Evangelicalism & The Ben Op, Part IV
Below, three extremely thoughtful responses, the first from an Evangelical, the second from a Mainline Protestant, the third from an Orthodox.
This one is from Edward Hamilton:
One respect in which evangelicals share a set of challenges with Catholics is that they have an ecclesiology that is broad and open with respect to theological detail. In Catholicism this openness centers around sacramental practice, and in evangelicalism it centers around a personal conversion experience (and ongoing attempts to recreate the emotional dynamics of that experience during worship). But that forces both evangelicals and Catholics to be open to all comers, and to be slow to impose tests for doctrinal orthodoxy.
Most of the mainline denominations have a historical tradition of imposing boundaries, and are comfortable with documents (confessions, catechisms, canons) that clearly define those boundaries. That means that as mainline Protestantism has veered theologically leftward in the aggregate, it’s been pretty easy to reappropriate the same models that historically were used to segregate Lutherans from Presbyterians, and apply them to the project of segregating conservative Lutherans from liberal ones. Evangelical churches are terrified of shrinking their membership (church growth has become almost an idol), and with a near total absence of knowing how to express clear doctrinal standards in writing, they are constantly subject to a “hollowing effect”, as a generation of young Christians who don’t care much about doctrine will keep attending to sing comfortable songs, cultivate relationships, and start young families. This means they need to be culturally vigilant about infiltration in a way that (say) the LCMS never does. I think this is a utilitarian function of the constant tendency toward vacuous red-state expressions of solidarity: patriotism, American flags, anti-Obama sentiment. It’s an immune-system response that encourages self-deportation of outspoken progressives, but without requiring actual confrontation or schism.
If you average together all mainline Christians, then evangelicals actually look quite orthodox compared to mainlines, and it’s hard to make a case that higher liturgy and sacramentology (or for Anglicans, the episcopacy) are a silver bullet for surviving in a hostile culture. It’s mostly that conservative dissenters from the mainline crisis are much better equipped to draw lines around themselves that prevent them from being confused with the progressive wings of their own traditions. (“Look, it says ‘Orthodox Presbyterian’ right on our sign!”)
At the same time, everyone needs to realize that evangelicals got to this point (the elaborate but non-doctrinal subculture of Christian books, music, etc) for very good reasons. The more you try to fall back on doctrinal divisions, the more you have to be content to occupy a single niche. This is the challenge that the BenOp faces, as it realizes that every person has a slightly different set of essential points on which the culture must be resisted. Everyone wants a vision for the movement that is only rock-ribbed on exactly the right set of issues — boldly conservative on abortion and marriage, say, but relatively liberal on women’s ordination or creationism. (Pick your own set of issues to put in column A and column B.) And of course, the sort of denominations that are praised as being bastions of conservative Reformational Protestantism have that dynamic in spades. If you attend an Orthodox Presbyterian church, you’re going to be a theological Calvinist, full stop, and you’re going to regard that as an important aspect of your identity. If you aren’t or don’t, keep shopping.
One final thought, in reply to some of the specific complaints of the reader letter above. Evangelicalism, for all its faults, has been (like Donald Trump in politics) the beneficiary of being right about What Is Becoming Most Important In The World, even as it is has been wrong about the precise diagnosis or the correct response. That makes it very hard to deflect evangelicalism away from its current identity.
As a historical example of how this has worked, think about the Dispensationalist movement, which basically asserted three things: (1) Israel as an ethnic category will be important to God’s future plans, (2) the world, including the Church, will get worse rather than better as we get closer to the end of history, and (3) history will end with a terrible crisis, under the rule of a diabolic antichrist figure. Those claims probably sounded pretty crazy in the 19th century when they were first made, but the events of the 20th century made them seem vastly more plausible: world wars, fascist and communist regimes, the perpetual Middle East crisis. From a predictive standpoint, the optimistic postmillennialism of mainline missions agencies looked so very retroactively naive. Dispensationalists were certainly “crazy on the details” (like Trump) but they were absolutely right about the big themes at a time when everyone else was wrong — and in some sense, they deserved to conquer the evangelical subculture as their spoils of victory.
The same thing is happening right now. Even if the author of this letter thinks that evangelicals have been wrong on many the details about sex and gender since the Moral Majority emerged to defeat of the ERA in the 70s, it cannot be denied that evangelicalism was 100% correct in identifying that these issues were the essential pivot points around which post-Christian America would rotate into view. All of us are subject to confirmation bias, but the evangelical movement feels it is being quite rational in continuing to focus on these issues as the basis for their distinctiveness, as history keeps vindicating their revolutionary significance. That means that any attempt to say “No, we should instead by organizing around liturgy, or around sacrament, or around reading deeper into tradition” is going to remain a hard sell. This makes me pessimistic about the idea that evangelicals will move in large numbers toward a deeper vision of worship and praxis — which is exactly what they most need for long-term sustainability. Evangelicalism is a victim of its own successes.
This one is from REB:
People are very quick to criticize other people’s Christian traditions, and they are also very quick to lift up reasons that any tradition, other than one’s own, will wither under the assault of our hostile culture. By and large, most of these critiques have some merit. There will be a thinning of churches, left, right, center, orthodox, heterodox, and all other sorts. People who go to church and claim Christian faith for some reason other than genuine commitment to God as revealed in Jesus Christ will find the cost to be too high.
Some churches will cease to exist, others will hang on. But the wholesale dismissal of a tradition like Evangelicalism is silly. There are parts of Evangelicalism that will wither away. Many of the defenses that so-called Evangelicals use (like supporting Trump as if he is going to enact policy that will protect them) will speed the path to destruction. But there is a depth of faith and desire to wrestle with what Scripture says in many Evangelical congregations that I have not often found in other places.
I was having lunch one day with a group of Protestant theologians from several countries – USA, Australia, Germany, England – and the discussion was about the problems inherent in Protestantism, which are legion, and the appeal of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Then one of the theologians, who does a lot of work in Christian ecumenism, said that while all three great Christian traditions are beautiful and powerful in their own right, in practice they often don’t live up to the power and beauty of their greatest thinkers and proponents.
I am a Mainline Protestant, and am satisfied with that designation about 50% of the time, although I am theologically conservative for a Maninliner. I have read Schmemman on the Eucharist and have been moved by its beauty and power. I have listened to Orthodox priests talk about the transcendent beauty of the Liturgy and have thought that, perhaps, I should convert. But then I have been to Orthodox parishes that seem as thin and dead as any progressive mainline congregation, and have met people who are Orthodox who do not know much and seem to believe less. Then I read about how the Orthodox churches have been pulled into and have supported all manner of nationalist movements, including the Russian church’s broad support of Putinism, and I think, “Maybe they won’t make it.”
I have read Aquinas, Benedict, John Paul 2, and many other Catholic theologians and have been impressed and challenged by the power of the Church and its faithful witness through the centuries. I have been to mass and have been moved by the power of the rituals. But I have also been to mass where everyone, including the priest, seems bored to tears. I have been with people who claim to be devout Catholics who told me that they go to Saturday evening Mass to fulfill their duty before they go out to the bars to get wasted. I have met many Catholics who believe that the Church’s teaching is optional. When I see these things, I think, “Maybe they won’t make it.”
Protestantism is always struggling with questions of authority. I have met Protestant theologians and biblical scholars who are faithful, intelligent, and desire to understand and teach the scripture so that the Church will be strong enough to stand up to the tides of culture. Calvin, Luther, Martin Bucer, Menno Simons, Jan Hus, and many other shining lights of the Protestant Reformation and the magisterial reformers wrote and preached with conviction that is seldom matched. Their lives bore the fruit of repentance and obedience. But then, I go to Protestant churches that think the gospel never touches one’s personal life – especially one’s sex life. I have met Protestants who know NOTHING about the Bible or Christian doctrine (to be fair, I have met people from all Christian traditions who know nothing about the Bible). In Mainline congregations, I have sometimes wondered why everyone didn’t sleep in instead of going to hear another self-help sermon. When I see these things I think, “Maybe they won’t make it.”
If the culture is really turning against Christians (and I believe it is), and we are in for a time of winnowing and testing, then perhaps we should work to understand one another better. There are things that we can learn from one another. Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters can learn from Evangelicals to think about the place of our subjective experience of the gospel, and even to see where “marketing,” to some limited degree, can be redeemed. They can learn from the best of Mainline theology and theologians that there can be a rigorous and faithful questioning of scripture and tradition that begins with a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion.
Protestants of all stripes can learn from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches the power of liturgy and deep practices that are too often stripped away from Protestant worship and practice. We need to be reminded of the deep tradition, and that the latest, greatest thing is not always the best and should be examined with skepticism and caution.
There are a lot more things that I could add to this list, but suffice it to say that serious Christians need to talk to each other, listen to each other, challenge each other, and pray for each other if any of us are going to survive the coming days.
There will be multiple traditions that survive, and the outward particulars will vary. We will still disagree about how the Lord is present in the Eucharist, whether worship should be led by guitars or organs, whether extemporaneous prayer or written prayer is better for our spiritual development, and whether women can serve fully in ministry or not. But these things are what Calvin called “adiaphora,” or things indifferent. That doesn’t mean that they don’t matter, only they are tensions we can live with and still consider ourselves brothers and sisters in the same struggle.
Amen to that. Evangelicals have a lot to learn from the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, things that I believe may help them to be better countercultural Evangelicals. Likewise, we Christians from the older traditions have things to learn from our Evangelical brothers and sisters — things that will help us be better countercultural Catholics and Orthodox. We will all need each other in the days to come, and we will find, as many of us are finding now, that we have more in common with serious Christians in other churches and traditions than we do with lukewarm Christians in our own. On Monday, after Dr. Mohler posts his podcast interview with me, I am going to link to it in a post posing Dr. Mohler’s question to myself and to Catholic/Orthodox readers: Do Catholics and Orthodox have what it takes to do the Benedict Option?
Reader Chickadee, who is Orthodox, speaks to what I’m talking about re: what we Catholics and Orthodox have to learn from Evangelicals about community-building:
I recently went to a reformed evangelical church. I was impressed with the strong sense of community there, and the warmth in which I was received. I had been to this church before for an apologetics group and met some of the worship leaders. All very orthodox, some having been involved in pro-life work. Young, too, and focused on their faith, many living in walking distance of the church (I live in the city). I am an Orthodox Christian, and read about the BenOp with some interest but it seems quite unrealistic if I were to consider it in my current context. I go to church to receive the sacraments and pray, and then I go home. I’m not the only one doing this. I may speak to a few people at coffee hour, but the church social life centers around (mainly ethnic) families and a very small number of tightly knit converts who have shown little interest in opening their group in the few years I’ve been attending. Perhaps it is out of survival in an ethnic church that these cliques develop, or perhaps it is a problem that occurs when like-minded people band together– they are suspicious and unwelcoming of outsiders. I don’t know. I do not see the kind of vital interest and zeal for living out the gospel that I saw in the reformed church, which is a shame because Orthodoxy is so steeped in tradition. I’ve observed–from my limited view–that most attending are coming out of family obligation and habit, and probably more at home in the world (based on numbers of late attendance, early leaving, clothing choices, only coming on Sundays and barely anyone during the week, etc). That’s fine and I don’t judge, but as has been said exhaustively in this blog– this mild approach will likely not withstand the winds of our changing culture, as it becomes more and more hostile to Christianity. Anecdotally, I have a friend there who deeply struggles with her cultural/ethnic identity (of which being an Orthodox Christian is an important part) and her liberal politics. She openly disagrees with the teachings on sex, abortion, and so on. I doubt she’s the only one, she’s just more vocal.
I mean to say nothing bad about where I attend – it is a lovely place to worship and the people are friendly enough. And I will not abandon the Orthodox Church because of any difficulties or challenges it faces today. But as for the closer forms of community and the zeal for the faith that seem necessary to living out a BenOp.. I have yet to go to an Orthodox Church where I have found that. I say it with sadness. I say it knowing that I am part of this reality, and know little about how to change the situation. From my own life’s experience, with Evangelical family, friends, etc.. for all of the ways I see it falling short, they do seem to have a real advantage in the area of community, and community that is built around Christ and discipleship. Perhaps they don’t have a strong foundation, but from where I’m at it seems like those Catholic or Orthodox interested in the BenOp could learn a lot from Evangelicals in terms of community building, hospitality, and the like. I include myself in this. Again, I could be totally wrong and having a weird experience but I have the feeling that I’m not.
You’re not having a weird experience. I wish you were. You have identified a big problem with Catholics and Orthodox.