Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Engaging the Bible & Evangelical Distinctives

A reader says the Evangelicals are more engaged at the practical level with Scripture -- and it shows. But there are big blind spots

A reader sent in this e-mail last night, which I post with his permission. I think it’s a valuable contribution to the discussion around a couple of recent threads here. His words challenge me personally, as an Orthodox Christian who doesn’t read the Bible nearly enough, and for whom that is a serious fault in my own piety and practice:

As a mainliner by raising, atheist/ agnostic in college, and evangelical protestant now (I had a trajectory similar to yours, it seems, except we’ve ended up in different denominations) I had a few thoughts about the Irish situation that brought me back to your post a few days ago where you asked what Evangelicals were doing “right,” given the relative stability of our numbers.

If you read some of the coverage of the Irish vote, you find lots of “Bergoglio voters,” which you mentioned—voters who consider themselves Catholic but who voted Yes because for them, faith means love, or faith means loving everyone equally, or other such MTD claptrap. And what it reminded me of was the experience of an Episcopalian friend who converted to Catholicism because he couldn’t escape the reasoning that the church had the continuity of Christ’s church, was the “real deal”—a claim Catholics (and the Orthodox) proudly make. A couple of years later we had the chance to catch up and he told me that what he could not get over was that his parish—and he was in a conservative, city parish that offered the latin mass—had no one who was interested in reading or discussing the Bible. He was appalled by the illiteracy of the word of God among his fellow Catholics. It just wasn’t part of the culture.

It’s my experience (and his) that many conservative Catholics and Orthodox are conservative about Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Their primary concern is the liturgy, the latin mass, the proper posture of worship, the holding of church doctrine. All fine, as far as they go, but those things will not bear the weight of the suffering to come. When being a believer becomes cause for social censure, a love of tradition, or liturgy, or beauty, just isn’t going to cut it. We have to catechize our children to know EXACTLY what the Bible says, where it says it, and how it speaks to us.

And this is—in my experience—the strength of Evangelicalism. As you have pointed out, “Evangelical” is a very broad label. Conservative Reformed Dutch protestants are evangelical and Joel Osteen would say he is too. But when I went to my current Associate Reformed Presbyterian church for the first time, I felt like someone had hit me in the face with a Bible. My knowledge was PITIFUL. If you ask someone in my church why Gay marriage is wrong, he or she will probably say something like this:

1) In Genesis 1-2, we learn that God has created us male and female, with complementary bodies, and blessed our union and procreation.

2) In Leviticus, we learn that God considers sexual activity that does not honor him to be an abomination.

3) In the gospels, we hear Jesus constantly referencing the old testament law approvingly. While those laws are not binding outside of Biblical Israel (and we can prove that biblically too), it is clear that Jesus finds God’s law just.

4) In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians, Paul takes an especially low view of sexual sin, specifically enumerating homosexual sex.

I don’t say this to brag about my church. My church has plenty of problems, in particular being too comfortable with wealth and status and, being a white southern protestant church, the race question. But if you sit in my church on a Sunday morning you will see that almost everyone has brought their own bible, and that Bible will be underlined, dog-eared, and used to death. It is just assumed that you are reading 2 or 3 chapters per day on your own and meditating on it. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in a home and seen children being catechized with the Westminster Catechism while they do the dishes. Family devotionals are also de rigeur, with Dad reading from scripture and leading discussion and prayer certainly and dinner and in many cases at every meal.

But if I had to single out Evangelicalism’s strength vs. Catholicism’s weakness, and simultaneously point to a reason why so many supposedly faithful Catholics voted yes, it would be this. In its best form, Evangelicalism teaches its people the Bible thoroughly and daily, which gives them a much stronger worldview than what Timothy calls “the doctrines of men.”

Lest we on the outside have too rosy a picture of what’s going on inside Evangelicalism, Jake Meador identifies a major generational fault line.  He says that the biggest mistake his fellow Evangelicals make is thinking that their problem getting the rest of the world to take them seriously is one of presentation:

Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs. That’s why Louie Giglio was uninvited from President Obama’s second inaugural. That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them. That’s why laws so modest and restrained as the Indiana RFRA illicit such outrage and why the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling met a similar reaction last year. The groups being attacked in these cases are not Fred Phelps clones or even Pat Robertson clones. They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.

If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get ussomewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.

But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that. As Rod Dreher noted several months ago (and David Sessions made much the same point here), what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.

The second point follows from the first. If ours is a problem of credibility, then we begin thinking less about the core elements of the Christian life and public ministry and more about managing perceptions, convincing people that we aren’t like those Christians, and so on.

The trouble with this approach is that when you begin behaving like a marketer, that’s what you become. And the clear presentation of the faith is lost amidst a thousand qualifications as you apologize for this awful Christian and try to distinguish yourself from that embarrassing group. By the time your done clearing your throat and awkwardly laughing at those silly evangelicals all you’ve succeeded in doing is confusing the room and causing no small number of people to wonder what exactly you do believe. But, then, clarity isn’t really the point if you’re a marketer. Getting the sale is.

Read the whole thing. It’s enlightening to this outsider. Jake cites a speech given by Bryan Chappell, a prominent pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, who delineates the divide within his own communion:

I want to share with you some recent correspondence to a friend. He is the head of a mission agency and has been visiting a PCA church. He was impressed enough to consider membership and asked for my honest assessment of the state of the PCA. Here, with a few edits, is what I shared with him:

My friend, the local church that you are attending is a fine representative of one part of the PCA, but clearly it is not representative of the whole. Your church would be on the “progressive” side of things and would represent a majority of the younger pastors and the churches that are growing. It is hard to tell, however, if that church represents a majority of the PCA as a whole. If it does, it is barely a majority. The denomination, as a whole, is clearly divided between traditionalists, progressives, and neutrals. The traditionalists are highly committed to Confessional fidelity and are often worried about perceived doctrinal drift.

The progressives are frustrated by the perceived cultural isolation of the denomination and the lack of Gospel impact upon the larger culture.

The neutrals are happy (even proud) for the PCA’s biblical fidelity, are at a loss for why their churches are not growing, and perceive that the traditionalists and progressives fuss too much about too little.

Theological zeal and institutional loyalty keep the traditionalists engaged despite their concern about the church. The progressives are increasingly concerned that the church cannot move forward without controversy, and segments of this wing occasionally talk about whether it’s worth staying — even though most votes go their way at the General Assembly level. The neutrals always hold the swing votes at the General Assembly level — they can be frightened into action by the traditionalists but generally are more inspired by, and aligned with, the progressives.

Chappell said that those within the Evangelical fold who are 50 and older grew up in a time in which they perceived that Christians were a majority in American culture, and only needed to be mobilized to “take back the culture,” and so forth. Those who are 40 and younger, by contrast, grew up always aware that they were a cultural minority, and many of them — to the shock of their elders — grew angry at those elders (the Francis Schaeffers, the Pat Robertsons, the Chuck Colsons) for doing things that alienated others from the message of the Gospel. More Chappell:

What often separates the generations by their dominant cultural experience can also separate segments of our church. Those whose main concern is cultural erosion perceive their dominant mission to be protecting the church culture they love and believe is biblical. These genuinely feel the need to combat those inside and outside their immediate church culture who threaten its continuity.

In contrast, there are those whose main concern is cultural impotence; these are also divided into two major subgroups whose main concern is either spiritual conversion or cultural transformation. Despite these differences, both subgroups share the concern that the world has changed, left the church on its own minority island, and death to the church will not come by doctrinal or societal erosion but by sectarian introspection and intramural controversy.

It is important that both main groups understand that the other’s concern is biblical and genuine. We must learn to work for common ends across relational boundaries, loving one another in Christ, believing that the biblical concerns each expresses are genuine, and dealing with one another in integrity even when differences are acute.

All of Chappell’s speech is here. Interesting that he doesn’t have anything to say about people in my demographic: between 40 and 50. This makes me reflect on how I sometimes feel that I’m seen as too liberal and accommodationist by older Christians (who, in my view, don’t understand how much the world has changed around us) and too rigid and conservative by younger ones, who don’t understand how non-negotiable are some of the theological fundamentals that keep them from being embraced by the world.

Chappell goes on to say that “pluralism” is by far the greatest enemy facing the church today. He doesn’t define it, but it seems from context that he means the idea that there is no such thing as Truth, only opinions about the Truth, none of which can be said to be more true than any other. If I’m reading him correctly, a better word would have been “relativism.” I could be wrong.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things to me — again, as an outsider — about Meador’s piece is his observation that a certain class of Evangelical (“almost always white and middle-to-upper class,” he writes) tend to turn on the previous generation of Evangelicals, and define themselves in opposition. Jake says that what this often amounts to is replacing one generation’s mistakes with another.

What I take from Jake’s piece is a sense that neither side in the Evangelical debate really understands the nature of the culture in which they live. The older folks cannot deal with the fact that America is post-Christian, and the younger folks cannot deal with the fact that the world doesn’t reject Christians’ style, it rejects Christians’ beliefs (i.e., winsomeness is not enough).

UPDATE: A conservative Protestant reader writes:

I am doubtful that knowing the Bible well is what helps Evangelicals resist progressivism.


1. Most progressive Evangelicals know the Bible well. It’s part of the culture. They certainly know what it says on controversial issues.

2. Resisting the specific heresy of progressivism isn’t necessarily related to doctrinal fidelity in general: Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, even many pagans are all on the right side of resisting progressivism, without being good on the Bible or Christian doctrine overall.

This idea that what we really need is to double down on the catechizing (Catholic) or Bible study (Protestant) is delusional. See James K.A. Smith.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now