hill that was the mental equivalent of mounting Everest. I had an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment for the one minute I think I understood. lol
But I can describe the overall vista from the top of Barth’s inspiration mountain — really, his view of God and how the Scriptures and the prophets both pointed to Christ. Barth didn’t begin with “view of the Bible” like Evangelical theologians tend to do in their systematic theologies. Barth began instead with a statement of theology proper, his understanding of God. Only when we had grasped the magnitude of God Himself in Three persons did Barth move into a discussion of how Scripture points the way to understanding God and who He is specifically as revealed in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. (You can buy this relevant section of Church Dogmatics on Amazon for about $40.)
Seeing the Bible from the vista Barth offered opened new pathways for me to “see” Scripture apart from a mechanistic literalism which had chained down my understanding of the Bible in years past. That Barth course was truly one of the first steps in me breaking free of Evangelicalism’s hold on my intellect.
Barth (and Bonhoeffer, who spent more time in America before WW2) both called out the uniquely American blend of theological ignorance, arrogance, and Modernist foolishness that was emerging in J Gresham Machen and other budding Fundamentalists. Because Barth had come of age as an academic and a pastor (he preached weekly throughout his entire career and pastored several churches) during a time when Modernism ruled argumentation and apologetics, he had already been down the Modernist roads and found them theologically destitute — and dangerous in how they opened up Fundamentalists to critical flaws in their thinking.
This opens a whole discussion of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century; you don’t need to punch that card to stay on the ride. If you’re familiar with the “Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trials” and early Fundamentalists’ hatred of evolution, you probably have enough of an understanding of what I’m trying to discuss here.
See below for a side discussion about Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and a bit more Barth. And an article.
Finding a new path
Barth gave me new eyes to see. Writers like Rachel Held Evans reminded me that I had always asked questions, unafraid of where they might lead. Major figures in Evangelicalism called out the churches’ bullshit with increasing regularity (shout-out to Jen Hatmaker, for example), and they all took a lot of abuse from the bible-bro’s. Bruce Waltke, one of the best Hebrew scholars in the field and a prominent figure, I think at Westminster Seminary, until he was pushed out, challenged the young-earth creationism narratives in his commentaries on Genesis.
Another crucial read for me came at the recommendation of my friend Mark, who was walking his own very difficult path out of toxic Evangelicalism. (As a former youth pastor, the toxicity was so much more damaging than anything I had to live through. He’s a survivor.) He urged me to read Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr (Amazon link). Rohr is a Catholic friar and has a very spiritualistic view of the Bible and God and the Christian walk. It’s a mind-expanding book if you are in a place where the novelty of his views doesn’t trigger your conservatively-trained brain to straight-up panic and shut down.
The whole world of my theological thinking was suddenly in flux. And I knew I wasn’t alone.
So back to my opening paragraphs. In 2016, I left Evangelicalism for good. That story is both simple and deeply complex. My relationship to my own faith is complex.
And now I can see
Being out of the “bubble” that is Evangelical tribalism for a solid 4-5 years now, I can see many things far more clearly than I ever could have before.
This might be arrogance on my part, but I’m pretty convinced at this point that anyone who is still actively participating in an evangelical church can’t really see just how bad the theology is — how abusive — until they are out long enough for their head to clear. The tribalism is a hell of a narcotic.
At the root, and as I explain a little more below, Evangelical Christianity in America is often just a painted face on a nasty Fundamentalism that cannot hold together at the core if you pull out the racism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, Modernist worldview, misogyny, homophobia, and hunger for power.
OK, I don’t address all of that below, but I stand by every word in that sentence.
In *most* cases (I’m leaving myself a crack for some to escape), an Evangelical view of God requires an underpinning of authoritarianism. There must be the fear of Hell and eternal damnation for disobedience. Family structures must replicate a patriarchal, male-dominated understanding of God and church leadership, a place where no women are welcome if the role offers any real power. (Director of the Nursery doesn’t count.) Most Evangelical cultural forms incarnate “whiteness” as the default (and there’s an entire world of problems emerging from the missions movements of the 1800s-present).
Grace ceases to be Grace when it must be earned by making sure God stays happy with how you dress, whether you cuss, how much “beat” is in your music, and worshiping “purity” as a sexual ethic.
That doesn’t mean individual Christians are 100% racist, authoritarian, misogynist abusers. People do not equal the beliefs of their movements. But individuals are responsible for their complicity in systems of power (including theological systems) that result in others’ being diminished, abused, and subjugated. Change the systems or get out, folks.
It’s much easier for me now in 2021 to say that I stand beside my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. They deserve every right and opportunity that any hetero- or cis-gender person enjoys. And “religious freedom” should never be a cloak for bigotry. (Bake the damn wedding cake and stop using Jesus as an excuse to be bitchy.)
The pathway for Evangelicalism gets much more difficult from here. Take Christian colleges, for example. As America (I hope) moves more and more toward a standard of protection for minorities, Christian colleges will find it harder to receive federal funding while enshrining discrimination against LGBTQ students in their campus rule books. I’d like to point out Calvin College as an Evangelical institution who’s trying to do something better … but I’m also going to be a realist and figure they will eventually have to come to heel, or be pushed out of Evangelicalism altogether.
And I think Evangelicalism is on the losing side here. 50% of LGBTQ Americans identify as religious. Despite the common cultural narrative that Christianity is incompatible and inhospitable to anyone queer, there are a lot of non-hetero people who claim to be part of the body. Pastor Ken Wilson looks wiser all the time: who’s pastoring the LGBTQ flock if the pastors refuse to let them in? Not everyone wants to be in the PCUSA or UMC or Episcopal churches.
There should be places for conservative LGBTQ people to worship without fear. And I think the survival of Evangelicalism depends on their ability to identify the non-biblical, unnecessary, man-made additions to their theological foundations and jettison them.
I have hope that thoughtful pockets within the conservative American church might repent and rediscover Grace. I have always been a ridiculous optimist.
I will not diminish the pain and trauma of my LGBTQ friends who have been through hell from Christians. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is untenable as a response to non-hetero, non-cisgender identities. Either we embrace the fulness of God’s people (and I’m going to let Him work out the details), or we will drive away not only our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have been told non-stop they are broken and unwelcome until they find a way to un-make something that’s so integral to their identities, they can’t imagine themselves without it…. or the Evangelical church will lose nearly everyone under the age of 30 on the way out. Gen-Z hardly even registers gender or sexual orientation at this point. I’m actually worried they’re going to be unprepared to fight for it because it does’t occur to them as a controversy, the same way most of us don’t really spend much time worrying about what the flat-earthers are doing.
Look at how your theology presents God. If your understanding of “his ways” translated into human form as a husband or boyfriend or father would trigger your early-warning radar as an abuser you would avoid, then there’s something wrong with your view of God. He’s not an aggressive boyfriend or a jealous husband who’s going to beat you and all the gays into submission. He’s not the cruel creator who made some people gay so he could send them to hell for an eternity.
I’m not here to pick a fight (though I know there are many fighting words in this post). I’ve needed to say these words out loud for a while now, because I know there are others out there trapped in the horrible feeling that your only options are 1) to disappoint God by violating his law by loving and accepting your gay friends, or 2) to give up your gay friends, being nice to their faces while always, deep-down, being sad there’s “something wrong” with them that “only God can fix.”
I’m here to say, those aren’t your only two choices, friends. There are other orthodox ways to understand Scripture as a witness to God and His ways without turning every sentence into a rope to choke you.
A rabbit trail into American Fundamentalist (and Evangelical) history
It was very popular for the early 20th century conservative wing of Christianity, which emerged in contrast to the “liberalism” and “social gospel” of the mainline Christian denominations, to make evidentialist and realist arguments for things like a 4,000-year old earth (young-earth Creationism), a rejection of Evolution as anti-God and completely incompatible with a Christian worldview, and a weird marriage to John Nelson Darby’s bizarre pre-tribulational view of the future of the planet (rapture and Antichrist and all that). … Oh and racism. (Recommended read: White Nationalism and Faith (Amazon link)
Machen and his peers were using Modernist (realist, evidentialist) arguments to try to bolster their positions theologically. They were happy to strip out the mysteries of things like inspiration in order to offer a “clear” simple “answer” about how the Bible got here– and often to defend ideas which were becoming flashpoint arguments to whip up a much less educated base of conservative Christians.
If this sounds eerily familiar to American political history in the past few decades, I do believe the overlap between the Republicans and Evangelicals in the Venn diagram has collapsed into a circle for a reason.
Authoritarians seek out simple answers because their power depends on a mass of uneducated and under-informed but over-hyped, charged-up people who will do the legwork without really thinking it through. This engine runs on the fuel of fear: fear of “the other,” or the “evil,” or losing a position of cultural prominence. Again, this should strike you as extremely familiar if you’ve paid attention to American political discourse at all.
By 1950 (ish), the leading lights of Fundamentalism (like Bob Jones, who founded the college I attended) were beginning to split from the less-obnoxious people in the English-speaking sphere who wanted to tone down the fire and brimstone and begin to ground conservative Christian beliefs in more intellectual soil. Also Billy Graham put a Black pastor on his crusade stage in 1954, and a lot of Fundamentalists – Jones included – totally lost their shit. Because racism really is a big part of this story, but I digress.
The “New Evangelicals,” as the more conciliatory Fundamentalists came to be known, emerged in control of institutions like Wheaton and BIOLA and Fuller and Dallas Baptist Theological Seminary and in many churches within the Southern Baptist Convention…. and beyond. The cultural wars of the 1960s accelerated the change, although both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists failed the Civil Rights movement pretty hard. While it was mostly Fundamentalists who started the segregationist academies (ie: small Christian Schools, usually Baptist, founded between 1965 and 1980 so White parents could escape the desegregation of the public school system, a lot of conservative Christians were happy to hop on that train.
I argue that Evangelicals seek to distance themselves from Fundamentalists with little success. For example, the PCA, independent churches, and recent SBC benefit from the cultural warfare framing that Fundamentalists honed to a razor’s edge.
Evangelical Christian schools are filled with mostly white kids from middle-class families in white suburbs; the worship culture of the modern Evangelical church is ok with drums and rock guitars (mostly) but the male hierarchy persists – especially among White churches. (I am not an authority on Black churches, and I would encourage you to engage with Black scholars to understand the extent to which Black Evangelicals see themselves as part of the movement.) Hell, the PCA was founded partially because the Southern Presbyterian churches by 1970 didn’t want to hang out with the “liberal” Presbyterians who were pushing for civil rights.
I expect someone to roll in with a ‘well, actually” about theological liberalism, and I do understand the nuances of the theological arguments. Yes, many mainline denominational pastors and seminaries got far too liberal for the average church goer, and I too would feel uncomfortable attending a church where my pastor didn’t have any firm belief in the reality of Jesus as a historic figure or his resurrection. But anyone who tries to downplay the deep racism of Fundamentalism and the resulting Evangelical movement is playing a fool’s game.
At heart, the Modernist thinking and cultural disagreements which led Fundamentalists in the early 1920s to separate themselves from the mainline churches persist in the Evangelical church of the early 21st century. The adherence to a totally individualistic view of conversion (instead of a socially aware and collaborative approach) is part and parcel to the American democratic experiment (and may be our downfall), and generates energy for Evangelical theology to concentrate on individual solutions to systemic problems.
They can hand-wring about lack of ethnic diversity while refusing to hire Black theologians because they’re too communist or socialist or too far into “liberation theology” and Critical Race Theory. They can maintain a very patriarchal structure complete with shame and purity culture to police sexual mores because no one grows up in a “typical” white Evangelical church with anyone but men in every significant leadership role. They can slyly swap in a whole bunch of rules about “what God wants” as a definition for living a Gospel-centered life.
By focusing on a culture war in America rather than doing the hard work of Gospel-oriented community development, Evangelical churches can pour most of their energy and money into reinforcing their worship practices, cultural norms, and tribal associations (para-church organizations, campus, “church-planting” efforts, missions, anti-abortion lobbying, gay conversion therapy, yelling at Christian colleges who dare teach evolution, whatever). And it all works because a literalist hermeneutic enables an adherence to the words of the Bible while avoiding an encounter with the God who breathed it out.
It’s a nicer flavor of Fundamentalism, and I guess that’s good, but Evangelicalism is still serving up the same legalism as Fundamentalism, at its core.
If you want to read a good overview of Evangelicalism vs Barth’s understanding of Scripture, this article by Vanhoozer is very good: